Architecture Career Chat: Part 1
Updated: Jun 7
We live in a world of buildings. Skyscrapers tower the urban skyline, while offices, schools, malls, and a whole host of other structures scatter an endless expanse of suburbia. In an era when the number of buildings that overpopulate our landscape is becoming increasingly noteworthy, it’s imperative that we look at the role that architects in particular play in designing structures that minimize carbon emissions while maximizing productivity. To learn more about the ways in which sustainability intersects with architecture, as well as some of the advancements that are occurring in the field, I spoke with New-York-based architect Aditya Karmarkar. In the first installment of this two-part series, we’ll take a closer look at Mr.Karmarkar’s insight into just what architects do, as well as how each of their choices can dramatically impact a building’s life cycle. In the process, I hope that you too will open your eyes to the creative collaboration, the intellectual stimulation, and of course, the undying optimism that society’s designers celebrate.
A Day in the Life of an Architect
Before getting into the nitty gritty of the not-so-hidden environmentalism in architecture, I decided to learn more about what exactly an architect’s job entails. In my mind, I had envisioned hours of being holed up in a dimly-lit cubicle, pencil in hand, endlessly sketching and erasing blueprints of looming skyscrapers or corner cafes. However, when Mr.Karmarkar told me about what a typical day looks like for him, I realized that my preconceived notions were far from correct:
There’s a lot of brainstorming that goes on internally among the team members within my own architect circle. The senior folks — and I would like to think of myself as a senior person at this point — do some of the generalized overview. Especially in New York City, or any city in an urban environment as dense as New York, there are a lot of regulations [like zoning parameters] that need to be complied with. A large part of our day is just sifting through all of those things. We also have coordination calls and meetings with our consulting engineers. On top of this, there’s the very important client aspect, because ultimately our job is to offer a service that meets the needs of the client. All of these things have to be considered. It’s a balancing act.
Mr.Karmarkar told me that many passersby often instantly associate famous structures with a single (and usually highly esteemed) mastermind, such as Frank Lloyd Wright or Louis Isadore Kahn. While these architects are certainly well-known for their works, and understandably so, he highlighted that even a task as seemingly simple as designing a building requires an entire army of people. And while the more superficial elements of a building, such as the motif on a door or the style of an arch, can often be credited to one person, Mr.Karmarkar maintains that architecture really does involve a healthy mix of individuality and teamwork:
Yes, you have an author with a vision of what he wants the building to be, but through the iterative design process there is such immense collaboration that ultimately the building is the brainchild of not just one single author but rather a group of people: designers, engineers, everyone that is pitching in to help inform each design maneuver. It’s hard to say that a building has been thoroughly designed by a single person, because that’s never the reality.
As Mr. Karmarkar told me, “There’s this energy that you feed from when you see another person draw and sketch.” Architects thrive on this energy.
This residential condo building located near New York City's High Line was made possible largely due to a collaboration between Mr.Karmarkar's office and well-known architect Zaha Hadid. Mr.Karmarkar was the project manager of the architectural side of construction. The building opened in 2017.
Where Embodied Energy Meets Eco-Friendly
Sustainability is becoming an increasingly important component of architecture, especially because buildings make a noteworthy contribution — almost 40%, to be precise — to over-carbonization. With our planet’s exponentially growing population only comes demands for more construction, which, as stated by Mr.Karmarkar, “must be at a pace where the whole planet can sustain it.” When I asked Mr.Karmarkar about the steps that architects must take to minimize their buildings’ environmental impact, he emphasized that their work all starts with the extraction of the materials themselves:
Within the internal walls of a building will oftentimes be sheetrock. Sheetrock is held together by aluminum. When you think about how this factors into what you’re doing, you have to go all the way back to the extraction process of the aluminum. When you extract aluminum, you lose a certain amount of nonrenewable energy. The aluminum needs to then actually go through an industry or manufacturing unit, where it can be primed and made ready for use. That’s another chunk of energy that’s never coming back, that you’re emitting into the environment. That aluminum that you’re using for the framing of your walls is going to be needed all over the place, so you have to consider the transportation aspect as well.
We’re increasingly considering materials that have a very low embodied energy. For instance, steel inherently is a very tensile material, but it’s also very energy-intensive to extract. Now, the industry is shifting toward CLT, cross-laminated timber. This is a renewable resource that is abundantly available, compressed at very high temperatures, and combined with sustainable adhesives to create something that offers close to (if not the same) level of tensile strength as does steel. From step one, your embodied energy output diminishes by nearly 80%. That’s a huge impact.
A huge impact, indeed.
Heating, Cooling, and Air 101
Considering the embodied energy of materials is certainly an essential part of an architect’s job, but the mechanical systems that actually keep a building running are equally important. Our buildings need temperature systems that not only keep us from sweating profusely in the summer and shivering uncontrollably in the winter, but that also maximize their efficiency. While more dated or traditional systems, such as boilers, are infamous for rapidly depleting entire scores of fossil fuels, newer and more energy-conscious technologies such as the VRF (variable refrigerant flow) system are able to both heat and cool with limited fossil fuel dependence. And perhaps even more energy-efficient, according to Mr.Karmarkar, are geothermal piles, which in recent decades have become widely used to harness earth’s inner heat to power entire skyscrapers:
A geothermal pile is a really, really long needle that you drill deep down into the soil to extract geothermal heat. You’re essentially relaying the heat from underneath the earth’s crust back to the building to offset some of the heating requirements for which you otherwise depend on fossil fuels. This technology is rapidly advancing, so it could potentially be the next frontier.
Pretty neat, right? But temperature isn’t the only facet of the air that matters — quality does too! Mr.Karmarkar told me that many advancements have been made to prevent people from developing sick building syndrome, which can occur if people spend too long in buildings with damaging particles in the air. Such advancements include installing filters that rid the air of carcinogenic toxins, bacteria, and other pollutants. Having previously associated architects with designing the exterior of a building rather than the nooks and crannies of its interior, I was surprised to learn that architects deal with features as concealed as air-quality. “Ultimately, it’s all about the life cycle of the building,” Mr.Karmarkar said. And in a world where urbanization is only on the rise, each building’s global footprint — both inside and out — matters more than ever before.
So yes, architects definitely have a lot (and I mean, a LOT) on their minds when designing a building that’s sustainable yet snazzy. Simply put by Mr.Karmarkar,
As architects, we are generalists. Our specialization is in generalization, if that makes sense. Our work involves not just conveying design ideas, but bringing them to life.
That’s right. Life. From structural systems to superficial shimmer, and from life safety to fire resistance, every factor ultimately forms one piece of the complex puzzle that encompasses a complete building. Next time, we’ll examine the actual materials that architects view as particularly long-lasting or short-lived, as well as the potential costs that may come with choosing to take the eco-friendly route. If you’re like me, you might just be surprised to learn that those costs are far from what they seem.