The international movement toward increased sustainability in the built environment is strong, but local differences vary greatly in their impact on the design community.

To paraphrase Christina Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in her remarks when accepting the 2018 NY Architecture League award for her work on the Paris Agreement, the global drive toward sustainability is like a highway; every nation is in a different vehicle, at different speeds, but we are all going in the same direction. Atelier Ten’s exposure to key markets through our ten international offices give us a first-hand understanding of how these drivers translate to real projects.

Though not necessarily implemented through consistent frameworks or approaches, sustainability is an increasingly important driver in design across the world. Local environmental constraints, regional attitudes to environmental protection and political priorities dictate how individual parts of the world adapt to more awareness of the built environment’s impact on both human health and natural resources.

A common challenge globally is staying current with code development and policies that take the next step of meeting ever-more ambitious energy or emission goals. For example, in the UK, national building standards have been falling behind in terms of metrics used to accurately reflect what’s happening on the electrical grid and the associated carbon emissions. Some of the standard calculation methods will report that cogeneration is desirable, when the amount of energy on the grid that comes from renewables has changed so much in recent years that, from a greenhouse gas emissions standpoint, this is not necessarily true anymore. Similarly, in California, Title 24 is lagging behind in what the industry knows needs to be done in terms of electrification of the building stock. We, the people on the forefront of sustainability, need to make sure that the development cycles of these codes are keeping abreast or even anticipating what is happening both on the energy supply side and the larger policy goals.

Throughout the years there has been a lot of innovation in this arena, especially when there is a divergence between local, state and federal or national codes. In Massachusetts, for example, the stretch code concept allows local municipalities to set a target beyond the minimum requirements of state energy code. That is a big shift in code thinking—to provide a percentage by which to beat the code instead of meeting it. This way the code becomes a performance-based standard, a solution that is emerging more frequently, especially as the targets are becoming more ambitious. Developers or clients who typically just followed the prescriptive requirements of a code are now being pushed into modeling and performance analysis that has not really been applied to many projects before.

A lack of political leadership is often to blame for slow energy code improvement. A case in point is Australia, where energy code development has been lagging and commercial building energy codes have just recently been updated to more current global standard levels. However, there is no clear projection for future code improvements, despite the country’s participation in the Paris Agreement. In the absence of national leadership on the issue, it is cities and larger private or institutional developers that are advancing environmental standards, realizing the value of better buildings, and including them in their corporate or urban development goals. This is a trend we see globally in regions where larger regulatory frameworks and long-term commitments are weak or missing.

The good news is that in many regions, sustainable third-party certification—whether it’s LEED, BREEAM, Green Star or GreenMark—has become the new baseline if not a regulatory requirement because it can be implemented quickly and flexibly. For example, BREEAM Excellent is now essentially a regulatory requirement in London, and LEED certification is a requirement for larger buildings in San Francisco. These certifications are not just technical requirements; they tie in to the institutional or corporate mission of clients, many of whom have other environmental benchmarks they’re tracking as part of their comprehensive environmental impact reporting, making building sustainability an integral part of their identity.

Asian markets are also making strides to catch up to the United States and Europe in sustainable design, and some are emerging as leaders in that part of the world. Singapore has always been very strong in its commitment to the quality of its urban environment, while—despite common belief—China is demonstrating a growing commitment to addressing the environmental impacts of its large-scale developments.

Europe, on the other hand, remains a mixed bag. Strong economic engines like Germany and Belgium are doing very well on sustainability, following a clear and strong trajectory that has been set by EU policies on climate change and environmental protection. Those policies have been translated into binding national plans despite some political turmoil on the energy supply side. In the UK, however, Brexit has shifted priorities and sustainability is no longer a strong focus. While the UK still has a very active construction market, the uncertainty of Brexit has slowed down the push for more stringent regulations or innovative market leadership around sustainability, stalling code developments and commitments in this market.

Another factor that greatly affects the global market gaps surrounding electrification of buildings is the diversity in climate around the world. Places with milder climates (and consequently a low heating demand) are ahead in the development of electric buildings powered by renewable energy instead of fossil fuel sources. A city like Bangkok, for instance, does not have a natural gas grid, and nobody trucks in oil to heat buildings. Because of the city’s average mild temperature there is no demand for large amounts of highgrade heat. By default, their buildings are often already all-electric. In contrast, in climates with a much higher heating demand, like the northeastern US or the UK, electrification is still a challenge. The need to provide heating efficiently makes all-electric systems difficult to implement, and the environmental viability of electrification depends very much on the makeup of the local electricity grid. We can see this difference if we look at California that now has lots of renewable resources on the grid and enjoys the advantages of all-electric buildings from a climate emissions standpoint. In contrast, in New York City we are expecting an increase in carbon emissions for grid electricity, as in the coming years the Indian Point nuclear power plant will go offline, resulting in local fossil fuel plants to replace capacity. In this case, local small-scale fossil fuel cogeneration will be a more greenhouse gas advantageous strategy over the all-electric buildings, due to the ability to reuse waste heat from fossil power generation for heating. This means building electrification will lag behind until the local grid has a higher renewable faction and the carbon emissions factors shift favorably to fossil fuel-free buildings.

