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Concrete Credentials: Transforming the Concrete Industry’s Response to the Climate Crisis

On the Season 4 premier of Concrete Credentials, Gregg Lewis is joined by guests Yasemin Kologlu and Eric Long from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The firm has been responsible for some of the most significant architectural and engineering achievements in modern history. In their conversation, Yasemin and Eric discuss the work they and their colleagues at SOM are doing to transform the industry’s response to the climate crisis. This discussion explores the growing role architects, engineers, and other industry professionals have in researching and executing on sustainability goals and initiatives in the construction industry.

Gregg Lewis:
Hello and welcome to today’s installment of Concrete Credentials. I’m Gregg Lewis, Chief Communications Officer with the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, and our guests today are Yasemin Kologlu and Eric Long from Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. SOM is committed to designing the future. The firm has been responsible for some of the most significant architectural and engineering achievements in modern history.

Yasemin Kologlu is a design principal with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. She’s a key force in the firm’s efforts to respond to the climate crisis. Kologlu has led projects across the globe pushing forth net-zero projects by utilizing a forward-thinking and holistic approach to her projects that integrates well-being, environmental design, and the latest material and building technologies.

Eric Long is a structural engineering partner with SOM. His broad project experience includes work in regions of high seismicity around the world at all scales. From tall towers to museums, embassies, retrofits, and works of art, eric is committed to elevating the meaningful contributions of his mentees and advancing the field of structural engineering through applied research. Yasemin and Eric, welcome to Concrete Credentials.

Eric Long: Thanks for having us, Gregg. It’s great to be here.

Yasemin Kologlu and Eric Long from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Yasemin Kologlu and Eric Long from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Gregg Lewis: Thank you for being here. And before diving in, we wanted to congratulate Yasemin on being selected to the 2023 Crain’s New York Business Notable Leaders in Sustainability, for your role, Yasemin, in leading SOM’s efforts to transform the building industry’s response to the climate crisis. What an incredible accomplishment. And Eric, you obviously have also devoted your career to devising technologically advanced and sustainability-driven structural systems. Can the two of you each take a turn and just share what inspired you to tackle sustainable design and the work that you do on a daily basis?

Eric Long: That’s a good lead in Gregg, and I think, when you look back to say what inspires us to do this, and for me, it’s really wanting to contribute to addressing one of the biggest challenges of our time, tackling this climate crisis and how as we as a designer of built environment can do so. And so, when we look at this, the built environment, we know that it’s quite significant contribution to the global carbon emissions, something on the order of 40%, and it calls us to respond in a significant way. Not just taking our next project and getting it 5% lower or 10% lower. How do we even go beyond that and think bigger? And we’re excited to share this inspiration of how to think bigger in our conversation today.

Yasemin Kologlu: Well firstly, it’s very humbling and it’s such an honor to receive such a recognition from our industry as part of the Crain’s leaders in sustainability, of course. And all of our efforts contribute to this, but particularly, projects like Urban Sequoia also contribute to this type of achievement too. And I do think that the role of architects, engineers is changing, and we have a much bigger role to play in the day-to-day profession that we do. And we are no longer just designers.

We are also researchers, we are conduits, we are like-minded individuals and humanists, advocates who are working together every day to try to make a change, as Eric said, to try to tackle maybe one of the biggest challenges of our time. And as building industry professionals, we have a great role to play in this. And I believe Urban Sequoia is a great example of this, that how we set higher ambitions for ourselves and how a building can get to absorb carbon, and how we can work with experts and like-minded individuals and the industry together to make something like this happen.

Gregg Lewis: There’s so much, at least from my perspective, there’s so much really, really good innovative work happening out there in the AEC world. But I commend the two of you, and not just the two of you obviously, but the whole of SOM because I think you’ve made efforts, clearly you’ve made efforts and continue to make efforts to move above and beyond and really think about this. My impression, anyway, is that there’s a real paradigm shift in the way that you’re approaching this, and it’s I think both critically important but also really, really refreshing.

You mentioned the Urban Sequoia project a couple of times, Yasemin. I’m interested in, as leaders in sustainable design, you spearheaded several impactful projects like Urban Sequoia. You’ve achieved net-zero carbon emissions in your operations in 2022. What advice do you have for those in the architecture and construction industries trying to tackle net-zero initiatives? Why don’t we start with you, Yasemin?

