TEDxVancouver – Michael Green – Love, Laughter, Sushi: World Housing and Climate Change

I think I'm really wishing I play the banjo right now, but it's pretty amazing to be here at TED. I guess I'm the last. So, let's begin. About a month ago, I was tucking my kids into bed, and I asked them this question that's up here, "What's 3 things do all humans need in their life, every day?" And I'm kinda asking you to think about what you would answer to that question. But I guess, when I asked my kids — I am going to tell you what their answer was at the end of this, but when I asked my kids that question, I was really thinking in my own head what the answer, that I thought, was probably what they were gonna say. That's food, water, and shelter. Obviously, I am an architect. So, shelter is near and dear to my heart. But the more I started to think about that word — shelter, [the more] I realized that as an architect, I actually don't use that word day in and day out in my practice, in my day-to-day life. I talk about buildings and I talk about projects, but I don't really talk about shelter.

I guess the reason I don't talk about shelter is because for the most part, we all in the developed world, have the luxury of not actually having to think about these 3 things each morning when we wake up. We have that luxury of not having to think about shelter. I really have been reflecting a lot on that fact. As an architect, this is actually what I do. These are the buildings that my practice, MGB Architecture, built. These are just a few of them. But the way I think about the practice of architecture is a little bit like building one building at a time, designing, working on one building at a time. Each of the buildings that we do, I kind of feel like it's sort of like climbing a hill. With the big team of people we get together and have to climb this hill, and go through this long process of designing the building with engineers and other architects, with our client and a community. Each time that we climb those individual hills, we get to the top, and we finish the building and we all feel good. Hopefully, it's been responsible to the environment.

Hopefully, it's been responsible to our client's needs and the community's needs. We sort of look down on the hill that we've climbed. We feel good about ourselves. We feel good about that accomplishment. That's really been what my career, and the more of the career of many architects, is about. One hill at a time that we climb. There was a moment about 4 years ago. For me, that was really important. There was a moment when a really dear friend of mine tapped to me on the shoulder, and she said to me, "You know, Michael, it's really great that you've climbed that hill and had a successful building. Congratulations on that. But, have you ever turned around and looked at these mountain ranges that sort of lay ahead of you?" Mountain ranges that are unclimbed mountains. And these huge, huge mountain ranges, in my mind and her mind, at the time were these two things — world housing and climate change. The more I started to think about that, I realized these are really the problems that face architects today. This is the big problem to solve.

These two mountain ranges. The reality is that these two mountain ranges actually collide and they make an even bigger mountain range. The reality is that as we work hard to solve world housing, if we do it using the technology of building that we have today, the reality is that we're gonna accelerate climate change. So in other words, what's gonna happen is that we're gonna solve one human need and in turn actually make another, which obviously can't happen. So I'm gonna walk you through a bit of story about how these things relate to each other. Let me take you first through world housing. There is a staggering statistic that exists. We don't talk about it every day in our modern, popular culture. The staggering statistic that exists; and this comes from UN-Habitat — is that 3 billion people in the world are gonna need a new affordable home in the next 20 years.

3 billion people. That reflects the reality that, of course, world population is growing. It also reflects the reality that a billion people in the world today live in slums and urban environments. A 100 million people live homeless around the world today, effectively homeless. That is 3 Canadas of population that live homeless worldwide. Obviously, as an architect, we return to that issue of shelter, this is the problem that we need to solve. This is the focus that we should have throughout our profession. Because 3 billion people reflects 40% of the world. This is the biggest building problem in the world. This is a 100,000 new homes, each and every day that we need to build to be able to solve this incredible human need. Most of those homes, of course, are gonna exist in the developing world, but some here as well. The thing about it is in today's popular conversation that exists in architectural media and mainstream media, you hear a lot of conversation both about climate issues and housing issues. The kinds of solutions that are largely talked about are issues like modular homes and prefabricated homes, or stacking, shipping containers in interesting ways, or using wonderful materials like rammed earth or straw bale construction, to be able to kind of solve these issues about climate and housing.

