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Q&A: Making Climate Action a Design Priority with SOM’s Chris Cooper

The global design firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has long pioneered in the field of sustainable architecture, with projects spanning from Chicago’s iconic Hancock Center, one of the world’s first all-electric supertall towers, to the newly transformed campus of U.C. Merced, the first public research university in the United States to achieve carbon neutrality.

Those efforts will soon be recognized with the firm set to receive the 2021 Honor Award from the National Building museum at a virtual celebration on June 17. The event will feature Senators Cory Booker and Ed Markey as well as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and will center around SOM’s call for climate action in the building industry.

Chris Cooper

Ahead of the event, we caught up with SOM Design Partner Chris Cooper to discuss the firm’s commitment to sustainable design.

Q. When was SOM inspired to make a commitment to making climate action a design priority and why?

A. We have a proud legacy of climate-responsive architecture and have long emphasized sustainable design strategies such as reduced energy consumption through passive systems, healthy building environments, integration of nature and material efficiency. But I would say the major turning point for us was in 2018, when the U.N. released the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming. That report clearly showed that global temperatures are rising at an increasing rate and that we need to make transformational changes in the next ten years or face a set of unprecedented humanitarian and ecological crises.

The report, coupled with the realization that our built environment is responsible for 39% of all carbon emissions globally, drove the recognition that as architects in the building industry, we must shoulder responsibility. This was a powerful wake-up call for our firm and for our industry.

Q. How has this commitment challenged the firm and changed how SOM approaches its work and crafts solutions for clients?

A. We have committed to specific decarbonization goals and we assess all of our projects against these goals. We are committed to achieving net zero operational carbon emissions by 2030 and net zero embodied carbon emissions by 2040 for all of our projects. Those are very specific milestones to hit and in order to realize them, we’re learning how to design with the entire carbon lifecycle in mind.

As an industry, we’ll only be able to achieve carbon neutrality with a broad and collaborative set of actions that bring together professionals across many disciplines. These include design, construction, ownership operations, and ultimately building users as well. As architects, we have one piece of the pie, but transformational change requires the participation of everyone involved. Our clients are often our closest and most important collaborators, and we’re deeply grateful to have clients who share our climate commitments and continue to push us further in our carbon reduction efforts.

Achieving our industrywide goals will require collaborations that include all of the decision makers from the very beginning of the process to the finish. It will also require the evaluation of all decisions according to the ultimate climate goals. So it’s crucial that we do more than just innovate in terms of designing buildings. We also need to innovate in terms of designing a process from conception to completion.

Q. What are industry, policy and market demand drivers SOM needs to meet?

A. We are seeing a few very important outside drivers: increased market demand, carbon neutral investment and progressive policies. The increase in demand has been driven by companies and institutions that are becoming more climate conscious and establishing goals that their facilities need to meet. Many of our clients are coming to us with these goals and expectations for their buildings already in hand.

The momentum we’re seeing in green investment is equally important and encompasses climate-conscious investment incentives as well as a growing movement to divest from fossil fuels. What’s exciting to me is that effective and meaningful change is coming from a groundswell of activity that is all around us.

The move toward progressive policies governing our industry has similarly been driven by growing public support. New York City’s Local Law 97, which places carbon emission limits on most medium and large buildings in the city, is an important example of how policy at the local scale can push the industry forward. Many of us at SOM are actively involved in advising and shaping these efforts in New York and throughout the country.

Q. Are there any recent projects that give you confidence in the firm’s approach and optimism for the future?

A. One project that comes to mind is our own home. We recently designed our new offices in New York and several of our other offices around the country have moved in the past few years. So we’ve been asking some critical questions: what kind of place should our home be? What are the values it should embody and how should it feel for its occupants? Our office, located in Seven World Trade Center, puts forward a set of answers to those questions in the form of a design that is positioned at the intersection of planetary health, user wellbeing and smart technologies. All of these come together to reinforce each other. The office is designed for extremely low energy use and we reduced carbon usage by eliminating unnecessary layers of finish and choosing renewable resources like cork and wood products. We designed the space with no toxins and integrated natural plants throughout. We also incorporated intelligent systems that monitor air quality and light levels to drive automated calibrations.

At a much broader scale, our work at U.C. Merced is evidence that with the collaboration and buy-in of an entire project team, we’re collectively able to make transformative change happen. After years of hard work and careful planning, the university last year became the first public research campus in the United States to achieve carbon neutrality and it is now targeting Triple Net Zero, encompassing energy, waste, and carbon. This is a powerful example of an institution setting ambitious goals and a broad team working together to deliver on them. It has been an important journey from concept through master planning and designing multiple high-performance buildings to execution and follow-through. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s extraordinary to see what we can achieve when we work together around a shared commitment to decarbonization.

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About David Cohen

David Cohen is Southeast Editorial Director at Connect Commercial Real Estate. David is a media veteran with more than 10 years of experience in journalism, copywriting and communications across a variety of roles. He is responsible for covering commercial real estate news and trends in the Southeast, Florida, Washington D.C. and Boston at Connect CRE as well as specializing in the Student Housing sector. Prior to joining Connect, David was the editor of Northeast Real Estate Business magazine and Student Housing Business magazine at France Media as well as spending time freelancing for ESPN and the Associated Press in the fast-paced field of live sports event production. He is also an owner and investor in multifamily real estate in Atlanta, GA. David currently resides in Atlanta and graduated from the College of Communication & Information at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.

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