Yasemin Kologlu: Right. It’s a great question actually, and we would like to thank you for saying all those things and we would like to also think of ourselves as leaders in this space too. And that came with particularly setting ambitious goals for ourselves. So we actually have three goals that we work towards every day. One of them we achieved, but we still need to improve. So first one is net-zero operational carbon for our projects in 2030, net-zero whole life carbon for our projects in 2040, and finally, as you said, we became a net-zero business with reductions and offsets last year in 2022. And this was a big effort, and we make it sound easy, but it took a lot of effort from many individuals across the globe. And it was an effort led by our climate action group, which is basically champions from all disciplines at SOM across the globe who are advocates and want to make a difference, want to make a change in our industry.

So, we had to actually carefully understand and research how we get there. So it took educating ourselves first, then it took actually calculating our emissions carefully across the many offices that we have across the globe, and also then come up with strategies on how we can reduce our emissions. And the remaining that we couldn’t, then we went to removal offsets from credible institutions as well. And I think, it’s important for anyone who’s interested in this kind of approach where they’re trying to go to net-zero as a business for their operations., I think the first part to start is understanding where the impact potential is, and every business is slightly different.

For example, understanding what are the areas that we should target our reductions in so that we make the biggest impact as fast as possible? And our three biggest impacts were our travel, our utilities and supplies. And those three make about 75% of our emissions, so we targeted those particularly. But also, for every company this will look slightly different. So I would recommend that basically, learning about it as much as possible, making strong commitments about this, but also checking where the biggest impact can be made is a good strategy to start.

Eric Long: Yeah. To me, it’s about making sure you’re educating yourself. So much becomes from knowledge and education of, like Yasemin’s saying, what are the drivers? What is the single most biggest impact and what are the methods to address that? Travel is a big one for us, both our daily travel, commuting back and forth to the office, but also our travel to see projects and clients when the projects aren’t in our home cities. And I’ll say, lead by example. Yasemin and I are both leaders at SOM, and I walk into the office with my orange bicycle vest and my helmet on every day and say, “This is what we’re doing it. This is how we need to behave.”

Gregg Lewis: Hats off to both of you for your individual efforts obviously, and one or the other, you mentioned perhaps it sounds easy, but I think anybody who’s gotten into the trenches and tried to really tackle that issue, it’s an all encompassing effort, I believe. And for an organization the size of SOM, I think even more so that must be the case. But it’s incredible stuff the work that you’re doing.

In order to further sustainability initiatives, you both challenged traditional architectural designs. That’s part of what I meant when I was talking about paradigm shifts, and you’ve reimagined how buildings are constructed and how they operate. Recently, SOM launched Urban Sequoia that we’ve talked about a little bit here, a concept for buildings and their urban context to absorb carbon at an unprecedented rate. Can you share a little bit more on what inspired Urban Sequoia’s design and how the project operates?

Yasemin Kologlu: I think, probably, many of us know on this call that 40% of the global carbon emissions come from buildings. So that’s a huge factor. So can you imagine, I mean, it’s almost half of our global emissions come from buildings. That’s a daunting figure, in a way. And we know that, so knowing that figure, it’s significant, and we are working every day in the building industry. So we asked ourselves, “Can we think of a world where buildings are no longer emitting and they’re no longer contributing to this issue? Instead, can they actually become part of the solution? Can we design buildings that absorb carbon from the air to enable that?” So, this was no longer for us, and every day, we work very hard to get to zero, and we have many projects we’re working on that are trying to achieve net-zero.

But can we ask ourselves, “Can we go beyond that? How do we get buildings to absorb carbon from the atmosphere?” So we turn first to radical reduction, and radical reduction in structure and systems, and Eric will talk a little bit more about that. And then, coupling that with technology and nature-based solutions. So we looked, in essence, we looked at a design, a building that could act as a full ecosystem, where every part is serving more than a singular purpose. So for example, a structure that is also the ceiling, a floor that is also the MEP system, a cord that breathes air, a facade that is regenerative.

So, in a way, tackling it as an ecosystem, as a holistic system, and using building science in it was quite important. So we then couple this approach with biomaterials such as bio block, nature-based solutions, and new carbon technology such as direct air carbon capture, for example, to enable us to create this ecosystem that I’m talking about. And what this exercise showed us that we’re not far from this, we can actually make this happen. And it was an incredible discovery, in a way, to see that the buildings that we designed today can actually absorb 300% more carbon than a traditional building would emit today. I mean, let’s just think about that for a sec. Isn’t that incredible if we could actually do this in many buildings?