But, the truth is that for the most part all of those types of solutions that we talk about in the main stream media are all rural, or at best, suburban type solutions. The reality is that today 50% of the world live in urban environments. In the next 40 years, what's gonna happen is that we'll see that rise to 70%. The vast majority of that rise in urbanization worldwide is gonna come from, is gonna happen in the developing world. So, it's a staggering reality that the kinds of solutions that we discuss day in and day out are actually not as applicable to the place of the majority of that 3 billion people that need a new affordable home, are actually gonna ultimately live. The split — in a way I like to sort of geographically think about it — is 85:15. 15% of the world's population live in the 35 most developed, highly developed countries in the world.

15% of that population. 85% live [in] effectively what we would call developing nations. So, the vast majority clearly live in these countries. We also know that of the 15% — that live in those richest countries of the world — they build the majority of buildings today. The amount of square meters per person, the amount of square feet per person, that's built for the 15% of the world's population, is enormous. If we were to build for the 3 billion people, the quantity of buildings and quantity of area that we build today already in this highly developed nations, we would be off the charts — that bottom gray bar, with the number of buildings we would ultimately build and the amount of the space we would ultimately build. Which obviously creates this question of how does that ultimately impact climate change. So, let me talk about that. Buldings represent enormous contributor to environmental impact in many different ways.

Obviously, when it comes to climate change, [it is] a huge contributor. When we talk about climate change, for the most part, it's the green house gas number — that is up there. I am showing a range, because it is really challenging in times to be statistically specific about some of these issues. But, roughly 20% of world CO2, that green house gas that we talk most about, comes from the building industry. So, buildings have a responsibility. That is huge and tackling. The reality of that is that energy, and the amount of energy to heat and cool homes, is a huge contributing factor. But, energy solutions are gonna vary as we look at the map of the world from region to region. Obviously, climate issues are completely different. How we solve an energy solution for a building in Canada is gonna be quite different than the middle of Australia where it's hot and dry. So, those solutions are gonna be more regional type solutions to this problem. But, the one thing that I think has become really interesting is that when you look at urban environments, for the most part, the solutions are common from city to city, from nation to nation, all around the world.

We build the same way, the structures of what we build are the same around the world. So, that's really become the focus of what I am interested in and talking about. Two materials we build with today in all these urban environments, for the most part, are steel and concrete, and concrete masonry. We build with a few others, brick and so forth. For the most part, these are our dominant materials. In the developing world the dominant material in urban environment is certainly concrete. There's a whole conversation to be had about what that means as far as safety and natural disasters, and so forth. I'm not gonna go into that. I'm gonna stay away from that conversation today. But what I want to talk about is really the impact on the environment of these two materials, and the way that we need to begin to think about them. Concrete, this is an incredible thing to kind of get our heads around this — After water, concrete is the largest material man makes by volume on Earth.

It is a staggering amount of concrete we make each year. It is roughly 3 tons of concrete per person on Earth are made every single year. That's obviously for infrastructure and for buildings. The making of concrete is extremely energy intensive. Moving it and so forth, it's very heavy. It's very carbon intensive. And, the best way to describe where it sort of stacks up in the world of carbon, which is our dominant climate change discussion, is to kind of look at what its impacts, relative to other industries are. So, the airline industry, we talk about all the time. It's always coming up, it's roughly 1 percent of world carbon comes from the airline industry. This is one of the most common discussions you see in a mainstream media. The shipping industry is 3% of world carbon. That's a staggering amount of 15% of the world carbon is actually related to all transportation, but shipping itself is 3 percent. What's really staggering is this reality that 5 to 8 percent of world carbon comes from concrete alone.

It is an incredible carbon footprint. But we don't have a lot of alternatives. That's what I'm gonna go into. Steel, which we don't see as much of, is little bit better from a carbon footprint point of view, but is actually more demanding from an energy point of view. Steel, in a production of iron, about 4% of world energy goes into the making of that material alone. So, really, obviously, the question becomes what are our alternatives. And any alternative that we think about, ultimately has to do the two things that we always have to do when we're talking about tackling climate change and carbon. We need to reduce our emissions. We need to find ways to store carbon. Those are our two options to be really able to tackle the issues. In the building industry, there [are] only really a few materials that do that. And, this is it. Wood does both those two things.

