From the foundations up: how green architecture is tackling climate change
Following the COP26 summit, Siobhan Bahl investigates the link between architecture and climate change and assesses the dangers of greenwashing.
The world recently gathered in Glasgow, forging plans to tackle climate change at the COP26 summit. The United Nations global warming conference provided a platform for discussion in hope of saving the planet. This meeting leaves us with nowhere to hide: we are all at fault for the effect human life has had on the climate. Nations pledged to take on responsibility, agreeing to reach a 1.5 degrees Celsius target and net-zero emissions among other pledges to do better.
COP26 also shone a light on building projects, highlighting how architecture could help tackle climate change. Where we live and how we live undoubtedly impacts the health of our shared home, the planet.
Architecture going ‘green’, however, is not as simple as it seems. Even though buildings make up for 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 50% of the world’s energy consumption, that is only part of the problem. Marina Tabassum, a prominent architect from Bangladesh, states that it is also about turning to ‘the wisdom of the land’.
Working in harmony with nature and local people is essential; tapping into indigenous knowledge will open up new ways of designing buildings
For Tabassum, a ‘green’ approach to architecture involves taking on mantras of sustainability as well as racial, ethical, and social codes of responsibility. Working in harmony with nature and local people is essential; tapping into indigenous knowledge will open up new ways of designing buildings that don’t interfere with the environment’s natural rhythms. We need to turn away from the fast-paced, commercially driven rhetoric of building bigger, better, faster.
Last year, Tabassum and her team took on the task of sustainable construction and they turned their attention to the people of coastal Bangladesh. This region, woven into the Ganges Delta, has been the victim of yearly catastrophic flooding due to the monsoon season’s increasing violence. Environmental racism combined with Western nations’ overconsumption of fuel has led to rising global temperatures; unpredictable weather patterns have made the Delta region almost untenable. Environmental racism entails the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards on historically poorer and oppressed people. For Tabassum, Bangladesh is a prime example of this phenomenon.
To tackle these problems, Tabassum designed ‘flat-pack’ homes by using available bamboo, woven grass for cladding, and compact earth foundations. These homes, known as ‘Khudi Bari’, cost only £300 and incorporate resources found in the local environment. These buildings offer sustainable futures for victims of the environmental crisis.
Tabassum, however, is not the only architect interested in sustainability: in Bali, John Hardy designed the Green School, which is made of laminated bamboo, the wall-less structure immersing students in the surrounding rainforest. The building uses local materials, cuts down on emissions, and marks a revival in traditional bamboo building. Moreover, within the school, set under bamboo canopies, students learn about ecology and sustainability. Another campus will open in Taranaki, New Zealand, built using the local species of pine.
Greenwashing usually entails companies ticking boxes without committing to ecological causes, hiding environmental hazards behind the appearance of sustainability
Despite these projects, architectural greenwashing remains a problem. The demand for skyscrapers in densely populated metropolises continues to rise. Greenwashing usually entails companies ticking boxes without committing to ecological causes, hiding environmental hazards behind the appearance of sustainability. High-rise buildings require extortionate amounts of energy and resources to build, while also contributing to noise pollution.
To fit the bill, many architects use green façades, walls covered in self-sustained climbing plants or moss. Plants are, undoubtedly, a good thing: they provide insulation (cutting down energy costs), improve air quality, reduce the impact of high winds, and protect buildings from solar radiation. But can all these benefits compensate for the vast amounts of resources and fuel used during construction? Does planting some vegetation wash away the damage already done? I doubt it.
One must not label these attempts as ill-intentioned. To make long-lasting sustainable changes and continue the efforts exhibited during the COP26 summit, however, it is time for architects to take a leaf out of Tabassum’s book.