Eric Long: It’s interesting to think about our buildings becoming like a forest, cleaning the air and contributing to the solution rather than the issue. So we think about this Urban Sequoia now and this density of how these buildings contribute that way in a city, we naturally think about a tall building, and not just tackling this at a low rise scale, but how do we attack this at all scales in including the tall building? So what materials, construction process, etc. do we need to drive the embodied carbon ultra low, day one, so that when you add in these carbon capturing technologies that Yasemin’s talking about, you have an opportunity to get to net negative soon into the building’s life?

So, now, let’s talk about this ultra low embodied carbon for a second. And in a tall building, we’re going to look to concrete, naturally, as a structural material for a tall building. And what are the biggest drivers in concrete quantity in a tall building? Well, the floor systems. The floor systems and create a slab is a huge contributor, a lion’s share of the concrete volume in the tall building. So we set up a vaulted slab construction where the slab is actually in a vault or shell-like, where it could be ultra-thin and reduce the total volume of concrete needed to span between supports. But how do we even take that further? Okay, we got a nice thin slab in an arch and in a vault, but what is the mix? What is the type of concrete? And if we look to alternative cements other than Portland cement, what are the issues behind those types of mixes?

Cure time is a typical thing that comes up, both in those mixes and in tall building constructions. We want something that can go floor to floor in a very quick way, and so we look to an opportunity to use precast, to cast these shell vault-like slabs in segments that they could be precast so that we can allow all the cure time we need in a yard somewhere, right? And then quickly erect them inside and then a cast in place topping to lock them all together.

And they’re, Yasemin’s talking about utilizing things for more than one purpose, and then those vault shells are really like form work almost, right? That support the topping as a locking mechanism, those precast vaults become the exposed ceiling, they even become thermal mass for the MEP that runs in the floor. That’s the way we want to approach it. If we look at both radical material reduction and then what is that material, together, we can get to something where embodied carbon is, say, 70% lower than a conventional building. And that’s where we really get excited.

Gregg Lewis: The problem cannot be solved without solving the problems that we face with embodied energy needed to produce concrete, and I’m excited as an industry professional and as an architect to see all of the innovation that’s happening in the concrete sector. Of course, you both know concrete is one of the most resilient building materials on the market, incredibly long lifecycle that equates to fewer maintenance costs, higher energy efficiency in many cases, and lower greenhouse gas emissions over the long term. Additionally, different types of concrete such as high performance graphene and carbon capture concrete are already lowering environmental impact. When selecting building materials to use for your projects, what are the criteria that you consider?

Eric Long: An important question, Gregg, and I… Let’s start with two things. Performance and cost. And performance could be judged in things like strength, modulus, durability and evaluate performance metrics. And cost, we need to think about it, of course, in dollars, but also cost in carbon. And think about the word cost in both that way, dollars and carbon. And then, if we put to on the table for us as designers, here is some performance and the metrics of performance, here’s cost in dollars, here’s cost in carbon, and we’re transparent and align those three metrics for any material choice, then we have a good basis for a collective decision making amongst a designer, contractor and owner to make those decisions.

Yasemin Kologlu: And to add to what Eric is saying, you will note that in our design for Urban Sequoia, we actually designed the system, the main structural system with concrete. Yes, it is a low carbon concrete system, but that was a conscious decision too and that was not an easy one. We did not make that decision quickly. We looked at many, many different factors. We looked at many different materials, from steel to concrete to timber to others that are coming to market recently. And some of the main factors we consider were actually aesthetics, longevity like you brought up, durability of it. Non-combustibility was another one. For example, we can build timber buildings up to certain heights in many jurisdictions, but our codes today often limit how high we can go with them, for example. Acoustics, and of course, embodied carbon was a key aspect as well.

So, while we chose concrete in the scenario, we designed a system that dramatically reduces embodied carbon emissions and quantity of it used. But also, we looked at things like cement replacement in it. We looked at carbon capture like carbon cure, we looked at basalt rebars in this and many other concrete technologies, innovative concrete technologies. So, maybe, I want to, maybe it’s a good moment to put a message out there to our audience, too, is that we don’t think concrete is dead. We think it’s still very much here and it’s still very much going to be here.

