How can firms address the climate crisis? Here’s Grimshaw’s take

Dr. Paul Toyne, a sustainability expert at Grimshaw, discusses the firm's Climate Emergency Taskforce.

December 8, 2019

Within the past year, a number of architecture firms and allied organizations have formally declared a climate emergency and pledged to take action. But what should this action involve, and how likely is it to happen at the scale and speed required to prevent the worst outcomes of global warming? In this interview series, the League presents different perspectives on where architecture currently stands with regard to climate action, where it needs to go, and how it might get there.

Paul Toyne began his career in ecology, focusing his doctoral research on birds of prey and leading expeditions to study parrots in Ecuador. Almost two decades later, he’s the Practice Leader for Sustainability at Grimshaw.

The transition from ecology to architecture isn’t as drastic as it may seem, he contends. Both fields focus on the relationship between living beings and their environments—but in architecture, the beings in question are us.

Since coming to the firm earlier this year, Toyne has been helping develop its response to the climate crisis. The League’s Sarah Wesseler spoke with him about Grimshaw’s Climate Emergency Taskforce and opportunities for action within the profession as a whole.


Could you give me an overview of the Climate Emergency Taskforce?

The Climate Emergency Taskforce was set up to demonstrate internally that this is an issue that the partners, and the practice as a whole, take really seriously. The clue’s in the title: you don’t carry on with business as usual if you are in an emergency. You have to do something. And it’s really clear that the architectural profession, including Grimshaw, needs to lead on this.

The taskforce is set up to do two things. First, we want to make sure that we operate in the most sustainable manner possible. We need to drive energy reduction and energy efficiency in our studios and offices, and we need to commit to procuring renewable energy wherever possible. We have to show that those good behaviors start at home.

And where we can have the greatest impact, of course, is through our design work. We recognize that that’s a more difficult task, because it requires ensuring that our clients understand the value proposition of delivering net-zero carbon buildings and assets.

So initially we’re going for carbon neutrality around our operations, and secondly, we’re working out how we can reduce the future carbon emissions of the buildings and places that we’re designing right now.

In terms of making your projects net zero, what do you see as the primary barriers and opportunities?

First of all, architects cannot solve the climate issue in isolation. But they can take a stance, and they can seek to influence.

When we look at how decisions are made, we have to start right at the top, which is political will, whether that’s at a national stage or the more local level. If politicians aren’t setting policy frameworks that allow investments to flow in the right way and help clients recognize the need to meet low-carbon targets, it’s very, very difficult for architects to act.

So in the absence of political action, we need clients to demonstrate leadership. We also need them to have the foresight to understand how environmental design and placemaking can reduce the future risk to the assets they own. But that’s one of the biggest challenges—we may want to do this kind of work, but the client may not be prepared to do it.

We also need a whole value chain of product manufacturers and suppliers that’s mobilized around the provision of low-carbon goods and services. We need the products to come through, and we need to make sure that the design quality’s there, the durability and the warranties are there. That’s happening, just not fast enough.

That’s the challenge, really. The science tells us that we need to restrict our global atmospheric temperature increase to two degrees at the very worst, but hopefully more like 1.5, and we are already at 1.1 degrees. That means we’ve got a decade to do this.

NASA visualization of global surface temperature anomalies from 1880 to 2018.

So there is an emergency, and we need the political will, and we need the clients to understand. And those who are long-term investors in infrastructure or buildings—universities, for example—must lead by example.

But if you look across the globe to see how many businesses have net-zero operations, how many buildings have been designed to that kind of standard, it’s very few. You wouldn’t even make 1%. So a big change needs to happen, and we need to be part of that change.

In the lecture series we’ve been running at the League this fall, a number of people have brought up pretty fundamental disagreements about what design practices are best for this kind of transition. Some people think that solar energy is a bad idea, some people think that hydropower is a bad idea, some people think that focusing on insulation is a bad idea. As you’re working through the climate emergency planning, how are you thinking about these issues? Do you think there’s enough information about what’s effective and what’s not to make good decisions?

We’ve put quite a bit of thought to this. We recognize that, are we ever going to get agreement on what a definition of net-zero carbon is? Probably not. I mean, even in the scientific community there are contrary views. But at some stage, we can’t keep going on debating what might or might not be the best approach. The time for action is now.

The way we look at it is that there is embodied carbon in construction materials and in the transportation of materials that come to site. We know that we need to be more carbon-conscious in our designs and we need to phase out some of the materials with the highest embodied carbon. It’s really important that the product manufacturers demonstrate innovation and disclose where they are on low-carbon or net-zero-carbon transition pathways—for instance, in the cement industry, in steel, glassmaking. There’s a lot of innovation starting to emerge that will help us immensely.

Credit: Ricardo Gomez Angel via Unsplash

We also need to make sure that we are designing for disassembly, so that we can still utilize those materials as best we possibly can at the end of the building’s life.

And then we’ve got the operation and the maintenance of these assets over their full lifespan. The simplest thing to do, really, is to convert our energy supplies to renewable energy. That takes away most of that problem. But making the grid cleaner takes time.

We also recognize, however, that energy is really important for our society, and we shouldn’t be wasteful. There are things we should do which drive energy efficiency and reduce the demand for energy. How can make heating and ventilation systems more efficient, for example? Or even the plug-in equipment we use, whether it’s a washing machine or a kettle? We’ve seen advances on energy efficiency in these types of products in the last 20 years, but we need to go further.

