“I think there’s a massive opportunity here because in our history of building, we have many examples of sustainable strategies that involve using local materials and local manufacturing methods, to build buildings that are durable, buildings that last.”
Alex Lukachko is a Principal at RDH Building Science Inc. and an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto’s John H Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. Alex is well known in Canada’s building industry as an important thought-leader in building science, zero-carbon building design, and climate change adaptation.
An architect by training, with degrees in both philosophy and architecture, from the University of Waterloo, Alex currently leads an interdisciplinary consulting team at RDH in Toronto that works on advanced, net-zero carbon buildings. Alex works with multi-disciplinary design teams, and industry stakeholders, for both new buildings and for deep-energy retrofits of existing buildings. This gives him a broad view of the industry, as well as the forces that need to be marshalled to significantly reduce building-related greenhouse gas emissions.
At the University of Toronto, Alex teaches Master’s of Architecture students about building performance, low-carbon design strategies and technologies, resilience, and long-term adaptation to climate change.
Outside of this work, Alex, his partner, and their three kids lead an active, cycling-intensive life in Toronto, investing a little extra carbon each year to spend time at the edge of the ocean in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
In our conversation, Alex talks about the rapid change that we face within the design and construction industry as we try to move the entire industry towards the goal of zero-carbon (and perhaps restorative construction) that we need to address the climate crisis. He talks about the challenges of designing buildings for the long-term, but he also talks about opportunities to help this effort if we look to the past.
We also talked about what gives Alex hope, and keeps him going when things look dark, and the advice he would offer listeners about what they can do to be part of making a difference in meeting the challenges of the Twenty First Century Imperative.
Alex Lukachko leads an interdisciplinary team at RDH Building Science Inc.; Photo by Nelson Mouellic/RDH.
Lessons Alex has Learned From His Work as a Building Science Specialist About How to Address the Key Issues of Climate change, and How to Adapt to It:
I think there are a few lessons I would mention. One, I’ve learned is that we’re not very good at planning for something that is outside of our immediate experience. I mean, we’re in the building industry: we are building buildings that we know are going to exist for decades, generations, perhaps centuries, but do we really have strategies for thinking about that? No, we don’t think about this it in a systematic way. This may have been fine in the past because we were dealing with traditional materials, similar programmes or uses, and a relatively static construction industry and climate. But now, all of these things are changing rapidly and we don’t really have the tool-set to think about what those long-term consequences are or how we should plan for them. So, that’s one lesson.
I guess, another lesson that I’ve learned, especially thinking about how we’re going to design to limit the impact of climate change and how we’re going to adapt to it, is that we’re not really limited by technology here. Buildings are not complicated things. I did a consulting project for the US Department of Energy, working with a different firm, Building Science Corporation…They had a contract with the US Department of Energy looking at advanced housing, and we studied side-by-side comparisons of different construction techniques, looking at high performance, housing, and measuring the energy use. And the end result was: if you built side-by-side identical houses on the same street, same climate, just using different technology, the significant difference was not in the technology. It was in the people! There would be a three to one difference in energy use that was related to different people’s behavior. And when we work to drive down the energy use of the building itself and all the components that are directly related to the building, it’s the people that are really left there. We’ve got a lot of technology that we can deploy in buildings. Buildings are not that sophisticated to begin with. We’re not really limited by that. We’re more limited by thinking about what we use these buildings for and how we use them.
And then just maybe the last thing that I would say as a lesson-learned, that has been kind of a continuous learning experience for me in my career, has been that if we want to deal with change in the design and construction industry, we have to look outside the industry. This is a very tradition-based industry and very inward-focused, but understanding things like the financial aspects of buildings, that’s a barrier. We could design a sustainable building using the available technology. We could know what that is. We could convince people that it’s the right thing, but if it doesn’t get funded properly, it doesn’t get done.
What Alex thinks are the best ways to drive large-scale change and large-scale action:
There are many efforts in this area, but I have a feeling that the best way to do this is through teaching.
Here’s the reason: In the short period of time that I’ve been involved in the design and construction industry, there has been a massive change in how we think about sustainable design. Just to establish that timeline here in the years 2000 to 2005 almost every new building started with a sustainability goal of some sort. And then very quickly since then, we have changed from talking about energy, to now talking about carbon. We’re talking about connecting our efforts with energy in buildings to the bigger picture, and it is now a much, a richer, and more specific, more globally connected conversation, and that now further changing the way that we design buildings. This is a change that started with the the first energy standards related to energy efficiency in buildings in 1975 on the tail end of the energy cost crisis. From there to today, that’s essentially within a lifetime, certainly, within a practitioner’s career. Today, we’re talking about building net zero carbon buildings, and working towards buildings that are restorative.
So, to connect this to this timeline to teaching, students that are in school right now need to be learning about how buildings will need to be, how they will need to perform, 15 years from now. 15 years from now, they’ll be key decision-makers. Maybe they’ll be principals of architecture firms. And if they join a practice today, they’re not going to learn the techniques that we need from common design and construction. They need to be thinking about the rest of their career, and we know that this connects to the critical period-of-time for action to limit global warming.
