The future of architecture and building with Kelly Alvarez Doran

August 15, 2023

In this conversation with Kelly Alvarez Doran, he speaks about how he came to focus on sustainability in architecture, the design work he did in Africa, the challenges to sustainability in North America posed by construction-industry habits, and how we can begin lowering the embodied carbon in our cities.

The Bentway’s Beyond Concrete summer season explores the urban ecosystem beneath the Gardiner Expressway, where human-made infrastructure intertwines with flora and fauna. The season reveals that the relationship between concrete and nature is complex and interconnected but that also, in the building of our cities, we need to think carefully about materials and their life cycles in order to ensure a sustainable future. In this story series, we’re hearing from experts who engage with these themes in their daily work and have unique perspectives.

Kelly Alvarez Doran is Senior Director of Performance and Provenance at MASS Design Group, a nonprofit architecture and design firm. He’s also a director of Ha\f Studio, which emerged from courses he taught at the University of Toronto. In this conversation, Doran speaks about how he came to focus on sustainability in architecture, the design work he did in Africa, the challenges to sustainability in North America posed by construction-industry habits, and how we can begin lowering the embodied carbon in our cities.

Listen to the conversation:

Brian Sholis (BS): I’d like to begin by asking you to recount the story of your “a-ha moment” when it comes to sustainable building practices, which I believe includes an email that you received from a building industry manufacturer.

Kelly Alvarez Doran (KAD): Well, I’d say, my a-ha moment is a conflation of about two or three events in my life between 2017 and 2019. The first was when working in Kigali in Rwanda with MASS Design Group, and the one project that really was my first jaw drop was the Ilima School, which is in the middle of Congo. It’s a project that is incredibly hard to get to and also a site that had to be completely sourced with the materials that were around it. So the bulk of the building, ninety-nine percent of its weight, is sourced within ten kilometers of the site. And it was the first time we looked at embodied carbon with some researchers, from MIT, and I did not know what that was. It was not part of my education as an architect.

And the school came out to be one twenty-eighth the global average of primary schools, which, for me, was shocking. Okay, wow. What does that mean? You know, the school that I went to, in Winnipeg, its footprint must be enormous compared to the one that we just built here in Congo. Why is that? And that led down a kind of a hole of investigation, you know, for a few years of really understanding the drivers of environmental impact in construction. As an architect, this is where my agency and my decisions have disproportionate impacts: on the environment and on the atmosphere.

And then, about a year and a half later, I found myself living in Copenhagen, where my wife’s job brought us. That summer a few things happened in the course of a week. The first was Greta [Thunberg], she gave this speech in Paris that, you might remember, she was visibly angry, she was really upset. I remember sitting there and being like, Wow. Why is she so upset and angered with this audience about the inaction that she’s seeing? Two, I had recently just had my first child. So I was beginning to really see the world differently, or on longer time horizons. And then later that week I got an email from my own association about, you know, “To meet the 2030 targets as an architect, here are the three ways to put more petrochemical foam into the walls of your building.” 

This, for me, was the breaking point. I understand why she’s so upset, because we’re stuck in a system that is basically instructing me, as an architect, to continue to practice in what I would say are ways that are completely not ethical or immoral. As architects in Canada, I would say we’re heavily engaged in the oil industry, whether we like it or not. That moment is what led to me really focusing on how I can help others learn the things that I’ve learned and help us all come to terms with the impact that we have as people in the construction industry. 

BS: Your mentioning of those projects in Africa is salient here because I think you then later became principal in the London office of MASS Design Group.

KAD: Yup.

BS: And I wonder if you can just elaborate further on the disconnect you saw, if any, between the building practices in those two places, between sub-Saharan Africa and the north and west. 
KAD: Absolutely. So, I trained in Western traditions as a Canadian architect. How I understood buildings to come together, you know, is basically specifying things largely out of catalogs and then aggregate them into a project on a building site. That really ill-prepared me to practice as an architect in Rwanda. For people who are not familiar with its location, it’s a country the size of The Netherlands, it’s right in the middle of the continent, it’s land-locked; its nearest ports are through Tanzania or through Uganda and Kenya. And it has an 18% import tax. So, to build there, you really have to figure out where you can get things.

