24 May 2023
The Commitment to Action series highlights the remarkable work being done by businesses, organisations, cities and states who have signed up to the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment to decarbonise their portfolios.
Provide a brief explanation of your SOM, what the business does and the role it plays within the sector.
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) is a global practice of architects, designers, engineers, and planners, responsible for some of the world’s most technically and environmentally advanced buildings and significant public spaces.
Through SOM’s built work, research initiatives, and its role as an advocate in the industry and beyond, SOM is advancing strategies to decarbonise the built environment.
SOM works collaboratively, both as a firm with twelve studios located around the world and with external partners and industry bodies.
Why did SOM join the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment?
SOM joined the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment because the business wanted to demonstrate its commitment to leading the transition to net zero buildings by using evidence-based actions. SOM also wanted to inspire its clients and collaborators on their own respective net zero journeys.
The Commitment also appealed to SOM because it helped provide a consistent approach to measuring and reporting carbon emissions related to the business’s operations worldwide. Prior to joining, SOM was documenting its emissions but it was incredibly challenging to ensure a consistent approach across the different offices and to do it at scale.
By being able to evaluate data that is consistent across the firm, SOM was able to prioritise the main “offenders” in its office consumption. Prior to this, the business was largely focused on initiatives to change the cultural mindset, such as developing strategies to reduce paper waste. By setting SOM’s default printer settings to double-sided, for example, the business halved its overall paper consumption and further reduced this by encouraging staff to consider whether it’s necessary to print at all.
Since joining the Commitment, alongside continuing these initiatives (which do add up to an incremental change in the long term), SOM also tackled its biggest sources of energy consumption. By moving away from on-site servers to a cloud-based system, the business significantly reduced the energy consumption associated with servers running 24/7, continuous air conditioning of server rooms, keeping backup power with a server room UPS system, and the use of power-intensive tower computers. Once the transition is complete, SOM expects to have decreased electricity use by more than 75 percent in its three largest offices.
What actions is SOM taking to decarbonise its asset portfolio? What progress has the business made to date?
SOM’s strategy to cut carbon emissions extends to every area of its leased office spaces. Since signing the Commitment, SOM has opened three new studios (in addition to its existing presence in London, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington DC, Hong Kong, and Shanghai). SOM has local studios in Dubai, Melbourne and Seattle which helped reduce the number of flights required to meet clients and visit projects in these locations.
In some SOM offices, smart technology like lighting systems and occupancy sensors has been installed to control and minimise the use of artificial lighting. In the London office, even the inactivity time before the lighting is turned down has been reduced. In Chicago, the receptacle loads are now controlled by occupancy sensors and CO2 sensors are used to control outside air, and automatic blinds to control solar gain.
Tackling whole life carbon is crucial to sector decarbonisation, how is SOM applying a whole life carbon approach to your decarbonisation efforts?
SOM has a rigorous embodied carbon impact evaluation process in place for all of its active design work as well as for its own office spaces, especially when renovations are required.
Embodied carbon studies are now becoming more prevalent in SOM’s active design projects so the business intends to use the knowledge gained here on its own future refurbishments.
Collaboration is key to accelerated action. How is SOM collaborating with other stakeholders to accelerate climate action?
Accelerating climate action is at the core of what drives SOM’s work. It is essential for SOM to work with clients, peers, and collaborators to move not just its own projects forward but the entire industry in this respect.
To do this, SOM shares its knowledge to inspire others and advocate for change through multiple platforms. These include participating at globally recognised, climate focused events like the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference (COP), and participating in global committees that advance the decarbonisation of the global economy. SOM advocates for change at various scales and in various forums through closely engaging with the industry. In addition to partnering with WorldGBC’s Advancing Net Zero Programme, SOM is a member of UKGBC, USGBC and the RIBA Council, as well as various AIA Chapters. The business participates in both global (through UNEP/GlobalABC, CAA and others) and local (through LETI, BE and others) initiatives to accelerate action at scale.