Wood is a material that is grown by the sun, and uses the energy of the sun, while a tree is growing it's putting oxygen into the system, it's extracting carbon from the system. When a tree falls to the forest floor, and rots or burns in a fire, that carbon is given back to the atmosphere. But, when a tree is felled in the forest, taken and used in a building or in a piece of furniture somewhere, something, like that, what it does is — it actually holds on to the carbon for the life of that, whatever it has been built into. It holds onto the carbon in roughly this equation. For every cubic meter of wood that we use in a building, it stores about 1 ton of carbon. Whereas any other material choice we have in the building industry is actually contributing carbon, wood is something that extracts carbon. Way to sort of get your head around that is the average Canadian home made of wood basically storing 28 tons of carbon, which is about the equivalent to driving family car for 7 years. When we stack up wood, steel and concrete as our 3 options of what we could actually build with, and tackle this issue of what's gonna happen in urban environments in the future — from a green house gas point of view, from an energy point of view — really wood is our best choice.

But, there is a big but. For the most part, a huge contributor to climate change that we know has been deforestation for the last 50 years. Deforestation has happened primarily in the developing world around issues of clearing land to create higher value crops, or cutting down trees to use wood for fuel. Deforestation and subtraction of the forest that's been supplying the oxygen to the atmosphere has been a huge problem. Obviously, we don't want to cut down trees in that way and obviously we want to start thinking about how we can create a better and more sustainable forest management plan for the world. Roughly 10% of our world forests are actually reasonably well managed from the sustainability point of view. That can change by using wood in buildings in some of these developing nations, instead of burning it as fuel or clear-cutting it for a higher value crop. We can actually teach communities to build with the wood in new ways — to actually encourage them to consider wood as a renewable resource and renewable economic driver for their community.

That's an important part of our solution. The other challenge with wood is this reality that we build with wood basically the same way we have for 300 years or more. We really haven't innovated in wood. A long industrial revolution brought us steel and concrete, Largely we build with those materials without thinking as architects. We immediately jump in as those are easy solution. Wood is something that we really haven't innovated with, because the steel and concrete were able to allow us to build bigger buildings, longer bridges, and so forth. So, we haven't really thought about it as a material of great capacity. So, when we go back to those two mountain ranges that I talk about, world housing and climate change, what they create for us is a new challenge, a new opportunity. There really is gonna be driven by a new sense of innovation for us to start thinking about how we make a systemic change in a way we actually build in urban environments.

That's a hard thing to do when it comes from architects and engineers, who are largely driving practices with very small Mom-and-pop shop scale companies. It is hard for us to step way back and look at how we can contribute as individuals toward that large systemic change. But, we can. But, what we need is to kind of change the sense of ambition that we have about our opportunity and our role in society as architects and engineers. I think there is a really amazing thing that when you hand a small child — a group of wood blocks that likely the child is going to stack them up and see how high a building or how high an object that they can make. It is somehow innate to us to do that. Then, when you hand somebody a bunch of rocks, they are going to probably pile them up and see what they can make out of them. There's something ingrained in us as people that we are interested and curious in what we can do to build things.

Just the other day, this week, I actually came downstairs to find my son, Makalu, had built this tower in our house. He was proud of it and wanted his picture taken, [and] wanted him included in TED, by the way. (Laughter) So, but it is in us. It is in all of us to want to do that. But the strange and curious thing that's happened is really we've created all kinds of rules and regulations throughout the developed world to prevent our ability to actually innovate. I think it's a facinating thing that could be applied to many other industries, not just the building industry, but I use a few examples to describe what I mean by that. In British Columbia until two years ago, we were only allowed by the British Columbia Building Code to build wood buildings 4 storeys tall.

That was our limit. A lot of people worked really hard on trying to change the code, and ultimately did. Now we are allowed to build wood buildings that are 6 storeys tall. Now, the thing about it is that about the same time that was happening, changing our code, a good friend of mine, Andrew Waugh, from Waugh Thistleton in London, England, had already built a wood building that's 9 storeys tall. So, our code wasn't even keeping up with what was happening as common practice elsewhere. The really staggering thing, though, was that I was riding my bike with my son, Makalu, across Japan when the code change went through. Somebody from my office emailed me and told me the story. "Hey, 6 storey code is now passed in British Columbia. We can build taller wood buildings." And, I quickly emailed back that, that was great. On the other hand, I just walked out of the building that is roughly 19 storeys tall.