When we look at that net-zero carbon equation, we’ve got a couple of other factors to consider. One is, in the absence of renewable energy coming into the building from the grid, can we have onsite renewables? Are there opportunities around PV on the rooftops, or integration into the façade of the buildings? Now, that may not be the right decision for some projects. It’s case by case. Offsite renewables may also be an option. Is grid electricity the only possibility for your project, or can you supplement that from an energy center where you make specific procurement arrangements?

We need whole-life thinking in carbon and energy, and our approach to trying to solve this incorporates that wider definition, not narrowed to simply operational energy.

So you’re working on this plan now. How are you going to make sure all your project teams incorporate it into their day-to-day work? Have you learned anything along the way about how to put this kind of thinking into practice?

That’s something we’re currently looking at. Businesses have operational procedures that allow them to manage quality and drive performance, and it’s really important that some of these principles are integrated into these operating procedures.

We also need to build the capacity for designers to understand and utilize the tools and materials they have at their disposal. For example, there’s a raft of lifecycle assessment digital tools that give information about the embodied carbon of building products. But is that data reliable? Where did that data come from? Is the methodology used to calculate it the same as the methodology used in another tool? Are we making sure that we’re using the most credible, reliable sources of information? Where do you go to check? How, then, do you use this information? What are the standards and the guidance that you would then want to deploy?

So we’re working our way through that, testing and understanding so that we can provide the best possible advice to our clients, helping them think about embodied carbon and operational energy.

Actually, it goes back to asking the clients the question, how important is this to you? Do you recognize the need to transition to net-zero carbon buildings and assets, and how can we help you do that? And if they say no, we’ve got to figure out how we help them understand the implications of that decision. We’ve all got to be advocates.

Grimshaw is a high-profile firm with more resources than many others. But when you leave Manhattan, say, and go around most of the United States—or most of the world, really—the building stock is created mostly by architects who don’t have the bandwidth to take on the kinds of investigations you’re describing. Or it’s just built by developers. So, thinking about the need for rapid transformation of the built environment in order to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change, where do you see the biggest barriers and opportunities to the building professions as a whole stepping up?

Well, we’ve got to be really careful, because it’s very easy to say, “Oh, we need some exemplar projects”—but we’re running out of time. Building projects have a gestation period of many, many years, and we need a sea change, quite quickly.

That’s where you need the client community. Look at procurement at the state or local level. There are opportunities to set standards and drive change in that value chain. Procurement strategies can set targets for reducing embodied carbon and for operational energy efficiency and performance. And there’s a lot of spend that happens at those levels. Using an American example, just think about defense spending: the refurbishment of barracks, for example. You can make huge changes there. And you’ve got social housing programs that are funded by the state, roads and bridges programs—we should be integrating the best possible standards into these projects. And that should be happening now, so that this kind of work happens by default.

Credit: Jared Murray via Unsplash

We can do our bit, Grimshaw, but as you quite rightly state, we’re a little tiny dot in terms of the amount of development that gets done. What we need to do is to give the market the confidence that this kind of work can be done.

Large universities are a tremendous opportunity. They have capital budgets that they should be using as a source of innovation. I mean, there’s no point educating everyone for a dead planet, because you wouldn’t be alive.

So universities have a role to play, public-sector bodies have a role to play, and the private sector has a role to play. Some of these business leaders own buildings or other major assets that they don’t want to see fail if climate change fundamentally changes the environment they were designed for, whether because of flooding or other environmental impacts or because of regulatory changes.

And that brings up the question of climate resilience, which we haven’t talked about yet. The climate is changing already, and the built environment’s got to be able to withstand these current and future shocks. And the potential cost to society, and disruption to business, is huge.

When architects talk about how the discipline can change in order to address climate change, questions about the role of beauty often come up. If designers now need to focus a lot of their energy on carbon, how should they think about aesthetics? How do these conversations play out at Grimshaw?

We don’t think we should lose the ability for architects to provide aesthetics and beauty. We do think that architects need to understand that demolition or new-builds aren’t always the best approach. There’s a need to deploy an adaptive reuse philosophy.

But that shouldn’t mean that everything now looks like we’re living in a world of austerity, or that all buildings look the same. Cities need to attract people. They need to compete against other cities. They need to be attractive places for people to work, live, socialize. Architecture plays a really important role in that. But surely we can get to a stage where we can design for a low-carbon world but still provide that sense of aesthetics.

Are there other messages you think are really important for architects to consider when they’re thinking about how they should respond to climate change?

You know, I’m really impressed and delighted by this movement that recognizes the need for action, in America and around the world. I think the architectural profession needs to stand together on this issue. Clearly, we’ve all got different abilities to influence, but we should be collegial, we should be collaborating, we should be consistent in our messages to policymakers and to clients.

Collectively, we need to make sure that we’re judged on the right side of history. If we genuinely believe that we’re in a climate emergency, we need to be asking ourselves, what have we done about it? We need to ask ourselves that question every day. What more should and could I be doing?


Interview edited and condensed.


Eric Sanderson on the ecological history of Manhattan

Eric Sanderson, author of Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City (2009), details the previously rich ecology of Manhattan or Mannahatta, “land of many hills,” and the disruption of natural systems following European settlement in the 17th century as part of The Five Thousand Pound Life: Land conference.

Five Thousand Pound Life Video 2014