Andy Cohen: Greening the supply chain with better building materials

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Gensler courtesy
Walmart Campus in Bentonville, Ark., by Gensler

With the conclusion of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Glasgow last week, the global supply chain remains in turmoil. Unprecedented bottlenecks at ports are causing material shortages, construction delays, increased costs and other harmful disruptions to industries. But in this moment of chaos and climate crisis, we also find an opportunity to redefine the building sector. By focusing on sustainable building materials and products, we can make a profound difference in reducing carbon emissions, improving the resilience of global supply chains and creating a more sustainable future.

Every country and every sector has a role to play in climate action. The construction sector, in particular, now has the opportunity to take a leadership role and quickly begin to implement positive change. Buildings generate 40% of all emissions each yearwith incorporated carbon, i.e. CO2 emitted by the harvesting, manufacturing and transportation of raw materials used in construction, representing approximately 11% of total annual emissions. This proportion increases as building operations become more efficient, and by 2050 embodied carbon could account for half of all building-related emissions.

Andy Cohen
Gensler courtesy
Andy Cohen

By focusing our energies on reducing the embodied carbon of the built environment, we have the opportunity to have a huge and lasting impact on the health of our world.

Better building materials

Where to start? The materials that make up the structure of a building are among the biggest offenders. Cement, a component of concrete, accounts for nearly 10% of global emissions. Steel, widely used in building structures, is almost as carbon intensive. But other relatively low embodied energy materials are also available. The carbon footprint of wood, for example, is up to five times lower than that of steel.

Advanced design strategies now allow less of these high-emitting materials to be used; make the traditional structural materials we use more carbon-friendly; source materials locally, streamline transportation and reduce supply chain congestion; and to use alternative materials in ways that add both aesthetic and commercial value to projects.

An example of this strategy is the use of solid wood. This sturdy building material is made by gluing pieces of wood together to form thick structural elements such as cross-laminated timber panels. Like concrete, the material is fire resistant, but it has a much lower embodied energy, since wood sequesters large amounts of carbon. Solid wood elements can also be installed quickly on site, with additional benefits such as reduced construction time, traffic and noise, and minimal waste.

Walmart Campus in Bentonville, Ark., by Gensler
Gensler courtesy
Walmart Campus in Bentonville, Ark., by Gensler

In Bentonville, Ark., Gensler’s design for Walmart’s new 350-acre campus illustrates the potential of this material. The project will use more than 1.7 million cubic feet of solid wood grown and produced in Arkansas across more than 2.4 million square feet of office space, making it the largest corporate campus in solid wood currently under construction in the United States. With ambitious sustainability goals – efforts put people and planet first by aiming to source responsibly, eliminate waste and emissions, sell sustainable products, and protect and restore nature – the design approach will create a winning and inspiring work environment that promotes healthy minds and bodies for associates, enabling Walmart to continue to attract top talent as it looks to the future.

Another example is 3855 Watseka, an urban fill site in downtown Culver City, California. With a striking sawtooth roof that draws sunlight and natural ventilation deep into the building, the project will be the first in Culver City to use CLT timber framing on the top floor of an office. This design move not only improves the user experience and elevates the aesthetic value of the building; this means the building requires less steel and concrete, reducing its overall carbon footprint.

3855 Watseka in Culver City, CA, by Gensler
Gensler courtesy
3855 Watseka in Culver City, CA, by Gensler

Healthier finishes and furniture

Another opportunity to reduce emissions is inside buildings. While structural materials have the biggest initial impact on embodied carbon, interior features, which are often replaced every few years, can quickly add up. This repeated rolling of materials over the lifetime of a project can ultimately result in an equal or greater share of the lifetime carbon footprint than structural materials.

To rectify this cycle, designers must consider the materiality and durability of furniture and interior finishes. What is a product made of? How much space will it take up during shipping or transportation? Can it be easily disassembled and recycled once its maintenance is complete? Or can it be reused or reused? Environmental product declarations (reports that summarize a product’s environmental information) are a useful tool for making smart design choices.

Arper Mixu seating collection
Salva Lopez
Arper Mixu seating collection

This forward-looking approach to product design has guided Gensler’s development of the Mixu seating collection for the furniture brand Arper. Originally tapped to design a new plastic chair, our team tapped into the knowledge and experience of Gensler design directors around the world, learning that what designers and customers want most when it comes to furnishing, it is the possibility of customizing. The three-piece chair meets this need while meeting sustainability goals through “design for disassembly”. Low-profile components (seat, back, and base) use post-industrial recycled plastic, 100% recyclable plastics, recycled steel, and FSC-certified wood. The padding can be zipped and changed, extending its use. And, there are no adhesives, staples or co-molding of plastic and metal, allowing for complete disassembly – useful both in transit (smaller boxes mean a smaller environmental footprint for l shipment) and at the end of the chair’s life, when the components can be recycled.

The road to follow

Looking towards a more resilient future for the entire building materials supply chain, Gensler is taking the lead with a green materials initiative which focuses on reducing high-carbon materials, using the most efficient structural solutions to reduce material quantities, sourcing locally mined and manufactured materials, and minimizing waste. After launching this effort in early 2022, we will prioritize working with partners – from engineers and contractors to engineers, general contractors and beyond – who meet these standards and use materials that significantly reduce emissions related to building. Not only will this initiative help ensure that our clients’ properties meet new sustainability mandates, building codes, tenant demands and health requirements, but this shift in demand for sustainable materials will impact powerful and durable drive in the building sector and supply. chain and across our world.


The opinions and conclusions of this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or the American Institute of Architects.

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