‘Fighting climate change is our moral and business imperative’ – Gensler Co-Chair

Published on January 8, 2024

Guided by the profound belief that design has the power to shape a better world, Gensler, the world’s largest architectural firm, is leading the industry charge towards a sustainable and climate-resilient future.

“We impact the lives of millions worldwide, influencing how people live, work, and play on a daily basis,” the company’s Co-Chair Andy Cohen told Zawya Projects during an interview on the sidelines of COP28 in Dubai. “As designers and urban planners, fighting climate change is a moral and business imperative of our lifetime,” he underlined.

Operating across 55 offices globally with a workforce of 6,000 employees Gensler regards itself as a force for positive change. “We work with 6,000 clients a year, over a billion square feet of projects. Last year, we worked on projects in over 100 countries,” Cohen said. He pointed out that buildings are at the core of net zero transition since they account for 40 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. “Climate change is a priority for us because buildings can make a difference in the world,” he said.

To address this challenge, Gensler launched the Gensler Cities Climate Challenge (GC3), foreseeing a future where 70 percent of the world’s population resides in cities by 2050.  GC3 aims to help Gensler’s clients reach their carbon targets and the company’s goal of making every building in its portfolio net zero carbon. “As the world’s leading design firm, it’s our responsibility to design net zero projects that give more energy than they take from the grid. By 2030, all Gensler buildings will be net zero or net positive,” said Cohen.

Gensler’s commitment extends to global research, exemplified by the recent Gensler City Pulse of Future of the Central Business District (CBD) study across 53 major cities worldwide to understand the current state of downtowns that were hit hard by the pandemic.

Cohen said: “According to the survey, in addition to resilience and sustainability, people want safety and security in their cities. They want to ensure that the designs of their cities are beautiful and have cultural heritage. The second thing they want is jobs and employment. And the third, which is really important, is affordability. So we’re coming up with concepts that combine all these elements.”

This is exemplified by Gensler’s groundbreaking concept of the 20-minute city, where everything from housing to groceries to retail to restaurants is located within a walkable environment. The concept emerged in response to the challenges people faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cohen explained: “In bigger cities like Dubai or New York or Los Angeles, you might have multiple 20 minute cities, but the idea that you can walk to every amenity that you need and feel the emotional connection of being in your own city or town square or neighbourhood that is diverse and inclusive is really important.”

Excerpts from the interview

Despite the long-term advantages, individuals hesitate to adopt green practices due to perceived higher costs. Is green affordable? Is there alignment between sustainability and affordability in construction?

We incorporate our own standards, called Gensler Product Sustainability (GPS) Standards, into every single project we undertake. The GPS standards establish sustainability performance criteria for the top 12 commonly used, high-impact product categories used in the company’s architecture and interior projects. It’s part of what we do every day.

Since sustainable materials are already built into the design, going green is not an extra cost for our clients. Most of the carbon in buildings is embodied carbon [which refers to the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, transportation, and use of building materials]. Steel and concrete stand out in the construction industry as the two materials with the highest carbon footprint. So, we are working with manufacturers and consultants to ensure that we are using the most environmentally sustainable products in the world. There are different ways to design buildings but what matters in the end is the materials used in their construction.

You have been with Gensler for more than 43 years. What is your perspective on sustainability in design and construction over time?

Over the last five years, sustainability has become mainstream and a priority for the architectural industry. We’re working on projects here in the Middle East that are entirely sustainable. Indeed, clients are increasingly aware of sustainability and the importance of fighting climate change. By 2030, I expect municipalities and governments to implement net zero building codes. Currently, buildings like the one we’re in today are taking energy from the grid. Our goal is to create self-sustaining buildings that are net-positive and do not take power from the grid.

In the face of climate change, how important is adaptive reuse and retrofitting existing buildings compared to constructing new ones?

Adaptive reuse involves re-strategising existing building stock that’s underutilised or empty and is a considerable practice at Gensler. We have created an algorithm that can quickly analyse existing inventory of office buildings to determine their potential for conversion to housing or other uses. Cities worldwide are currently engaging our services to assess entire urban landscapes, identifying buildings suitable for repurposing. [The algorithm was first tested in the City of Calgary in 2020, resulting in projects that will increase the number of residential units in the city’s core by 24 percent]

The algorithm identifies about 10 percent of the building stock out there that can be converted to other uses due to factors such as age, obsolescence, floor plates that are too big, or very low building heights. This 10 percent represents a substantial opportunity when viewed in the context of millions of square metres of existing building stock. Clients are seriously interested in adaptive reuse because it is affordable. You don’t have to build a whole new building. 

