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Strategies to Help Save Utah from Environmental Disaster

Laura Smith & Zach Clegg

CRSA Sustainability Series: Architects, planners, and problem-solvers need to think about the built environment not in the context of “doing less harm” but in actively “doing good”. This paradigm shift is not a lofty goal, but a fundamental design driver that we can express in the choices we make every day.

Estimated read time:
4 min

CRSA has been pleased to call the Intermountain Region of the United States home for more than 40years. Our office in Salt Lake City offers our team access to a uniquely beautiful, welcoming, and promising quality of life that brings so many people to our region. The Wasatch Valley provides endless outdoor recreation opportunities, four distinct seasons, expansive views, and what seems to be an endless opportunity for growth. Here in Salt Lake City, the mountains are the skyline – providing trails, water, and world-class skiing and snowboarding destinations. The 2020 Census confirmed to many locals what they had been suspecting for years: Utah is the fastest growing state in the nation. The"secret" is officially out: Utah is a great place to live!

As populations throughout the region have continued to boom, other trends seem more noticeable as well. While this growth brings higher density and a renewed socio-economic vitality, it also brings an increased cost of living, more cars on the road, busier trails, and profound environmental concerns. The winter and summer skies appear dirtier than ever and snowpacks are not what they used to be. Seasons are different with new intensities and shortfalls. Forest fires edge closer to urban centers each year and famous lakes that have aided in our state's attraction, such as Lake Powell and the Great Salt Lake, are shrinking rapidly. Less water in the Great Salt Lake, specifically, means more intense winds and dust advisories in the Salt Lake Valley, which correlate with higher rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory illness, and impaired reproductive health.

These natural trends are not unique to Utah or the high desert mountainous regions of the United States. Areas across the world are facing new existential questions to their own natural relationships as the planet's population continues to grow. While many factors such as vehicle emissions, energy use, and food production continue to play growing roles in contaminating the earth's ecosystems, one might be surprised to find that the architecture, engineering, and construction industries together play a larger role in the creation of greenhouse gasses. Other sectors such as transportation and production of electricity have seen falls in their greenhouse gas emissions, but environmental impacts from the AEC industry continue to trend upward.

As architects, planners, and designers, we know that our work has the potential to influence and connect to all aspects of life. We are highly aware that our moment-by-moment decisions have significant impacts on our community, environment, and the world around us. The natural role of buildings is to nurture and enhance our lives, and our industry has the insight to provide innovative solutions and systemic thinking to do our part in solving the climate crisis. Our team thinks about the built environment not in the context of “doing less harm” but in actively “doing good”. This paradigm shift is not a lofty goal, but a fundamental design driver that we can express in the choices we make every day.

Some simple but significant sustainable design strategies are:
  • Reduce, reuse, and recycle. The greenest building is the one that already exists.
  • Optimize natural daylighting, improving occupant well-being while also reducing lighting loads.
  • Apply low/no cost passive design strategies to achieve maximum energy efficiency.
  • Incorporate on-site and off-site renewable energy sources.
  • Utilize iterative energy modeling to understand the interactive environmental effects of building systems.
  • Use bio-based materials that help humans and the earth thrive rather than harm our health and ecology.
  • Reduce carbon pollution with clean energy and store carbon in buildings and infrastructure permanently.
  • Integrate nature as a building system to provide thermal insulation, shade, clean air, and well-being.
  • Design for walkability and craft spaces that provide opportunities to be car-free.

The word crisis, when written in Chinese, is composed of two symbols representing danger and opportunity. Our built environment can be either an existential threat or the source of transformative solutions to climate change. We, as designers, have a unique opportunity to craft spaces that affect the way people experience the world around them - a role we do not take lightly. In the coming months, CRSA will take a deeper dive into some of the design strategies, processes, and tools we use to mitigate and solve climate issues created by the built environment.

We will take an in-depth look into topics such as:
  • Embodied Carbon | Carbon Sequestration
  • Life Cycle Analysis | Existing Buildings
  • Daylighting Strategies | Passive Design
  • Integrated Energy Modeling
  • Human Health | Wellness
  • Renewables | Net-Zero Buildings
  • Urban Ecology | Green Systems
  • Environmental Resiliency
  • Biomimicry | Regenerative Design
  • Walkability | Car-free Transit

We look forward to providing new ways to share and implement creative design solutions so that we, as a collective community, can usher our region into the future with vibrancy, resiliency, and environmental integrity. With a commitment to innovation, our region can grow while protecting the delicate and unique environment that we love and call home.