The Decade Ahead: Design & Climate in 2020 and Beyond

Design in the 2020s - Climate

It’s 2030. Every day the 7AM news broadcasts the devastating effects of extreme weather patterns and climate change. Today’s segment is about Miami moving coastal residents further inland. Yesterday it was the destruction from the latest hurricane to hit New York City. Last week it was the food shortage created by wildfires in southern California exacerbated by the thousands displaced from drought-stricken Colorado. A decade ago, these events seemed extraordinary, but now they are the new normal. As you look at the decade ahead, you ask yourself, “How did we get here?”

This scenario isn’t from an apocalyptic sci-fi movie, but a likely reality for millions. Although scientists have been warning us for decades that without change, we would see possible negative impacts in the future, it is evident in the damages and losses we are seeing today that the inevitable impact has arrived. Climate change is among us and will increasingly demonstrate the risks from abstract threat to daily reality. It’s clear that more action is needed.

As the 2020s begin, the design and construction industries will come together to set and adhere to higher standards for a sustainable and resilient built environment, working with policymakers to press for more aggressive policies related to sustainable design. While building projects can have a real and positive effect on the mitigation of climate change, they can also further increase vulnerabilities if not designed for the future. Our industry will help guide governmental agencies to create the increasingly necessary financial incentives for developers and designers to incorporate sustainable strategies needed to address mitigation and adaptation.

What we do as designers, engineers and policymakers in the next decade will determine how prepared we will be to sustain our environment, allowing the human population to continue to thrive. Design and construction must come together to create the resilient future we need.

Regenerative Design

The energy used to construct and operate buildings accounts for 39% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It is projected that buildings will increase their energy consumption by 1.5% each year between now and 2040. Regenerative design will drive the changes needed to help create better conditions for enhancing life and creating thriving ecosystems by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“We must set high aspirations for water and energy usage in recognition of climate change and will demand that buildings and sites maximize performative functions,” says Lori Singleton, corporate design director. “We’ll do this all while still celebrating design in a physical and experiential way.”

Adapting buildings to become more resilient will be critical. Architect Lana Zoet predicts, “Futureproofing buildings to withstand the entropy of climate change, with investment in passive performance strategies and program flexibility will be key.” Designers will learn to design not just for the present but with insight into unpredictable climate shifts decades into the future. “The challenge for the industry is to not just design spaces that prevent impacts of disasters, but understand what new design environments may be,” says Laura Holman, architect.

“Buildings will have to be self-sustaining, regenerative and adaptable to human needs while still harmonious with the natural environment and the changes it brings with it,” asserts Sven Shockey, corporate design director.


The design and construction industry will place greater urgency on avoiding waste in the next decade. By 2050, the energy used to construct new buildings and urban infrastructure will have consumed 60% of the world’s 2°C carbon budget. “We’ll choose renovation over new construction more frequently, enabling more adaptive reuse of buildings and infrastructure, and doing more with less,” suggests Neal Kessler, landscape architect and campus strategist. Preservation of our environment and our cultural history may well merge. “As we seek to avoid the destruction of our climate, our built history will stand a better chance at preservation, with more entities choosing to reuse their existing assets rather than build new,” expects director of historic preservation Jim Shepherd.

Programs advocating for greater transparency in how construction materials are extracted and manufactured, as well as what they contain will become more mainstream as manufacturers feel pressure to disclose. “Awareness about production is becoming the norm. We’re concerned about how our food is grown, who was involved in its production, and whether they were treated ethically. Our clients will become as interested in how the materials we specify in their projects are produced,” suggests Tyler Krehlik, architect.

Moreover, as material prices increase, we’ll be forced to find ways to create new materials out of refuse, embracing the circular economy. We also expect the next decade to make gains in the use of organic building materials. “Today wood and other renewable materials are increasingly in demand, but in the not too distant future, we’ll be able to grow exterior skins, finishes and other buildings materials, saving carbon production,” says architectural designer Andrea Gulyas.

Increased Aspirations

In the next decade we will focus on how seamless integration of solutions that drive and sustain optimized performance of our built environment.

“Everything we design in 2020 and beyond should be net-zero energy or net-zero energy capable, achieving the maximum energy efficiency possible while being designed to accommodate future renewable systems,” says Greg Mella, corporate director of sustainability. As sustainability and resilience become a mainstream discussion, designers must seek the natural incorporation of these technologies. “Designers need to teach our clients and the public that being solar ready, with roof and electrical systems that support photovoltaics, should be standard practice, not an optional add-on,” adds Mella.

John Hrovat, architect, predicts that the novel sustainable solutions of today will become routine. “Restorative approaches and applications will become commonplace, including bird strike glass, photovoltaic glass, water recycling and site/habitat restoration.” 

We will seek to combine these technologies to turn buildings into self-sustaining living things. “Buildings will become heliotropic organisms changing according to solar orientation and extracting solar energy through energy-efficient building enclosures and dynamic skin systems,” suggests architect David Ogorzalek.

Like most industries, big data will become more important in designing the built environment for performance. Terri Stull, an electrical engineer, says “If we want to minimize the energy use of the whole building process, incorporating data into building design and building operations cannot be ignored.”

Integration is the Solution

Partnerships between governmental entities, developers and design and construction firms will drive the comprehensive and holistic solutions needed to address the climate emergency. We believe design disciplines will collapse into one another as radical, holistic solutions will be needed to reverse climate change.

“We will be forced to address climate change in all markets,” notes Jessica Janzen, architect. “All designers will need to become more adept at understanding challenges that are not only faced by our individual discipline, but that touch multiple disciplines and require a truly integrated approach.”

Design firms that are already accustomed to an integrated approach will have greater impact in the fight against the climate crisis. “As we've seen the benefits of having multiple disciplines in-house, I believe that integration is going to increase and we’ll see more firms taking that approach,” says Mike Faulkner, a landscape architect. By decade’s end, single discipline firms may even be viewed as outmoded.

Embracing resilience in design and construction, as well as initiatives that support mitigation and adaptation processes for our clients, will be far less risky than inaction. Some design and construction firms may find pivoting to this mindset a radical shift, but by doing so will be far better able to help our clients be proactive in their projects. “By connecting scales, experts, disciplines we can be more regimented and intentional about mitigation, and more agile to respond, react and support in bouncing back from events,” says Steven Baumgartner, urban systems strategist.