Architecting Change: Design Strategies for a Healthy, Resilient, Climate-Smart Future

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Embedded Carbon in Wood Products

Embedded carbon is the storage of carbon for long periods of time. Wood products are approximately 50% carbon by dry weight. And wood’s lightweight advantage when it comes to density and city building is making it an attractive climate-smart choice as pointed out in a research paper: Lightweighting with Timber: An Opportunity for More Sustainable Urban Densification. The use of wood products in buildings provides an additional environmental benefit by storing carbon removed from the atmosphere. This ability to sequester, or “embed”, carbon makes wood an ideal product for buildings, which are designed for long service lives. Essentially, a wood building is a large carbon sink. This storage of carbon is a unique environmental attribute that does not exist in other structural products.

Timber as a tactic for curbing climate change is backed by a growing body of research and advancements in calculating the carbon footprint of building materials. In a recent paper published in the journal Nature Sustainability, experts at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany delved into four possible scenarios of timber use in buildings over the next 30 years. In the first case, “business as usual,” 0.5% of buildings are made with wood while the vast majority remain constructed of concrete and steel. There’s a 10% timber building scenario; a 50% timber building scenario; and a fourth in which the vast majority—90% of new construction—is made with wood. Their findings suggest that the lowest scenario could result in 10 million tons of carbon stored per year, and in the highest, nearly 700 million tons. “Buildings, which are designed to stay for decades,” researchers write in the paper, “are an overlooked opportunity for a long-term storage of carbon, because most widely used construction materials such as steel and concrete hardly store any carbon.”

While the research is limited to European wood construction, the authors of the study see global potential. “This is the first time that the carbon storage potential of wooden building construction has been evaluated on the European level, in different scenarios,” said Ali Amiri, one of the researchers of the study. “We hope that our model could be used as a roadmap to increase wooden construction.”


As design professionals look to the decade ahead, there are many challenges on the horizon, from addressing pressing environmental and social issues to accommodating rapid population growth and shifting market demands. There is a growing understanding that the built environment is inextricably linked to many of the complex issues of our day. While these problems are global in scale and, in some cases, beyond the influence of the AEC industry alone, there are actions design professionals are taking in their day-to-day practice that can begin to make an impact.

A rapidly evolving, post-pandemic world demands adaptive and versatile design professionals who are continually evolving their practice and looking to the latest research and methodologies to help inform their design solutions. Design teams are showing how we can boost health, affordability, and wellness in today’s increasingly dense urban environments through creative, nimble, and flexible thinking.

There is also an urgent need to combat climate change and find advanced ways to store carbon in our buildings. Industry leaders are stepping up with substantial commitments—from conducting leading research on carbon and climate to erecting important demonstration projects. Structural timber is proving to be one significant way to sequester embodied carbon and reduce the environmental footprint of new construction. Ingenuity and smart design also can mitigate the impacts of global warming. Interweaving greenspace into the urban environment and even in and on top of buildings can have a cooling effect on our cities.

Industry leaders are committing to building for a resilient, healthy, and low-carbon future—an ‘architecture of optimism.’ Jordan Goldstein, a design principal at Gensler writes, “Whether it’s new buildings that are about to be designed or existing architecture that now needs to be reimagined, in many ways this is a time for an architecture of optimism. Optimistic architecture isn’t architecture for the sake of architecture and doesn’t seek to glorify form. Rather, it’s an architecture that seeks to express its purpose in every aspect of the design–one that promotes wellness and celebrates life. The time to define this architecture of optimism is now. The future of our cities depends on it.”


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in July 2023