Which materials can help reduce carbon emissions?
How findings from Drawdown aid architects in fighting climate change through better materials and methods.
The authors admit it was an audacious idea—to identify the best ways not only to slow global warming but reverse it. They wanted to find ways to “draw down” carbon from the air to slow the fast and steady warming of the planet. The result of their work was Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, the 2017 New York Times bestseller that puts building materials front and center in the fight against climate change.
Drawdown was conceived by author and entrepreneur Paul Hawken. Hawken brought together an international team of 65 researchers, scientists, engineers, and policymakers—as well as a few architects and designers—to identify, model, and measure the most effective social, ecological, and technological solutions to reduce carbon emissions.
Of the 100 solutions proposed in Drawdown, 21 are products and practices that often fall under the control of architects.
“Architects and designers play a pivotal role when it comes to reducing or reversing global warming,” says Chad Frischmann, vice president and research director for Project Drawdown, the nonprofit that oversees the research. “Buildings and the energy they use are one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gases, and these emissions are only expected to increase over time.”
The analysis found materials like alternative cement, bamboo, bioplastic, smart glass, and industrial hemp to be major carbon crushers, as well as processes like industrial recycling and even building with wood.
“When designing new buildings, AIA members need to think about designing with wood or designing living buildings that can grow food, or use rainwater, or protect habitat,” Frischmann says. “Members also need to consider retrofitting. Not all building is new construction, and that needs to be part of the climate solution.”
Frischmann and his team conducted meta-analyses—or studies of studies—and created statistical models to gauge the financial and environmental impacts of each of the 100 solutions highlighted in the book. To work toward “drawdown,” each solution had to do at least one of three things: reduce energy use, sequester carbon, and replace existing energy sources with renewable energy systems.
The solution that most surprised Frischmann, and the one that wound up in the No. 1 slot in Drawdown? Refrigerant management. “Cooling systems are cranking away in all of our buildings, every day, around the clock. Hydrofluorocarbons, the most pervasive refrigerants, don’t destroy the ozone the way the old refrigerants do, but they are thousands of times more potent than carbon as a greenhouse gas,” he says. “We need to properly manage HCFs leaks in current systems and properly destroy and dispose of these refrigerants. And, of course, we need to phase them out. This would save 89 gigatons of carbon dioxide.”
Drawdown is now available in 12 languages, and Project Drawdown is still improving and expanding its model. Frischmann says that Project Drawdown plans to release their second book in 2020 and launch a collaborative, interactive website that includes resources and tools for architects and other interested professionals.
To bring Drawdown into practice, local U.S. Green Building Council affiliate Illinois Green Alliance is executing a strategic plan based on its philosophy of practical hope and evidence-based, actionable solutions.
“The board really felt we’d taken education and advising on LEED as far as we could in Chicago, and wanted to reach beyond the typical LEED building audiences—big corporate and nonprofit organizations clustered in downtown—and expand our sustainability mission to all kinds of organizations in all kinds of neighborhoods,” says Brian Imus, executive director of Illinois Green. “We wanted to leverage our members’ passion and experience and engage more communities.”
The plan is ambitious. Four-year goals include engaging 3,500 Chicago buildings in adopting one or more Drawdown strategies, finding partners in every Chicago community to advance resiliency and livability, and training 30,000 people to understand and advance Drawdown strategies. Two years into the plan, training is well underway, and partnerships have been forged with the Chicago Housing Authority, the Chicago Urban League, the Salvation Army, and local schools.
Mike Stopka, AIA, an Illinois Green board member and the founder of the green consultancy MIST, says the nonprofit wants to work in all 77 Chicago neighborhoods to reduce and reverse carbon emissions.
“We are starting credible conversations that are focused on community needs, rather than some idealistic green goal,” Stopka says. “In Chicago, our partners want to reduce crime, or fight homelessness, or create jobs, or educate kids. Drawdown gives us the terms and tools and messages to start, and continue, these conversations and show neighborhood organizations they can meet their missions and protect the environment in the process.”
For more, learn about AIA's Materials Matter Initiative.
Wendy Lawton is a freelance writer, communications consultant, and climate optimist who lives in Portland, Oregon.