Thu Mar 07 2024 | 4 min read

How the world's largest design firm is spearheading the sustainable building movement



James Ball

Gensler is the world’s largest design firm by many metrics: It works on 1.25 billion square feet of buildings and urban spaces a year and generated more than $1.78 billion in revenue in 2022. 

This year the company is increasing its effort to use its scale and global reach to help make the built environment healthier and more sustainable.

According to the company's analysis, if all of Gensler’s projects achieved the energy efficiency of its top performing buildings it would save "approximately 8 million metric tons of CO2 emissions a year," which over 15 years would be equivalent to "permanently removing 6 percent of U.S. power plants from the grid," according to its website. 

I spoke with Diane Hoskins and Andy Cohen, who recently became global co-chairs of Gensler after nearly 20 years as co-CEOs. Their main message: The power of design is uniquely suited to tackle the complexity of global challenges we are facing, from climate change to racial equity. "Our key strategy is taking on these major challenges in the work and solving them," said Cohen. Gensler’s roadmap to achieve a sustainable built world is captured in its Cities Climate Challenge.

Charting the course

Hoskins announced the Cities Climate Challenge (GC3) at the U.N. Climate Action Summit in 2019, four years after the company signed the Paris Pledge for Action at COP21, committing to reducing emissions to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius. The GC3 takes that commitment even further, pledging to "eliminate all net emissions associated with our work" by 2030.

Buildings emit greenhouse gases from two primary sources: operations and construction, including the extraction and production of building materials. Source: Gensler

GC3’s scope for tackling emissions is organized into the two primary sources of greenhouse gases from buildings:

Operating carbon comprises emissions from using buildings, primarily in the carbon emitted from energy consumption either through burning gas in the building or through the generation of electricity from fossil fuel power plants. 

Embodied carbon is produced in making buildings, including the carbon emitted during the extraction, manufacturing, transportation and construction of building materials and products. 

Gensler’s overarching strategy is to partner with other companies in the building industry on education and the adoption of best sustainability practices. In January, the company released its new Product Sustainability Standards.

Raising the bar

The Gensler Product Sustainability Standards v1.0 (GPS v1.0) are Gensler’s effort to raise the minimum bar of building product performance. Genlser, like most architecture firms, has standard specifications that it brings to the design of a building project, which suppliers and installers are then required to comply with in their selection of the final products that go into the building. 

The new standards establish sustainability performance criteria for the top 12 most commonly used, high-impact product categories. Gensler plans to "expand these standards to include additional product categories and identify more aggressive sustainability targets in the future," according to its website.

One example is requiring manufacturers to provide an environmental product declaration (EPD) for their products. Similar to the nutrition facts provided on packaged food, an EPD details the environmental impact of a product so that designers can make informed decisions on which ones to specify in their buildings. 

GPS sends a clear message to the building product manufacturers that want to work with the world’s largest design firm. "There is a market. It’s here. We need it today," said Hoskins. 

'Design for a Radically Changing World'

On Feb. 13, Cohen and Hoskins released their first book, "Design for a Radically Changing World." It convincingly presents the design process as a tool to address not only climate change, but also other complex, multivalent problems. 

"Too often, the idea of design is limited to aesthetics," they write. "Design, however, is about impact. It creates the buildings and spaces in which we live, which shape us in profound ways." In lieu of thinking that there is "a widget that is going to solve" our problems, Hoskins said, design is a method to "start to see the potential for real change at scale." 

Cohen and Hoskins' message conveys confidence that we can meet the climate crisis head on and that a better world awaits us on the other side of that systemic redesign. Their work as architects is "not just from the standpoint of decarbonizing," Hoskins said; it is "also using that to ignite the better places that really do enable and enhance the human experience.

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