And I think for those of us who are working also on similar efforts of carbon reduction in concrete, in ready mix concrete, we would like to speak to them and continue this kind of collaboration where our efforts can support each other and make this kind of research and this kind of designs a reality in the near future.

Gregg Lewis: It reminds me, Yasemin, a conversation and I had several, I guess it may be several weeks, maybe a month or more ago now, about your desire, SOM’s desire to work more closely with the concrete industry to try to solve these problems. And I think, obviously our listeners can’t see you both nodding, but I can, and I find it encouraging to know that there are thought leaders, there are folks that are innovating in this space that understand the importance of working together, industry and design and construction folks all at the table to try to solve these problems, because even the smartest of us are not going to go into a room and sit down and solve this issue or these issues.

And so, your desire to do that and to collaborate, I think is again, points toward, I think, a very optimistic outlook, at least from where I sit. As recognized leaders in sustainable design and construction, at SOM, you continue to lead the design industry to respond to impending climate crisis. That’s clearly a big focus there. As you go down this road, where do you receive pushback for these efforts? And when you do, how do you move past those to get to where you’re trying to get in achieving your aims?

Eric Long: Hey Gregg, it’s another great question about what are the hurdles? And one of the things that we like to frame this in a way that it’s really risk management, and I’ll say that risk is a perceived risk, or what is some someone’s perception of that risk? So, for example, a contractor, maybe when we’re trying to do something new, is it about material sourcing? Where am I going to get the material from? Do I have multiple sources, multiple competitors, or is there something different about a construction process that is new and that could be perceived as a risk?

Or a building official could say, “Well, is there a precedent for that? Is there appropriate testing? Is there appropriate certifications?” Or a client could have a perceived risk about volatility in a market, maybe cost or performance track record over time. These are all risks that each of us have as we’re approaching it from our angle. And as we were just talking about, we all got to come at this together, so let’s identify our perceived risks and systematically address them one by one, and that’s the way to knock over those hurdles.

Yasemin Kologlu: And I would also say that, yes, there are still some hurdles, but our industry is also changing very rapidly and we’re adopting new methods very systematically, and there are incredible opportunities that, in our sector today, both for design and construction, so we should also think about opportunities in this hurdle conversation too, I feel like. And I think there’s four key drivers that give me a lot of hope in this. The first one is projects like Urban Sequoia, right? So just being able to say that I think we can do this, it’s a great push. The second one is the sticks and carrots, or push and pull, however we want to call it. We are seeing that there’s stronger than ever green policies and incentives happening. So there’s a lot of policy changes, there’s a lot of incentivization around sustainable practices and embodied carbon, and new materials is key part of that. And there’s also pushing and pulling towards a green future here.

And the third one is we are seeing more and more sustainable funding that is growing so rapidly. And we’re not talking about incremental like 10%, 20%, 30% investments. We’re talking about several folds every few years. This is incredible, and it’s the fastest, one of the fastest growing funding mechanisms ever. And finally, what gives me hope is also the market demand. Research shows that basically there is a rapidly growing market demand of users who are seeking for more sustainable buildings, more sustainable structures, but also Generation Z for example, gives me hope because they have a very clear preference.

Research shows that 92% of Gen Z, who was interviewed for this research, said that they will switch to a higher ESG focused provider than one that might not focus on it. 92%. It’s almost the whole group. These are the opportunities that gets us excited every day too. So we’re trying to effectively push, like some of your members, we’re trying to effectively push every day in our work, and try to also mobilize and capitalize on some of these positives, key drivers that we are seeing in the industry.

Gregg Lewis: I’m glad you talked about it in terms of hope or hopefulness because I think, right now, where we are in this trajectory, it gives me a lot of hope, and I see a tremendous amount of effort on all fronts try to tackle these issues. You both know successful sustainable design weaves innovation and technology together to optimize efficiencies, right? But how do you predict the field of sustainable design transforming in the next decade given these interactions?

Yasemin Kologlu: Maybe I can refer here to the Net Zero by 2050 report published by the International Energy Agency, for example. So this report outlines have existing technologies and those that are under development today will shape our net-zero future. And the report clearly states that the path to zero is very narrow and deep emissions cuts hinge on unprecedented green technology push in this decade. So the decade that we are in is incredibly important here, and it requires immediate and mass deployment of some of these technologies that exist today. But also, it suggests that we need to make huge leaps in green innovation in the future. And it suggests that 50% of future carbon savings to get to net-zero will come from technologies that are under development today. And this goes everything. It’s not just building systems, it’s also materials too. And I suspect many of your members here, just like us, are also looking at some of these technologies, these advancements, these materials too.

