The Paris COP21, which took place at the end of 2015, was the first global climate summit to include a dedicated “Building Day.” Held on December 3, it brought attendees together to call attention to the opportunities that changes to our built environment could play in mitigating climate change. Among the world leaders and government representatives, members of the business and investment communities, and journalists who showed up for the event were several architects, including at least one from Texas: Rives Taylor is AIA of Gensler’s Houston office.

“We were over there doing recon, having tracked the climate conversation with the U.N. for some time,” says Taylor. “We were intrigued that for the first time the U.N. recognized how big a part buildings have on the demand side of the climate change equation.”

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, buildings are the largest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for more than 30 percent of total global output. If current construction and building operation practices continue, that number is expected to double by 2050.

COP21 asked all of the 192 participating countries to determine what they needed to do to limit global warming to below 2˚C. At Building Day, several strategies were put forth to make sure the built environment does its part. Free exchange of information was encouraged, in particular open communication and transparency in setting sector goals for emissions reductions. Formation of public-private partnerships was promoted as a way to raise funds and share knowledge and technology; and increasing efficiency — of building systems and envelopes, as well as the scaling-up of retrofits — was discussed as a way to streamline new and existing building stock.

Taylor had something to say about the architect’s role in achieving these goals: “Our job is to bridge public-private opportunities,” he says. “We’re the coach for a process that isn’t just design-construct, but also long-term operation. As Texans, conservation is what kept us alive in this irascible place of the world. It took a lot of time to do more with less, but we took pride in our resiliency, if you will.”

Among the other highlights of COP21 was “Paris Ice Watch,” an outdoor installation by Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. The installation comprised 12 blocks of glacial ice — totaling 100 tons — that fell off Greenland. They were plucked from the North Atlantic, planted in the plaza facing the Pantheon, and arranged in a circle to resemble the face of a clock. “That part of the city is maybe 1,000 years old,” says Taylor. “This glacier was 25,000 years old. It melted in three days. It really put into perspective our position in the scheme of things.”

Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect.

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