Currently, we are converting numerous older office buildings into housing and various other uses. This approach is an incredibly sustainable practice. I believe that all new builds should aim for net zero while existing buildings could look at adaptive reuse.

Extreme and intense climatic events witnessed over the past few years have put the spotlight on resilience. Is this something that needs to be added to building design in the coming years?

I don’t think it is something that needs to be added. As the most prominent architectural firm in the world, we have made it part of the design process. Everything we touch is about climate change and ensuring our buildings are resilient. We are involved in shaping future cities that are resilient. For example, we are working on future cities that aren’t car-centric but will be people-centric. Our goal is to take our city streets back for people. The future with autonomous vehicles and AI is point to point service without the need for traditional street parking. Just consider the multitude of parking structures and street parking spaces that could be transformed into community-oriented dining, cafes, green spaces, parks, and outdoor spaces. Even gas stations that sit on prime properties could be converted into community centres or parks.

We believe in the idea of mixed-use districts that are high-density but not crowded. They foster 24×7 activation, so we’re designing many mixed-use projects with housing, office, retail, and residential components because we’ve observed that the commute time between work and residence is often significant in cities. We can achieve great efficiencies by integrating housing, employment, and entertainment into a single project.

There is also a human tendency to move, aspirations for better lifestyles, upward mobility, etc. Isn’t that a challenge?

That’s why I emphasise the concept of 20-minute neighbourhoods, where you can have a mixed-use centre in one neighbourhood and another centre in another neighbourhood. The crucial element is establishing efficient transportation to connect these hubs, so one of the other key things we’re working on is micro-mobility for last-mile connectivity.

We finished about a year ago Msheireb Downtown Doha in Qatar, a 20-minute city where everything is walkable – housing, retail, restaurants, grocery stores. It’s incredibly successful because it becomes a meeting place where people can connect.

Another great mixed-use project that we designed is The Avenues Mall in Kuwait. It is a massive 7 million square feet retail development designed as a piece of cityscape, with a network of streets and plazas, covered by an ETFE roof for maximum natural sunlight. Because it’s indoor and air-conditioned, people come to stroll or hangout and connect with other people.

In Dubai, we designed the master plan for the Dubai International Financial Centre, the Gate building, all the buildings around it, and the pedestrian area. It’s walkable, sustainable, and resilient.

What are the new technologies that you are excited about?

All the buildings we’re working on right now are smart. They are really based on data, so we’re able to design buildings around the people and experiences and make them as seamless as possible. For example, when you enter a room, the lighting and service levels are all personalised and programmed according to your preferences. We are utilising AI to measure everything in a building, including its carbon level. I think AI is going to revolutionise the building industry and the architectural industry because it will allow us to design cities that are more responsive to people. And it is the youngsters who are institutionalising these technologies. We have about a thousand interns who come in every summer around the world, and they are the most progressive of all when it comes to incorporating innovation and technology into design.

As an architect, what are your expectations of the legacies that will arise from COP28?

Climate change presents both a global and local challenge, but we need global solutions. I’ve consistently emphasised that climate change and global warming are fundamentally design problems, and who better to solve design problems than architects and urban planners? That’s what we do for a living. I think this [COP 28] is important because private and public sector entities are coming together to brainstorm the future and develop the best strategies.

Collaboration with the public sector is vital because building codes and standards must become global. Net zero is not a task or responsibility for a single country. All countries must work towards this common goal collectively.

What are your thoughts on how cities in the Middle East are going to evolve? For example, population dynamics are different, with countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia boasting a majority local population versus the UAE, with a vast expatriate mix from all over the world. Again, affordable housing in Egypt is different from how the UAE would define it.

From my observations, many cities, not only globally but also in the Middle East, have been designed around automobiles. We’re working on projects in Saudi Arabia that are all about net zero and no cars; if there are cars, they are undoubtedly autonomous vehicles. Like I said before, the innovations coming our way will be about making cities people centric. It will be about creating safe, beautiful cities that are about their cultural heritage.

Because fossil fuels are limited and will run out, we must design our world to be sustainable and resilient. I think countries in the Middle East have the opportunity to change the whole paradigm by being all about sustainability and net zero.

Source: ZAWYA Projects (Reporting by Anoop Menon; Editing by Dennis Daniel)


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