Earth Day 50: Unusual Circumstances, Potential Opportunities

David Marks
April 22, 2020
Min Read
Earth Day 50: Unusual Circumstances, Potential Opportunities

Happy 50th Earth Day! There has never been a more urgent time to address the manmade environmental challenges that threaten human civilization and countless other species on this planet. In previous years, TEECOM has organized events in the Oakland community in which other AEC firms and community groups came together to plant trees or pick up trash. We’ve had some great events, one even including Aztec fire dancers.

Urban Releaf Founder Kemba Shakur, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, and David Marks at the 2018 Earth Day event. © Jan Faye Captures Moments

Obviously, we had to cancel the event we had planned for this year due to the pandemic and shelter-in-place. But the current circumstances perhaps point to much larger opportunities to be more sustainable.

TEECOMers picking up trash at the 2019 Earth Day event. © Jan Faye Captures Moments

We’ve been a California certified green business, and we started off this year determined to do more. We eliminated single-use plastic bottles, straws, and coffee stirrers from our offices. We resolved to start measuring our carbon footprint so we could work toward becoming carbon-neutral. During our spring Hack Week, the R&D team built “Dude, Where’s My Carbon,” so we could begin by calculating the carbon footprint of our personal commutes.

We’ve noted that for other businesses, airline travel accounts for the majority of the carbon footprint. In one of our projects, the Sustainability Pavilion for Expo 2020 Dubai, a very international project team has held itself to minimal air travel, conducting daily meetings through an open link to the construction trailer and having only one or two people travel for shop visits and material inspection reports, with everyone else participating virtually.

Sustainability Pavilion, Expo 2020 Dubai. Courtesy of Grimshaw Architects.

Then the world came to a totally unexpected circumstance in which we stopped almost all business travel and commuting due to the pandemic. When the pandemic comes to an end, much of this will resume. But we need to take that opportunity to redefine some norms, including our carbon expenditures. The Sustainability Pavilion experience and our extended remote working experience both demonstrate that much of the travel we have been accustomed to, whether it’s the daily commute or the flight halfway around the world, is not actually essential. What is essential, is that we take urgent action to address the climate crisis.

Many are realizing that while they miss interacting with co-workers in person, they wouldn’t mind working from home more often. If less commuting and business travel is more friendly to both the environment and people’s work-life balance, it’s an obvious move, especially when we have demonstrated project effectiveness through virtual means.
As an industry, we need to take this opportunity to change our default assumptions about when we need to meet in-person as a project team and take advantage of the tools and processes that allow for an almost entirely digital delivery model.

As technology engineering consultants, we have helped deliver some of the world’s most sustainable buildings. We don’t have the opportunity to design the building systems that consume the most energy, but we do have the opportunity to design the systems that enable remote collaboration. By supporting a reduction in travel, these systems can help make a major impact on an organization’s carbon footprint. In the conversations we have with our clients, we always ask questions to determine how technology can best support their organizational objectives. Increasingly, we believe remote working and sustainability will be part of those conversations.