And finally, the report also makes a call to action for us that we have to make the 2020s, we are three years into it already, a decade of massive clean energy and green innovation. So, what is our role here as designers, as building professionals, as material producers? We have a great role to play here, and we try to do projects like Urban Sequoia, and we know that manufacturers are also working on systems and technologies that push this effectively too. So we have to work together with experts, with manufacturers, with designers and engineers, to make sure that we can make projects like this a reality, to create examples and new precedents that showcase how we get there.

Gregg Lewis: How would you respond to that, Eric?

Eric Long:
I like to think of that, as Yasemin is talking about this rapid deployment of new green technologies, and a particular interest in the technology to me is on the material side of it. What are the new materials that we have in our toolkit as designers? And as these new materials come out and are being developed, how can we employ them as maybe originally designed, but also as a designer, maybe think about other ways that we could use the material, perhaps taking even further or a different application.

And so this kind of brings back that continual loop that they were talking about of feedback, like, “Okay, here’s a new material, here’s how I might do it.” Or, “I need a material to do this, or these are my hurdle. Can you, researcher, help me design a new material that does X, Y or Z?” And if we have that circular conversation, that circular loop around this invention of new materials, I think we can go further than, like you were saying Gregg, any one of us solo in a room. So particularly in the concrete industry around mixed designs, it’s ripe for this.

Gregg Lewis: It’s interesting to hear you use the term circularity in that way. It’s not typically, at least I don’t hear it talked about in terms of the design and refinement process in material use, right? It’s looked at, at least I think historically, more as a circularity in the life cycle of a given product or what have you. So, that was interesting to hear you frame it that way. The themes here to me are very exciting, and having a couple of leaders like yourselves on here talking about these things, I could spend a lot more time and have lots more questions than we really have time to dig into unfortunately.
And so, I’m going to put you both on the spot to a certain extent and find out from each of you, if you were to leave our audience with one thing to help guide their efforts toward these aims of long-term sustainability and reduced climate impacts of the work that we do, what would that message be? And I’ll let you all decide who wants to jump into that first. But no saying, “I’m going to say what she said. I’m going to say what he said.” And so, have at it.

Eric Long: All right, we’ll make sure we’re different. Go ahead, Yasemine. Why don’t you go first? I’ll make sure mine’s different.

Yasemin Kologlu: Yeah, I’ll give you some time to think about it, Eric. So, I mean, well, I think this is, we know that, I don’t want to sugarcoat this issue we have with climate change, right? And it’s a hard journey, and unfortunately, there’s not a silver bullet. I wish there was one, we could have all done it and called it today. We’re all good. So, but that also means that we have to keep hope and optimism here, and that also means that we all have a role to play here. So, I think that with collaboration together, working tightly together, trusting, keeping an open mind about things and innovating together, I think our industry’s moving quickly and I would love to see more of that.

And as I mentioned, I think concrete is here to stay, for example. And for those of us, on this, who are listening to us, that are working on low concrete carbon or innovative technologies in this realm, we said many times, collaboration here, I want to reiterate that one more time. Please reach out to us. This takes all of us, and we have to work collectively to get there.

Eric Long: Us in the AEC industry, we are all experts in our own craft. My takeaway or my summary is to innovate your craft. Look at your craft and think about it, how do I innovate? And it will tie it a little bit back to Yasemin’s comment that if we innovate together and bring our expertise together, we could do more to address the challenge of climate crisis.

Gregg Lewis: Yasemin and Eric, we are truly inspired. I am truly inspired by your work to reimagine sustainable design. It’s incredibly important work. Thank you for doing it, and thank you for joining us for such an insightful conversation. Hopefully we can have you on a future episode of the podcast.

Yasemin Kologlu: Thank you, Gregg. It’s great to be here, and thank you Concrete Credentials.

Eric Long: Yeah, thanks Gregg. Great conversation.

Gregg Lewis: We’d also like to take this opportunity to thank our Concrete Credentials podcast listeners. Please remember to subscribe to Concrete Credentials, which is available wherever you get your podcasts. We also strongly encourage your participation in this important conversation. Please reach out to us with your thoughts and feedback as well as your suggestions for future content by emailing [email protected]g. Thank you and see you in a couple of weeks.