Sustainable design is key to cutting carbon emissions

16 January 2024
MEED spoke exclusively to Andy Cohen, co-CEO of Gensler, about how the buildings and cities of the future can achieve net zero

With buildings accounting for 40 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, the construction industry was a focal point for discussions at the 28th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (Cop28) in Dubai last year.

According to data from regional projects tracker MEED Projects, the construction industry is a major part of the regional economy, with projects worth $1.2tn in execution in the GCC and a record number of $141bn-worth of awards in 2023.

With this growth comes increasing concern over the industry’s environmental impact. On the sidelines of Cop28, Andy Cohen, co-CEO of architecture and design firm Gensler, talked to MEED about how the buildings and cities of the future can achieve net zero.

“Carbon emissions are a design problem," he said. "We have taken an approach called the Gensler Cities Climate Challenge, which aims to help clients reach their climate goals by 2050.”

Sustainability through design

In many cities in the Middle East, high temperatures coupled with a lack of shade and green space built into the architecture contributes to more energy-intensive assets.

In response to this, Gensler is adopting sustainable strategies in designing projects to reduce temperatures. The firm focuses on introducing shading devices that filter out direct sunlight, as well as incorporating ample landscaping, gardens and green spaces.

One example of Gensler’s design efforts in this area is showcased in the Msheireb Downtown project in Qatar. As the project architect, Gensler has incorporated solar shading devices in public spaces to lower temperatures significantly, demonstrating the benefits of these strategies.

To achieve the client's cooling and sustainability goals, Gensler incorporated various sustainable strategies such as a retractable roof over the main plaza for shading.

20-minute neighbourhoods

Cohen added that Msheireb Downtown is also an example of how neighbourhoods can be created with a walkable mix of amenities and services – these are known as 20-minute neighbourhoods. The development includes housing, retail, restaurants and grocery stores within walking distance.

“The concept of 20-minute neighbourhoods is gaining traction in urban planning. The idea is to establish self-sustaining communities with multiple centres of activity, linked together by efficient transportation systems," he said. 

"At the forefront is the pursuit of micro-mobility solutions that cater to last-mile connectivity.”


Materials such as cement and steel have significant carbon impacts, making it crucial for the construction industry to discern and prioritise low-carbon alternatives.

The longevity of materials in buildings further complicates the carbon equation. While structural elements may be carbon-intensive, the repeated replacement of interior materials throughout a building's lifespan can contribute significantly to its overall carbon footprint. Architects and designers, therefore, have an opportunity to decrease embodied carbon levels by making conscious decisions about the materials they choose for their projects.

“The largest single source of carbon output from buildings comes from their embodied carbon, which is the production and transportation of products and materials," said Cohen.

"Reducing the impact from embodied carbon is key to our strategy to combat climate change. This is why we have launched new guidelines for the materials we specify in all our projects.”

Gensler is also working closely with concrete and steel manufacturers to find more sustainable alternatives and minimise the carbon emissions associated with the materials utilised in the projects.

Adaptive retrofitting

The carbon embodied in a building’s life cycle significantly contributes to its environmental impact.

“Sustainability also depends on extending the life of existing structures by implementing reuse strategies that improve the building's environmental impact. By reutilising existing facilities and materials, developers can decrease the carbon content associated with new materials and reduce the debris and waste that go to the dump,” Cohen said.

Adaptive reuse strategies are more cost-effective than demolishing old buildings and constructing new ones. There are also municipal incentives for property owners who repurpose their properties, particularly if the building has historical relevance.

Adaptive reuse strategies can contribute to creating a climate-friendly future, where buildings can continue to provide value to the community long past their original purpose.

Role of technology

Gensler has also taken a technology-based approach to architecture design, incorporating sustainable architecture and engineering solutions to achieve sustainability.

The firm is utilising specialised software tools that analyse everything from the building's design to its orientation and fenestration. Throughout the entire design process, the firm implements a systematic approach to ensure that projects incorporate sustainable passive and active strategies.

The company's use of its proprietary gPlanet system, building information modelling, intelligent systems, renewable energy sources and digital fabrication allows it to innovate and create sustainable architecture, contributing to a more sustainable future.

“Artificial intelligence 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,” Cohen said.

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