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Unlocking the Layers of Sustainable Building Design

Embracing the Complexity of Sustainability



Sustainability in architecture is often misunderstood as a simple fix, like slapping solar panels on a building and calling it a day. But the reality is much more nuanced. As Steven Biersteker, an Associate at Thinkspace Architecture, aptly describes it, "Sustainability is more like baking a cake than it is about icing a cake." It's a multilayered approach that requires carefully considering a variety of strategies to reduce a building's environmental impact.

Biersteker, who is passionate about embodied and operational carbon in architecture, has made it his mission to educate architects and the public on the true complexity of sustainable design. Through his role at Thinkspace, a leading mass timber design firm in the education sector, and his active presence on LinkedIn as "The Carbon Architect," Biersteker is simplifying carbon and architecture for everyone to understand.

The Path to Sustainable Architecture

Biersteker's own journey into sustainable architecture wasn't a straight line. After initially being rejected from architecture programs, he persevered and eventually found his way to Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University), where he developed a personal passion for building science and sustainability.

Upon entering the industry, Biersteker was surprised to find that sustainability was not always a priority. "In my head, I kind of thought more people did it that way, and then I realized, 'Well, no, actually the mighty dollar rules, and whatever's cheapest gets done,'" he explains. This realization prompted him to take action and find a workplace that aligned with his values.

Biersteker's persistence and willingness to learn paid off when he landed at Thinkspace, a firm with great teams supporting sustainability, mass timber, and educational facilities. "I wanted to make sustainability more a part of my practice, and the places I was at before just wasn't a priority," he says.

Navigating the Nuances of Mass Timber

One of the key projects that drew Biersteker to Thinkspace was a mass timber building at Trinity Western University in British Columbia. This experience, combined with his wife's background in education, sparked his interest in the growing use of mass timber in the education sector.

Biersteker explains that the British Columbia government has a strong push to use local wood in school construction, leading to an increasing number of mass timber projects in the province. Thinkspace's current work includes a fully mass timber, four-story school in Ladysmith, Vancouver Island, which Biersteker is particularly excited about.

However, Biersteker notes that designing with mass timber presents unique challenges, such as ensuring the structural grid aligns with the material's capabilities, navigating municipal code requirements, and protecting the timber during construction. He emphasizes the importance of early collaboration with structural engineers and close coordination with local authorities to address these nuances effectively.

Embodied Carbon: The Hidden Emissions

One of Biersteker's key areas of focus is the often-overlooked aspect of embodied carbon in buildings. Embodied carbon refers to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the extraction, manufacture, transportation, and installation of building materials, as opposed to the operational carbon generated by a building's energy use.

Biersteker explains that while the industry has long been focused on reducing operational carbon through measures like energy efficiency and renewable energy, the increasing emphasis on embodied carbon has revealed that these efforts can sometimes lead to higher overall carbon emissions. "We're actually increasing the embodied carbon to reduce the operational carbon, and we're actually increasing the total whole-life carbon in that process," he says.

To address this, Biersteker advocates for a more holistic approach, considering both embodied and operational carbon throughout the design process. He encourages architects to look beyond the "cherry on top" of sustainability, such as solar panels, and instead focus on the underlying "cake" of strategies like low-embodied carbon materials, mass timber, and efficient building systems.

Educating Architects and the Public

Biersteker's passion for sustainability has led him to become a prolific educator and communicator, sharing his knowledge through his work at Thinkspace, his newsletter "The Carbon Architect," and his active presence on LinkedIn. He believes that the key to driving change in the industry lies in fostering curiosity and disseminating information among architects and the public.

One of Biersteker's goals is to bridge the gap between the "sustainability experts" and the broader architectural community. "There's this really big divide between architects in the know and out of the know," he explains. "I'm really interested in trying to figure out how to help more architects design sustainable buildings, whether that's sourcing materials or learning what the right process is."

Through his engaging content and relatable analogies, Biersteker aims to make the complex world of sustainable design more accessible and inspiring. By empowering architects to ask the right questions and take small steps towards sustainability on their current projects, he believes that meaningful change can be achieved.

Conclusion

Sustainable building design is a multifaceted challenge that requires a deep understanding of the various layers involved. As Steven Biersteker has demonstrated, it's not just about the "cherry on top" of solar panels or other visible features, but a holistic approach that considers embodied carbon, mass timber, and a range of other strategies.

By sharing his expertise, Biersteker is helping to bridge the gap between sustainability experts and the broader architectural community, inspiring architects to embrace curiosity and take action on their current projects. As the industry continues to evolve, the insights and guidance provided by passionate professionals like Biersteker will be crucial in unlocking a more sustainable future for the built environment.

Ready to get the tools, resources and partners to work on more mass timber projects? Register for the Mass Timber Group Summit in Denver this summer, July 31st - August 2nd. August 2nd. 

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