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COVID-19 and Climate Change Are Inextricably Linked—Now What?

Anica Landreneau
The public health crisis created by COVID-19 and the environmental crisis are inextricably linked. Architects designing new construction or renovation projects as part of economic recovery plans must tackle both to achieve meaningful long-term results.

Among the global impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a historic plunge in energy consumption. The lower demand for coal, oil and gas is expected to cut global greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 8 percent this year—the largest decrease in history. Yet to reverse climate change we’d need a pandemic-sized reduction of global emissions every year for the next decade.

The pandemic also has highlighted systemic inequities that place racial and minority ethnic groups at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. For example, manufacturing facilities, power plants, highway corridors and refineries historically have been placed in poor and minority communities that lack the resources to defend against them.

Pollutants within these “sacrifice zones” lead to respiratory problems that, in turn, have made people living within them much more vulnerable to diseases such as COVID-19. Residents of these communities often have other preexisting health and living conditions that make them more susceptible to pandemics and extreme weather events caused by climate change.

As we move forward with post-COVID rebuilding strategies, there’s a risk government and business leaders will perpetuate this environmental racism of the past by focusing on short-term recovery while downplaying public health and climate change.

Strategies for healing people, the environment and our economy clearly are intertwined. Simultaneously investing in all three will create resilient solutions that will help protect us against the next pandemic or natural disaster and create healthier, more equitable communities. This integrated approach is also the most effective way to mitigate the existential threat of climate change.

We can’t design our way out of a global pandemic. For now, much of society’s recovery lies in the capable hands of the world’s top scientists and healthcare professionals. They are the heroes. At the same time, the link between wellness and sustainability in the built environment has never been more obvious.

Architects can ensure our work supports the health of both humans and the planet by following these 11 practices:

1. Informing all clients about the impact our work can have on the environment, climate change and human health. Our obligation to do this is described in the AIA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.

2. Working with policymakers to advocate for more sustainable infrastructure investment, building codes, green-energy tools and building performance standards. Whenever possible, support the AIA’s Policy Platform 2020.

3. Collaborating with professional organizations like the American Institute of Architects and Royal Institute of British Architects to use public health as a filter in shaping healthier building codes. Florence Nightingale’s vision for sustainable 19th-century British hospital construction, which focused on ventilation, odor reduction and providing windows for daylight and views, provides historical context.

4. Accelerating plans to achieve carbon-neutral portfolios as part of our work with all clients to design more sustainable, resilient projects.

5. Doubling down on cities. Rather than reducing urban density, planners and architects must seek solutions—already in practice in cities like Hong Kong and Seoul—that mitigate the spread of infection while maintaining the symbiotic environmental and economic benefits of urban areas.

6. Addressing underlying conditions that have made some people more vulnerable to the coronavirus by designing better platforms for public health and great places to live for all people. We need to help clients choose to develop responsibly in dense, diverse, transit-oriented and walkable neighborhoods. And we need to give all people access to affordable housing, public green spaces, and access to comfortable microclimates and healthy air.

7. Integrating holistic healthy-building strategies such as those in the WELL Building Standard. From ensuring access to fresh air to providing biophilic green walls that put people in touch with nature, evidence-based WELL solutions codify design, operations and behavior features that enhance workplace health and wellness.

8. Conceiving innovative uses for existing building stock, which is often in lower-income neighborhoods. Designing an energy-efficient renovation rather than constructing a new building often can be the greenest—and most equitable—solution.

9. Leveraging technology to better enforce building codes and verify compliance with performance standards. Prescriptive building codes are vital, but performance is what really matters.

10. Building on the momentum of behavioral changes that have emerged from the pandemic—like organizations realizing that their people can work remotely, investing more in employee health and relying on local resources—to advance more sustainable design solutions.

11. Making a stronger case for the economic and risk mitigation benefits of sustainable design. Imagine the losses uninsured businesses faced from COVID-19. Healthier employees are more productive. Designers now can position sustainability as a need-to-have, not just a nice-to-have. We can help clients and communities see the benefits of embracing the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit.

This crisis has helped people recognize the urgent need for collective action to defeat COVID-19. We all need to take ownership of our planet’s future. The coronavirus, as with climate change, crosses geographic and cultural borders. Many people also are placing more value in the recommendations of scientists, i.e., the experts who are in near-unanimous agreement that humans are causing global warming.

As we develop design solutions that benefit public health and flatten the virus curve, architects have an unprecedented opportunity to also design solutions that improve the environment, particularly for those living in our most vulnerable communities.

Contact HOK Director of Sustainability Anica Landreneau.

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

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