Architecture Career Chat: Part 2
Updated: Jun 7
“In a way, a building is akin to an actual person. You have the skin, which is the facade. You have a skeletal system, which is the structure. And then you have everything that is constantly going in and out. There are a lot of nuts and bolts involved.”
This quote by Mr. Aditya Karmarkar epitomizes the beauty of a career in architecture. Like many jobs that involve working with people, architects encounter hundreds — yes, hundreds — of moving parts that must be taken into consideration to build an abode that is up to code. In the second and final installment of this two-part series, we’ll examine the reasons why architects choose to use certain materials and steer clear of others, as well as the ways in which governments at every level are actively incentivising sustainable building. I, for one, was fascinated by what I learned. Hopefully, you will be too!
A Future at Risk: Materials for the Present
We’ve heard before that not all building materials are at the top of their game. Some are flammable, while others are in limited supply. Some are intensive to extract, while others pose dangerous health risks. The role that building materials play in protecting or worsening our health in particular used to be put on the back burner far too frequently. It was only in recent decades that people began to link certain materials with lifelong respiratory issues or even terminal illnesses. Mr.Karmarkar told me that asbestos is just one of many similar materials:
Asbestos, back in the 1950s and 1960s, was ridiculously widely used. And purely from a standpoint of performance and the way it insulates, asbestos is phenomenal. It’s great. In the 70s and 80s, when people realized that asbestos is a heavy carcinogen, they finally started moving away from it.
Asbestos is especially common in homes that were built in the early or mid-1900s. If you live in an older home, it’s recommended that you hire a professional to test for asbestos. In doing so, you can actively protect yourself from a whole host of health complications while ridding your home of a substance that only becomes more harmful as it ages.
The list of unsustainable materials isn’t nearly over with asbestos, however. Copper is yet another well-known material that, according to Mr.Karmarkar, comes at a (literal) cost:
Copper is great for plumbing, but it’s getting more and more precious and expensive. We’re countering that with the use of PVC pipes. Renewability and recyclability of PVC has improved over time. It’s still not necessarily the most renewable material, but unlike copper, which is the finite and limited resource that it is, it offers a counterpoint.
That’s exactly what we need: a counterpoint. And sustainable materials, as you will soon learn, are a great option.
A Future at the Ready: Materials Meant to Last
When I asked Mr.Karmarkar which building materials are the most sustainable, his response was simple: renewable resources. “A lot of synthetic materials are relying heavily on resources that are destined to run out,” he said. Renewable resources, as implied in the name, do the opposite, making them a viable contender compared to more polluting (and less energy-efficient) alternatives. Mr.Karmarkar specifically highlighted ipe wood, also called the Brazilian walnut, for its durability and renewability, citing its concentrated location as its only drawback:
Ipe has been over extracted because it’s such an amazing construction material. But, there have been efforts made to grow ipe-like woods more sustainably and responsibly in other parts of the world. Rather than cutting rainforests in Brazil and shipping that wood over, people are now aiming to build out of local wooden resources. By sourcing your wood locally, there is a reduction in carbon because you’re not shipping it from thousands of miles away. The USGBC, which is the United States Green Building Council, incentivizes this by giving you a credit.
Despite that wood is a highly sustainable building material, architects must also consider the challenges that it — and all other renewable resources — poses. And despite that they may have far-fetched ideas or goals, architects are, according to Mr.Karmarkar, ultimately restricted by the laws of nature:
Collectively as a society, we have aspirations to build taller, to build bigger, and to build stronger. All of that needs to be balanced out with what is possible. You can’t build a skyscraper out of timber. There are physical limitations to what wood can do, and there’s also the fact that wood is a combustible material. Balancing life safety with the physical limitations of a building material is one of the biggest challenges we always face.
There it is again: balance. Much like life as a whole, architecture involves finding the sweet spot between sustainability and feasibility. The best part? The supposed “added costs” of sustainable development are next to nonexistent!
Construction Turned Cheap: Busting Myths About Costs
Prior to my interview with Mr.Karmarkar, I was convinced that sustainable materials come with an expensive price tag. However, I quickly learned that even though the initial costs associated with building sustainably may be anywhere from zero to ten percent greater than the costs of building conventionally, there are numerous federal and state grants, incentives, and other forms of assistance that encourage developers to follow the sustainable route. This means that even if architects specify that they want a building with Energy Star appliances, variable refrigerant flow systems, or even low-flow faucets, the added cost for the developer is none. None! Mr.Karmarkar explained to me how these incentives work, and why they’re currently on the rise:
Here, we have the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, or NYSERDA, a state agency that offers grants to developers to use sustainable technology. If someone tells you, “If you build a conventional building, it’s going to cost you $500 per square foot, but if you include green technology, it’s going to cost you $650 per square foot,” you may quickly choose the cheaper option. Agencies like NYSERDA and a lot of federal grants will offset that extra $150 per square foot that you would have to pay for the green technology. They may even say, “If you could build up to 100,000 square feet, now you can build up to 110,000 square feet because you’re building a building that’s more sustainable than what you were originally planning.” These are the sorts of incentives that drive the industry and collectively help shift the needle in the technology that gets implemented.
These monetary benefits do more than just excite developers, however. Architects too are fueled by the competition to create buildings that are officially deemed sustainable by the USGBC, and said competition comes with — you guessed it! — better buildings.
Abington House, an LEED Silver-Certified residential building located near New York City's High Line, is one of Mr.Karmarkar's many previous projects. Built entirely from the ground up in a span of less than three years, this masterpiece makes evident the beauty of brick — and the reality of the New York minute!
The Satisfaction of Sustainability
When I asked Mr.Karmarkar why he chose to pursue architecture, he highlighted the balance it offers between expressing an idea through art and realizing its practicality through science, between reveling in personal glory and maintaining environmental responsibility, between pushing limits and staying within a city’s context. Architecture, he said, brings with it a sense of universality and positivity that, when put together, lead to the most spectacular results:
The word “architect” comes from two Greek words: arch and tecton. An arch is the main or chief support. A tecton is a builder. Put them together and you get an architect, a person who is a visionary, a person who is a generalist, a person who has to know a little bit about everything. You need to have a pulse on technology, culture, arts, and everything else. It’s one of the few professions that’s very all-encompassing.
Architecture is about optimism. It is a projection of our collective aspirations. What you see in the built form, and what you see in terms of design, is the best of all of the abstract notions that a place where you live and work needs to be. To realize some of those abstractions and articulate them into the built form is really what architecture is about.
Though designing a structure and seeing it built in real time can take several years, Mr.Karmarkar believes that the end result is worth the wait. Having helped design several USGBC LEED-certified-gold buildings, he agrees that the satisfaction he gets from his work lies primarily in the intangible:
My favorite part of my job is the gratification that I get when I walk past one of my projects and realize that I have contributed to the built fabric of it. That gratification is the best reward. It goes beyond anything material or any form of recognition.
Mr.Karmarkar concluded by saying that “the enrichment of one’s intellect and academic pursuits often happens through dialogue.” Like him, I encourage you to keep questioning what eludes you, challenging what confuses you, and most importantly, speaking with others who are different from you. It is only through healthy discourse that we can take even the most grandiose ideas about how to improve the world around us and finally bring them to fruition. By understanding how society’s visionaries — architects included — are contributing to advancements in their fields, we can not only increase our awareness of the environmental challenges that plague our world, but also make informed decisions on how to lead our own lives.
In the end, we each have a carbon footprint that is continuing to grow. Perhaps through conversation, we can finally learn to control it.