In a Post-Pandemic World, is it Time for Sustainability to Shine?

By Brandon Alterman, Architectural Designer

The COVID-19 pandemic quickly shifted our world: turning kitchens into classrooms and bedrooms into boardrooms almost overnight. Our own offices went from being filled with close to 100 people, to a staggered work schedule, to remote offices in the blink of an eye. I also have the perspective of a student being enrolled in a master’s program and my classes quickly shifted from the classroom to online learning. Of all the changes I’ve been noticing lately, my biggest take away was the toll on the environment.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson famously said, “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” While the degree to which humans affect climate change it is debatable, the fact that we do affect it is not. The pandemic’s stay at home orders have resulted in a lessening toll on our healthcare system, but also on on our ecosystem. With less people traveling in general, along with people staying indoors for a majority of their day, our environment changed. It was amazing how quickly images began circulating showing the decrease in air pollution as we as a species began withdrawing into our homes. Animals also began descending on urban environments previously occupied by people (evident by the goats in Wales or the bear in downtown Barcelona). In Italy, one of the hardest hit places by the pandemic, they have seen a flourishing return of wildlife in the canals of Venice as the waters clear from the decrease in boats that kick up sediment that clouds them. As a sustainably minded individual working in the world of the built environment, I couldn’t help but wonder… how can we continue this positive trend?

As architects, I believe we have a moral obligation to support and promote sustainability. It’s obvious that our industry is consistently looking to lessen our impact with standards such as LEED, WELL, and the Living Building Challenge. But can we do more? The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that the human impact on the Earth is significant. Through recognized practices, we already do things such as specify the use of items with low volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and reduced embodied energy, use renewable energy, and implement strategies to utilize passive forms of ventilation; but it’s clearly not enough.

Now, I’m not suggesting a complete abandonment of everything we know that works. I understand that the journey of a thousand miles always starts with a series of small steps. We are a society that is often reactive as opposed to proactive. While evidence has been suggesting new and more drastic strategies for quite some time, heightened interest may now be more focused as a result of the recent pandemic. This presents an incredibly timely window to make drastic changes with a more collective societal mindset. We need to go beyond what building codes demand and push the envelope on sustainability so that as these days of quarantine and social distancing begin to fade, the environmental impact does not.

We are presented with a unique opportunity to advance sustainable design like never before. We have seen incredibly drastic impacts in such a short amount of time. Now is the time, as an industry, to present strategies that would otherwise seem unnecessary, unfashionable, or impractical. There are simple strategies to reduce energy costs, such as occupancy sensors, but what about improving lighting in the rooms by increasing exposure to natural day lighting? What if we began utilizing systems that would continually circulate fresh air into spaces or retrofitted existing HVAC systems to harness the UV power of the sun to clean the air? We might be forced to do so now. Before these changes seemed drastic and unnecessary, but now they show a benefit not only to the planet, but to our constituents.

We are presented, at this moment in history, with the opportunity to advance sustainability to a new level. With documented impacts being so drastic in such a short period of time, we can now more easily present strategies that would otherwise seem unnecessary. Now is the time to educate our clients on what intrinsic value sustainable design has. It is not only for the safety of our planet, but for the safety of our species. It’s time to take the bold steps beyond the low hanging fruit and onto strategies that will be demonstrable and more globally effective.

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