More importantly, that building was built 1400 years ago. It's made out of wood in a high earthquake zone and similar climate and it's still standing. It really begs the question: why have we created regulation that can't even keep up with what we were able to do 1400 years ago and how have we created systems over the last 100 years that for some strange reason completely stifle our ability to be innovative and solve real problems that we clearly have to solve? The other way, I kind of like to tell that story — is with this slide. I ask the question, especially to architects and engineers, "What would've happened if Cairo — it's said stone buildings in Cairo can only be 20 meters tall?" Obviously, we would have never had the Great pyramid. The Great pyramid stood as the tallest building on Earth for 5000 years. Until — What would've happened had Paris said, "You could only build a wrought-iron building 20 meters tall.

" Obviously we would never have had the Eiffel Tower. Our ability to dream big is a function of our ability to solve problems and to innovate. But when we create these glass ceilings for ourselves we no longer can think that way. And, we need to remove that. Currently, as far as I've been able to research, my friends have helped me research, the tallest wood building in the world — modern wood building in the world — is actually this one. It is in Russia. It was built by the gentleman here with the fur cap, oops, I am sending backwards. It is 13 storeys tall. There is a lot of funny stories to go with them as well. I welcome you to look it up on the Internet. But, the interesting story here clearly is if the fellow with the fur cap can manage to build a 13 storey wood building, surely architects and engineers around the world can jump on board and keep up.

It's an important story. And, the truth is people are keeping up. So, the fun thing that is starting to happen — you're gonna see more and more, I hope, we are trying to encourage more and more to happen is that different countries around the world, different architects, different clients, different engineers are starting to explore the possibility of how to build big wood buildings. Buildings that'll actually be able to address this human need in urban environments in a more sustainable way. That's happening in a kind of fun way. I think it's a little bit like the race for space, that's happening in the Space-X Prize. I think that spirit of competition that existed 100 years ago when the big towers were starting to pop-up in New York and different skylines around the world, which seem like follies. But, in the reality, those big towers and those big sort of gestures of what was possible, but dreaming big became a motivation for us to problem solve. A competition for us to problem solve. I think here in Canada, we should be part of the competition and that innovation should be something that we're excited about and we can chase more in a day-to-day lives. Because the solutions ultimately do exist already.

We really, actually know how to do many of these things. Yet, for some reason, we've forgotten that we know these things. FFTT, which stands for Finding the Forest Through the Trees is a system that we've designed. That's not glamourous. It's a way to build tall wood buildings really economically to be able to tackle exactly what I am talking about, "How do we build for that massive human need?" Many other systems like this are possible or are being explored, but we are not doing this fast enough. We are not investing in these kinds of investigations fast enough. Because ultimately what we realize is this is a bit of race. How do we get to that 3 billion people that need those houses — if we don't make a systemic change in a very fast way. The way that change is going to happen ultimately is because the reality is the big problems, also incredibly big opportunities.

The nation that leads this charge to chase those 100,000 new homes each and every day and chase them in these new systems is the nation that will ultimately win economically as well. The companies that do, the individuals that do will actually see that economic reward for doing something that ultimately many of us feel as an altruistic and meaningful gesture to fellow man. So, we started an organization called House The World, which is really an organization just to support and encourage doing just that. We set out some goals for ourselves of what that would be. But it's really about how to create carbon neutral structures. The first three goals are [realistic] and I think the second three goals are going to maybe take quite a long time, maybe a life time.

But, for the most part, we want to encourage that level of innovation. We have a huge incentive to contribute towards it. At the beginning of the conversation, I mentioned that I was tucking my kids into bed, and asked that question, "What 3 things does everybody on Earth need each day in their lives?" My daughter Elsa — there on the left — answered the question a little bit to my surprise, and, of course, proved me wrong once again as both my kids often do. And she answered food, water, just like I had originally. But, the third answer she said was — love. And, then, she chimed in, "And, of course, dad shelter can be number 4 if you really have to have shelter on the list." But, she's right. Right? That's really the right answer. I went around asking other people that question. I mentioned at the beginning that person that tapped me on the shoulder and said, "It's great you have climbed these hills and you've done these individual buildings, but what are you going to do about these massive mountain chains?" When I asked her the question, her answer was, "Love, laughter, sushi.

" (Laughter) I don't know what it means, but I thought it was funny. Thank you very much. (Applause).