Analyzing the building needs of these different climates as well as the local utility infrastructure is critical. Not only does it help us discern the right technology on the electrification side, but, even more importantly, in doing so, it leads communities to think beyond the individual building and look at district-type technologies such as district ground coupled energy plants or community solar systems. District approaches extend beyond energy to other systems, such as storm water management, water reuse and ecosystem services. Moreover, this approach opens up the potential to combine a much deeper understanding of how a building operates with controls that include utility data, predictive modeling and data collection, weather forecasts, and tenant usage patterns that will lead us to operate buildings in a more energy efficient way. To give a practical example, in commercial buildings, operators are looking to track typical occupancy patterns and building system responses, such as the length of time it takes to get a building up to temperature in the morning. Sensors can provide input to improved analytics, allowing hours of unnecessary equipment run time to be shaved off, cutting costs and emissions at the same time.

While all these advancements are ultimately working toward mitigating climate change, it is already a reality; thus, climate change is an increasingly pressing design and development driver. Resiliency planning recognizes that extreme weather events are going to happen much more frequently and implements physical building infrastructure to protect against catastrophic events to allow buildings and communities to recover with minimal damage and downtime. In the best case, like in New York City’s plans for the Big-U shoreline protection of lower Manhattan, resiliency infrastructure will serve both functional needs while providing exciting new urban spaces for neighboring communities.

We are living in a world where we spend most of our time indoors surrounded by a manmade environment, yet we still don’t understand many facets of how this environment affects us. We need to recognize the impact of materials on our health and wellbeing. There is an enormous amount of work to be done to really understand the toxicity of the built environments we create. We can start by re-engineering products to remove some of the worst offenders, and we need to develop clear reporting protocols and metrics in terms of complete supply chains to start making truly informed decisions. We need to obtain a deeper knowledge of what’s happening across the entire lifecycle of a product and the associated health, environmental and social impacts, not only during use, but also before and after.

Australia is on the forefront of looking at social justice impacts in the manufacture of products. As the country imports goods from surrounding nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia or China, where labor practices are often questionable, people are starting to look closer at the social justice profile of different products to inform socially responsive procurement decisions. This effort goes hand-in-hand with our increasing ability to collect, share and analyze data on a large scale for the many products we’re using in the built, manmade environment.

It is encouraging to see the traction of environmentally responsible design picking up in different parts of the world despite varying government priorities and progress speeds. Europe is, at this point, driven by a larger regulatory environment, established at the European Union level with member state efforts to enforce clear action on climate change and human health issues. These are large commitments, and as a result it’s a slow-moving train. But there are clear targets and a lot of momentum that creates certainty for large investments in technology, policy and infrastructure development.

In the United States and other places that don’t have a strong high-level policy commitment to environmental issues, we are seeing a lot of activity at the local level which, while hopeful, is fragile and susceptible to changing political agendas. There are a lot of very ambitious initiatives and fast-moving activities, but often only on the city or community scale. The silver lining is that this smaller scale allows for more experimentation and a more regional response.

Like the United States, Australia has fallen behind, but it’s starting to catch up in certain areas. Unfortunately, it is in some ways hampered by the same issues: there is no strong federal plan, guidance or long-term trajectory, and as a result, a lot of it is happening at the local or grassroots level.

In Asia, we see a more heavy-handed top-down approach than in the EU. Certain goals and standards are set in places, like Singapore or China, that become national targets. While providing very strong direction, the concern here is the rigor of implementation at the local level.

There is undeniably a strong momentum for sustainability around the globe that derives from a broad consensus of the urgent necessity to address climate change. The pitfall is that all of these activities, especially when translated into regulations, create a perception that the problem of how we address sustainability in the built environment is solved. As a result, development and design often becomes a game of how to achieve such regulatory requirements in the cheapest, simplest way instead of trying to go above and beyond.

We are still far away from a truly sustainable world and a sustainable built environment. The challenge is to inspire clients not to think that by meeting some form of legal minimum benchmark, they’ve solved the problem or met their commitment. This can happen at all different scales of building, from the very large, like in our Gardens by the Bay project in Singapore, to the small and precious, like our net-zero, Living Building certified, Frick Environmental Center in Pittsburgh. The goal must be to motivate clients to explore truly innovative and exciting ways of creating buildings that are leading our field forward in shaping a more sustainable, better world for all.

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Nico Kienzl is a founding director of Atelier Ten’s U.S. sustainable design consulting practice, member of Atelier Ten’s International Board and a USGBC LEED Fellow. Atelier Ten is an award-winning global engineering and design consulting firm with offices in the UK, North America and Australasia.

This article is excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly 3Q 2018. It’s our first-ever “deep green” issue, with articles and research dedicated solely to sustainable, resilient and regenerative design. Read it, share it, all at no charge.