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Earth Day Blog

As we look to recognise Earth Day this year, it is key for all of us, not just architects and urbanists, to remember that since 2010 over half of the worlds’ population live in cities, and cities account for almost two thirds of global Green-House Gas (GHG) emissions. These are gasses that emit radiant energy within the thermal infrared range, causing “the greenhouse house effect”, which forms a blanket of gasses around the earth trapping the sun’s heat contributing to the global temperature rises we are witnessing, resulting in Climate Change. The main GHG’s in the Earth’s atmosphere are water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone. The increased presence of these gases which has primarily resulted from the burning of fossil fuels due to the “expanse and growth of the carbon-economy”. For those of us working in the built-environment it is in carbon emissions where we can substantially affect change, as almost 39% of these emissions originate from buildings and the building process. This increases to c.70% when we take into consideration the infrastructure component that joins our buildings together to create cities and which link cities to other cities in the rich tapestry that forms the urban framework in which most of us live.

Earlier this month the UN released the 3rd part of the Sixth Assessment Report – AR6 Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change so as we embrace this years’ Earth Day it is a great opportunity for those of us working in the Built Environment to closely review this and look at how we can all work to move forwards in addressing the Climate Emergency.

Historically, most carbon emissions from buildings stemmed from energy usage in its operation, including: heating, cooling and lighting, also known as operational carbon. Much has and continues to be done to address this. For example, better insulation prevents draughts and leaks from the building fabric, the decarbonisation movement from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy for electrification is also significant. Replacing gas and coal power with renewables energies like nuclear, biofuels, solar, wind or water generated etc. including that of site harvested and generated power is more and more commonplace; supported by government legislation, this is being introduced at both district and at building level.


Today, as concerns over operational carbon are becoming more widely addressed, it is the embodied carbon that will cause greater contribution to the future emissions from modern buildings, and emphasis is now being directed to reducing this. Embodied carbon emissions are contained within the materials used in the construction of our buildings. This includes any carbon released during the extraction and manufacturing processes. Alongside this, we can see emissions related to transportation and construction practices. Also included is the carbon produced in the maintenance, demolition, and transportation of any waste and its recycling.


The global building stock is expected to double by 2050. As building designers we must minimise overdesign, use less materials, and lobby through specification demand the introduction of low carbon alternatives. These include new materials created from waste products and reuse materials that are already incorporated into buildings of today, as we develop and maximise a more circular economy.


The IPCC state that “there lies significant potential for emissions reductions” and that in all cities better urban planning is key. With regards to cities and urban areas they identify three other strategies that have been found to be effective (as shown below). Built-environment professionals need to stand up and particularly address mitigation techniques that will not only reduce carbon emissions through the decarbonisation of the industry (in how we design and build the urban fabric), but also in improving carbon sequestration of the new environment that we create by enhancing carbon uptake and storage.


There is great consideration of adaptation and mitigation methods and a definite trajectory of decarbonisation from designers of buildings world-wide, we must now ensure that the wider built environment is lifted by equal measures. For the urbanists amongst us, there is stark warning as the IPCC Climate Report stressed that “better urban planning in all cities can help reduce emissions significantly”.


The following is the excerpt from the press conference pertaining to cities and urban areas:


In this report the IPCC Working Group III Committee (WG3) advise this can be achieved by increasing and introducing the expanse of green and blue spaces within our urban environments. Introducing, for example, trees and soft landscaping, green-roofs, lakes, ponds and permeable surfaces. Additionally, WG3 outline that for buildings it is possible to reach Net Zero (NZ) emissions by 2050, and that zero-energy and zero-carbon buildings already exist in almost all climates within both new build and retrofit categories. Caution is expressed though, that much more can be done, and that it is through the action that we will take this decade that will be critical to fully capture this potential.


The committee also stress that it will require ambitious policy packages to create the governance that will be requisite to provide effective action in retrofitting and new builds at the earliest.

Certainly, at tangram we do advocate that until there is a level playing field, until all designers are equipped with the necessary understanding and tools, and until all clients and project funders/sponsors acknowledge that decarbonisation is not an option, but that it is the only way forwards; only then will the enormity of the reform needed in timescales committed to by governments, will we be able to reach the momentum required at the pace that NZ target deadlines compel.


The full Report can be downloaded here: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg3/ and the virtual press conference can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STFoSxqFQXU

The findings of the report are outlined from 26:15 minutes in, and the full slide-deck of the multi-sector findings is available here: (Mitigation of Climate Change).


tangram’s work in the MENA region over the last generation has included the introduction of green and blue spaces into the public realm (link to landscape and the public realm section), and more detailed studies of campuses and buildings that we have realised utilising these techniques is available here: (link to radLAB sustainability page), along with the delivery of the Government of Dubai’s first ever green-roofed building: (link to green-roof sustainability page).


Let us all collaborate and put into practice the skills and knowledge that we have in the built-environment, and let us all recognise the importance of the Earth, the one and only planet that we all share, every day.


Happy Earth Day Everyone!!!!



This blog was created by tangram’s Design Director and founder of tangramTERRA Ms Sandra Woodall, a passionate environmentalist, architect, urbanist, researcher, pre-covid travelholic and baker of vegan treats. She is a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), and the Academy of Urbanism (AoU). Sandra is an award-winning designer who leads our MENA region studio who were recognised as the “2019 MENA Architecture Firm of the Year” by the Middle East Economic Digest (MEED), and who have received accolades including six international sustainable design awards for five different projects in four years. She is the RIBA Regional Ambassador for Sustainability, promoting and developing UK design and management skills across the MENA region, and is the UAE country representative on the RIBA Gulf Chapter. She founded, curates and presents the Chapters’ ongoing “Sustainable Development Series” to share awareness, knowledge, skills, tools and best practice with built environment professionals across the GCC and to showcase projects, methods, procedures and strategies to empower and equip us all to meet the challenges faced in delivering the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals across the region.

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