Op-Ed: Forest Architecture: Designing Actionable Climate Solutions
How DIALOG and Community Forests International built one of Canada’s first forest carbon projects, combining architecture and forests for climate repair
The taller a forest grows, the more sunlight it collects. But not because it gets closer to the sun.
As the architecture of a forest climbs higher and higher, it grows more space for an increasing diversity of life, interconnection, and carbon storage.
Our tallest buildings could do the same.
Forests are the most powerful carbon capture ecosystems on the planet and that’s what brought our two organizations together more than a decade ago. DIALOG, a multidisciplinary design practice, was trying to move towards sustainability and offset the company’s unavoidable carbon emissions. Community Forests International, a nonprofit that helps people protect and restore forests for climate benefits, was trying to save a special community forest from being cut down. Together, we built one of the first forest carbon projects in Canada and successfully conserved a beautiful valley in southern New Brunswick for all the life and carbon it stores to this day.
Fast forward 10 years and this collaboration has now saved six vibrant forests on Canada’s East Coast. The forests all continue to thrive, collectively drawing down an additional 1,986.60 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year.
Buildings are the third largest source of emissions in Canada and account for 39% of energy-related carbon emissions globally – 11% from the raw materials and construction. While carbon offsetting can help counter unavoidable emissions, it’s the careful sourcing and use of materials that can be the first step in combating climate change.
Wood, the most versatile and beautiful building material, is itself 50% carbon. When we construct buildings that are carefully designed to stand for centuries, with wood sourced from forests that are respectfully protected to grow for centuries, we can combine architecture and forests in a way that stores more carbon for centuries.
That’s why DIALOG’s team of architects, structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers, interior designers, and landscape architects designed a prototype of a 105-storey, supertall, mixed-use building. An innovative combination of materials including wood, steel and concrete will maximize the use of sustainably harvested wood by volume. The result is a zero carbon high-rise designed to address increased density while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and generating its own energy.
It’s not just innovative concepts like this but direct action and accountability that will drive the architecture and design industry towards a more sustainable future. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) created the 2030 Commitment, an actionable climate strategy that gives the industry a set of standards and goals for reaching carbon neutrality in the built environment by 2030. DIALOG and another 1,200 architecture and design firms have already signed on to the commitment.
This is an important milestone for the industry, as design experts are taking on more responsibility and leadership in first reducing their climate impact and then offsetting the remaining unavoidable greenhouse gas emissions caused by the buildings we create. The tools provided to signatory firms aid in architects’ expertise in energy modeling and sustainable design, to help deliver lasting value to clients, and further the pledge to meaningfully improve the wellbeing of our communities and the environment we all share.
This commitment to communities, our climate, and our forests is vital in the movement for lasting climate solutions.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has mapped out multiple pathways to reverse planetary heating, with different combinations of environmental and technological transformation in each. And in every scenario, alongside drastic shifts away from fossil fuels toward clean energy, global forest protection and restoration remains central. In short, there is no pathway to meaningful climate safety now or in the future without thriving forests.
Unfortunately Canada’s managed forests—where we derive so much valuable building material—have actually been emitting more carbon than they absorb for decades. We have some of the most powerful climate protection technology already deployed out on the landscape, but instead of enhancing the carbon storage capacity of forests we’ve been undermining it through decades of intensive harvesting.
Today, the single biggest threat to carbon stored in Canada’s forests is human-caused climate change, putting us at risk of dangerous feedback loops. When forests degraded by overharvesting meet more frequent and intense climate disasters like wildfire, there is a risk that our greatest carbon sinks will instead become some of the largest sources of emissions.
Harvesting trees isn’t bad, but to protect and restore forests to their full potential as carbon storehouses we need to be far more respectful and climate conscious in how we care for forests in today’s new climate reality.
There are improved management pathways to optimize forestry practices for greater climate resilience and carbon drawdown, decreasing the risk of major disturbances like fire and increasing carbon sequestration in forests and the wood products they provide. The building sector has the unique opportunity to take a leadership role in making this critical transition to low-carbon, climate-focused forestry possible.
Solutions for a climate-stable future
The consequences of climate inaction are now here and intensifying. Homes, communities, and forests across the country are being destroyed by fires and floods linked to climate change.
The time for action is past, and the architecture sector has the opportunity and responsibility to play a more significant role in the global climate response now. Through climate-conscious and nature-inspired design, the significant emissions and ecological impact of buildings can be drastically reduced. Responsible material sourcing can ensure minimal harm to vital forest ecosystems—or better yet, can support climate-focused forestry approaches that actively improve resilience and carbon storage on the landscape
Combined with strategic offsetting initiatives that counterbalance the sometimes unavoidable carbon footprint of buildings, architecture companies can drive much needed support to safeguarding forests and communities against the increasing risk of climate disasters.
DIALOG recently redoubled commitments to this vision and joined a global movement of companies using business as a force for good by becoming a B Corp certified organization, striving for the highest standards of social and environmental responsibility, accountability, and transparency. Community Forests International is now expanding its forest protection and carbon program to over 80,000 small family forests across the Maritimes, and seeking more partners to help take this community- and livelihood-centered approach to a greater scale.
Architecture can continue to lead committed climate action and the urgent movement toward climate-focused forest care. The sector has the influence to inspire parallel industries like real estate, engineering and construction to support these same transformations—and it is the beneficial connection between all these spheres that offers us strength. Canada’s beautiful forests encompass half our country’s landscape. These vast forests that our towns and cities are constructed from, and that we are all surrounded by, can be restored as one the world’s most important climate safeguards. Forming the beneficial connections and partnerships to enable this is good work for designers.
Daimen Hardie is the Executive Director of Community Forests International, a non-profit that recently united over 75,000 acres of small family forests across New Brunswick and Nova Scotia into Canada’s first citizen-based carbon storage program. To learn more visit forestsinternational.org
Jim Anderson is an accomplished architect, Partner and Past Chair at DIALOG, an integrated design practice known for building spaces that support collaboration, community and connectivity. Visit https://dialogdesign.ca/.