In these positions, SOM’s team members help to launch key climate focused initiatives and shape public policy. This is best demonstrated by examples, including the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge, the first initiative in the world that has defined specific net zero targets for operational energy, embodied carbon and potable water, and MEP 2040 which advocates for all building systems and services’ engineers to achieve net zero whole life carbon in all of their projects by 2040. Additionally, in New York City, one of SOM’s team forms part of the steering committee for the Decarbonising New York City Offices initiative, guiding the NYSERDA/Building Energy Exchange (BE-Ex) and their partners to drive sustained decarbonisation of leased office spaces.
How are SOM’s business activities contributing to decarbonisation?
In addition to achieving net zero carbon emissions in its own business operations, SOM also wants to pursue this goal in every project that it’s actively involved in. The business is targeting net zero operational carbon for 100 percent of our active design work by 2030. We have also committed to achieving net zero whole life carbon in all of our active design work by 2040.
To make this a reality, SOM has developed a comprehensive climate action plan for our business and a whole life carbon framework that collectively guides SOM in progressively reducing emissions in its built environment projects. The details of this can be found in SOM’s 2021-22 Climate Action Report. Some of the key highlights include the development of SOM’s own tools to measure and monitor whole life carbon emissions of all of its projects through a system and a digital platform that is called ‘Carbon Loop’. First launched over a decade ago, the Environmental Analysis Tool (EA Tool) is an application designed by SOM to estimate embodied carbon emissions of structures, facades, building systems and interior fit-outs for various building types. More recently, SOM has developed the Embodied Carbon Tool (EC Tool), which enables its design teams to assess the holistic embodied carbon impact of various projects during early design phases by taking into consideration details of the major building elements (e.g. structures, facades, building systems and interior fit-outs).
How is SOM advocating for further industry transformation?
In addition to influencing and engaging with industry organisations, including WorldGBC, Carbon Leadership Forum, RIBA, AIA, ASHRAE, International Code Council and more, SOM has committed to the United Nations-backed Race to Zero Campaign (through the Business Ambition 1.5°C pledge), COP26 Communique, AIA2030 Challenge, Building Health Alliance and Architecture 2030 China Accord.
Through SOM’s involvement on the UKGBC’s Board and many of its local initiatives, the business has been able to amplify the Race to Zero Campaign and encourage many of its peers to become signatories of the effort. By sharing SOM’s experience of the commitment, the business has been able to facilitate further engagement across the entire industry.
SOM is involved with UKGBC’s Net Zero Whole Life Carbon Roadmap for the Built Environment, which was launched at COP26 in Glasgow. The project aims to outline a common vision and agree upon industry-wide actions for achieving net zero whole life carbon in the construction, operation, and demolition of buildings, as well as infrastructure, at a national level in the UK.
More recently, some of SOM’s team are contributing their expertise to an industry-wide, collaborative ‘project’, the UK Net Zero Carbon Buildings Standard, which will enable the built environment sector to robustly prove its built assets are whole life net zero carbon and in line with the UK’s climate targets.
What are you most excited about for the future?
In addition to meeting SOM’s commitments and working towards its three major goals (reaching net zero operational carbon in our business operations without offsets by 2030, targeting net zero operational carbon for 100 percent of our active design work by 2030, and targeting net zero whole life carbon in all of our active design work 2040), SOM is excited to continue to shape a more sustainable built environment through its self-initiated research projects.
These include projects, such as Urban Sequoia, which presents a design concept that is buildable today and sets the stage for a new carbon removal economy, and a resilient future for cities. SOM unveiled the concept at COP26 and has since developed it further to ensure that over a 100-year lifespan, an Urban Sequoia building would absorb more than 300 percent of the carbon emitted in its construction and operation. At SOM we know that the technology and systems required to build Urban Sequoia exist; the business wants to find the right partners to make it a reality.
As a first step to this, SOM teamed up with (and has invested in) a start-up company, spun out of a research program at the University of Colorado Boulder. Prometheus Materials have explored and developed an algae-based construction material, which absorbs carbon to create bio-concrete. Applied to Urban Sequoia, the carbon captured through bio-concrete can be put to use in various industrial applications, forming the basis of a new carbon-removal economy.
Separately to this, SOM is also in the early stages of developing an outcome-based, net zero-carbon, retrofit protocol to create a whole life carbon accounting and design framework for existing buildings.
Sustainability Director & Climate Advocacy Lead, SOM