You and I don’t have the answers for those students because what we’re really talking about is a totally different way of building. It’s going to be a new architecture. We can frame the problem, provide the context, but the students will be the ones that need to develop the new solutions, the new architecture.
You were asking about driving large-scale change, and I started talking about teaching architecture students, but there’s one more connection there that I think is important. I think architects have an ability to picture the future. That’s part of what they’re trained to do: visualize the future and illustrate that for the rest of us. And so, that ability has a much larger scale impact because they’ll be able to show what that future could be like and motivate many others to build for it.
What Alex Sees as the Key Opportunities for Dealing with the Challenges and Impacts of Climate Change, and Potential for Adaptation:
Well, again, I see opportunities every day with buildings. I mean, we have to deal with the construction of new buildings, but I don’t actually think that we’re too limited in terms of technology and what we can do with new construction. But the existing building stock, that’s where we’re going to have to reduce emissions. We’re going to have to maintain that investment in carbon embodied in older buildings, rather than spending more carbon building new buildings. But the opportunities are in the decisions that we make about the repair, the maintenance, the upkeep of buildings on an almost daily basis. We see the built environment as being relatively permanent from our day-to-day experience, but in reality, it is constantly in change. So, if we could work with that long-term view and understand what we need to do to adapt buildings, there are opportunities all the time to make improvements slowly.
I think there’s a massive opportunity here, because in our history of buildings, we have many examples of sustainable strategies that involve local materials and local manufacturing methods, to build buildings that are durable, buildings that last. They may not have always been comfortable if you go back centuries. And certainly, people lived differently. We have higher expectations for buildings now, but we have a very rich history to draw on. In fact, if you take away the last 150 to 200 years where we’ve introduced industrialised materials we use, a different design approach, all fueled by energy, to achieve our performance expectations; if you take that out of the picture, we actually have a lot of what we need to build sustainably. We just have to look at the past, identify strategies from all around the world, all climate zones, and then bring those back into modern design. I think that’s the most promising part because as I said, buildings are themselves are not that complicated. We can learn from the past.
Who Alex thinks is Missing from the Discussion – People Who We Should be Paying More Attention To, or Have Roles Who Don’t Currently Have Roles in this Discussion?
We need an indigenous view of sustainability integrated into our thinking, and to me that connects very strongly to the past. Right? Learning lessons from sustainable modes of interacting, sustainable built environments in different… And we need these examples from all over the world. Literally every climate area in the world needs to hear or remember these lessons on how to live in a more connected and tied way to the environment itself. So, we need those voices. We need that experience, and we need it sooner than later.
What Keeps Alex Going And Gives Him Hope When Things Look Dark
It does seem pretty dark in day-to-day life…but hey, what gives me hope is watching students that I’m teaching tackle these problems because, first of all, they want to. They have that inner motivation to do it. They believe that their work can make a difference – as shocking as it is to learn about, for example, the global impacts of sea-level rise . That’s some pretty heavy content to work through to really understand the timeframe and what we’re up against, and in addition, to really understand the uncertainty the future holds. Tackling this is a major challenge and they absorbed it. They thought about it. They struggled with it in a few short weeks. And they’re now engaged in solving the problem. I don’t know that I could have done that. But they are tackling it right now, and that gives me a lot of hope!
What Alex thinks is the most important innovation or policy to implement to reduce carbon emissions
You can’t use fossil fuels in buildings. It’s a practical change to make. We got to do it! We know that it’s happening. People will argue about it, but within a decade, we can make this happen.
What Alex Asked of Listeners
I would like to ask people to pause and think back to your childhood connection with nature, with the outdoors, with the way that you observed things to work; and then to bring that awareness back into your daily life again. That gets lost. And we talk a lot about carbon. We talk about changes. We are immersed in the painfulness of dealing with climate change problems, but those earlier motivations, those basic motivations, we can be focused on our important connection to nature. That’s why we’re pushing for change and we should be recall this awareness back into our life. I think all of us can do that.
Alex’s Book Recommendation:
How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, by Stewart Brand. This book teaches about building changing in the long-term. It contains the type of thinking that we need as we thinking long-term about climate change adaptation. From Goodreads: “Buildings have often been studied whole in space, but never before have they been studied whole in time. How Buildings Learn is a masterful new synthesis that proposes that buildings adapt best when constantly refined and reshaped by their occupants, and that architects can mature from being artists of space to becoming artists of time. From the connected farmhouses of New England to I.M. Pei’s Media Lab, from “satisficing” to “form follows funding,” from the evolution of bungalows to the invention of Santa Fe Style, from Low Road military surplus buildings to a High Road English classic like Chatsworth—this is a far-ranging survey of unexplored essential territory.
How You Can Connect With Alex
- LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alexlukachko
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