The Climate-Ready City:
How Sustainability Is Shaping Architecture in 2024

KPF Sustainable Design Director Carlos Cerezo Davila identifies the key themes driving sustainable architecture this year.

In 2023 we saw dramatic and devastating evidence of how climate change is wreaking havoc on cities, from fires in Canada and Europe to floods in Asia and the Northeastern United States; extreme heat in the Southwest; and New York City wreathed in smoke. There can no longer be any doubt, the climate crisis is upon us. At the same time, 2023 was a year of rapid progress, as renewable energy became more and more widespread, and consensus continued to grow around the urgent need to stem greenhouse gas emissions and transition away from fossil fuels. Changes in the real estate industry such as higher interest rates subdued demand for commercial office space and also impacted how our work as architects intersects with building a low-carbon future. Within the profession of architecture itself, this year saw an acceleration toward design as a highly specialized, data-driven field. In that context, there are many, many ways the decisions we make as architects can support a more livable future; nevertheless, a few stand out.

In order to grasp a project’s entire carbon footprint, it’s essential to measure how much carbon is embodied in structural and façade materials such as concrete, glass, metals, and masonry.

1. Taking a Broader View of Carbon

In recent years the conversation around the carbon emissions of buildings has shifted dramatically. As the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry has developed the capacity to more holistically measure and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, our understanding of what aspects of the built environment contribute to global warming continues to expand. As recently as five years ago, most architects concerned with sustainability were looking primarily at operational carbon emissions, or those emissions produced through the consumption of energy used to keep a building running. But, as green building standards like LEED have become more mainstream, our targets have widened to include embodied carbon, the greenhouse gas emissions released to manufacture, transport, install, and dispose of building materials. Today the conversation is shifting again, toward an even more comprehensive understanding of whole life carbon.

Panorama St. Paul’s, an adaptive reuse project in London, is expected to achieve embodied carbon savings of 52% compared to new construction through the reuse of structural and façade materials

Whole life carbon, also known as lifecycle carbon, is quickly becoming a mainstream concern, so much so that it’s been embedded in legislation in jurisdictions including California, Canada, Boston, and London, to name a few. You can see this conversation playing out in industry-wide reporting projects like the AIA 2030 Commitment as well. This program first started asking for embodied carbon data in the 2021 reporting cycle; at that time only 3% of projects had data to share, but by 2023, when firms were reporting data from 2022, that number had tripled. In 2023, KPF reported data for 86 active projects, exceeding the average number reported by each firm.

Going forward, embodied carbon in MEP systems, not only structure, façade, and interior materials, is going to be a major concern. Indeed, ASHRAE has launched MEP 2040, a carbon reduction commitment modeled on the AIA’s 2030 Commitment. What this means for architectural practice is a generational change in how we document our projects and specify materials. The profession is more data intensive than it has ever been, and that’s only increasing.

2. Sustainability Is a Value Driver for Real Estate Investors


For a long time, architects had to push their clients toward more sustainable design solutions. Now, the growing importance of ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) criteria for investing has started to shift that calculus.

With buildings targeting LEED Gold and Platinum, KPF’s Channelside development in Boston is well-positioned to attract top tenants.
Window-to-wall ratios across the project’s three buildings were optimized to maximize daylight and views while reducing solar heat gain and glare.


Today, clients are approaching their architects to make sure projects are aligned with real estate–oriented climate standards and performance indicators. That’s because investors see the value in sustainable, resilient buildings. It’s well known at this point that rents in LEED-certified commercial buildings are higher (on average by more than 5%) than in non-certified buildings. Major real estate investors including CBRE, Brookfield Properties, Allianz, and others have made net-zero commitments and more than half of publicly traded real estate investment trusts have an ESG policy in place. Potential new rules from the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) on disclosing exposure to climate risks are another driver, as are penalties from new regulations like Local Law 97 in New York City. The fact is that investors increasingly see climate change as a portfolio risk to be mitigated. As architects and designers, that means that we are going to see much more client interest in sustainability at a baseline level.

3. Offsets No Longer Cut It

Consumers and clients have grown increasingly skeptical of carbon offsets, and rightfully so. As recent reporting has revealed the hollowness of even relatively well-certified carbon offsets, the claims of carbon neutrality that are underpinned by such offsets have disintegrated. We’re going to see more and more of those companies that want sustainability to be a market differentiator turning to carbon mitigation programs that are local and verifiable. Approaches such as renewable energy generation—whether generated on-site or through a power purchase agreement—energy efficiency, and recycled and low-carbon materials are going to be a higher priority for companies who can no longer reasonably purchase carbon offsets to make their sustainability claims. As companies and clients shift their approach to meet this new challenge, design is going to have a bigger role to play in minimizing carbon upfront rather than offsetting it later.

Building-integrated photovoltaic solar panels (BIPV) can help a building achieve net-zero without the need for carbon offsets.

4. Climate Resilience Is Heating Up

For a long time, climate resilience was basically understood to mean fortifying buildings and cities against the threat of sea-level rise and more severe coastal storms. The heatwaves of summer 2023 proved that designers need to consider hotter temperatures as well.

Through strategic building placement and orientation, buildings can take advantage of shade and breezes for passive cooling, creating thermal microclimates that improve comfort and resiliency.

Extreme heat is a major public health crisis and kills more Americans every year than hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes combined. Fortunately, this is an area where architecture and design can have a major impact by introducing passive cooling strategies, creating hospitable urban microclimates through shading and landscaping, and mitigating urban heat island effect.

One needs to look no further than the myriad cities around the world appointing chief heat officers and instituting civic programs such as cooling centers to address the heat crisis. As the heat crisis grows worse, demand will grow for architecture that is responsive to heat and the need for resilient systems that can support survivable environments even in the event of an electrical interruption or natural disaster scenario. Architects and designers will need to respond by understanding how their projects function within the urban microclimate and create projects that help cool cities.

In the context of an escalating climate crisis it’s more important than ever for architects and their clients to be aligned across all of these priorities and to find low-carbon solutions to the problems facing today’s cities. KPF’s holistic approach reflects the multi-faceted reality of sustainable design where no one strategy is suitable to the needs of every project and environment.

Carlos Cerezo Davila is a sustainable design expert and building scientist whose research focuses on modeling and analyzing building energy use patterns at an urban scale. Carlos has served as KPF’s Environmental Design Director since 2018; he leads the Environmental Performance team (KPFep), closely collaborating with teams across the firm’s global network to establish sustainability benchmarks and workflows that ensure the firm’s projects support KPF’s environmental mission.