Ilima Primary School, Tshuapa Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, completed 2015

So, my first lesson there was designing a hospital. I was drawing a big rectangle and saying, “This is a window.” And our construction manager, Bruce, said, “Kelly, you know, where do you think we’re going to get these windows from? They’re so big, they’d have to be tempered glass. That means they’d have to come from places like Dubai or India. Not only is that cost-prohibitive, but, like, you’ve been on that road to this hospital site before, in Munini, have you not?” “Yes.” “Well, how much of the glass do you think is going to make it all the way there without breaking?” I was like, “Oh, that’s a great point.”

Then we went and figured out, “OK, here’s the size of steel available. Here’s the size of glass available. Here’s the people that can make them.” It was a lesson of provenance, of understanding who and where things can be made. It really informed our practice at MASS and my understanding of architecture. 

Coming back to working in the UK and Canada, you realize how completely disconnected we are from that level of engagement of people and place. I think, by and large, the materials that we source in contemporary Canadian buildings, we’ve got really no sense of where they’re made. If we’re lucky, we work with local fabricators that are then taking that material and putting it together.

And I think that disconnection is really at the heart of the problem. We are no longer connected to the trades and the materials and the places that we source from—which, historically, architects had been. That was a key thing. You had to really understand where you were to make a building. A practice a hundred or 150 ago would look much more like my experience in Rwanda than it does Toronto today.

BS: At the MASS Design Group, you transitioned into a new role as Senior Director of Performance and Provenance. And I’m perhaps more interested in the word provenance in your title than I am in performance. I think there’s a more general understanding of what performance might mean in that context.

I know the word provenance from my background in contemporary art: it’s an artwork’s history of ownership, the chain of hands that it’s passed through. How do you define provenance both within the firm at MASS Design Group but then also more generally in your work and advocacy?

KAD: I think it’s the exact same definition. Like, the people and places of which a material’s sourcing, extraction, processing, manufacturing occurs. That’s the meaning of the word, and what it means for a piece of art, a bottle of wine, or a brick are all basically the same thing, right? Understanding that geography and that social and environmental impact along the way, and economic impact … trying to create transparency around that. We see this in food culture, clearly; in art this is critical; in wine it’s been there forever. It’s a lot easier to trace the provenance of your meal these days.

It’s really complicated at the scale of a building because of the hundreds and thousands of things that go into it. But we need to establish that level of transparency and trust to be able to be practicing ethically, I would say. There’s a move afoot, certainly in Europe and many countries now, a requirement to do environmental product declarations, that says, you know, “My materials contain this.” The kind of nutrition label of your material, so to speak. But absent from that is that social part of it, too, that labor component, which also needs to be thought about. The embodied labor of a material, and who made it, and were they paid fairly, and was there forced labor involved? These are the things that we need to begin to demand ourselves to investigate. By us asking them, they’re going to go off and ask those questions of their supply chains, so that makes sure that ultimately the buildings we build are responsible and just, both environmentally and socially.

I hope that the future of architecture and building looks a lot more like it did 150 years ago, when most of the material was being sourced within a region

BS: In responding to that question, you’ve spoken about “the industry,” you’ve said “we.” It sounds to me like that’s something that is such a large project that it needs to be collective. Are you aware of any movements toward creating materials databases, creating a shared pool or a shared repository of information about provenance?

KAD: Yes. My personal focus has been around getting embodied carbon literacy and then regulation in place. So, that’s the Half Studio I’ve been leading at the University of Toronto, helping to get this conversation started in the context of Canada and Toronto. The first step is literacy, right? Understanding what this is. The second step is then looking at what you’re doing. I would say the “we” of the construction industry, from the marketing team to the development team to the people who are financing new projects, to the design community—architects, engineers—to the builders, the contractors and their processes, and then ultimately to the manufacturing that feeds into those contractors. That whole cross-section needs to work together to begin to ask these questions, right?

I’d say embodied carbon is the door that opens other questions for me. There’s a few pieces of software that basically aggregate the data from manufacturing and show you, here are all the EPDs out there, and it’s really useful. The more manufacturers that undertake this, the kind of shopping list increases. So when you go shopping for insulation, you could say, “Oh, wow! I’ve never even heard of this company, and look at how low their embodied carbon is relative to the one I’m more familiar with.” I think that this aggregation of this data will also encourage manufacturing to look at their own processes, too. I don’t see this as leaving people out in the cold. This is how we all move together. 

And, again, I would hope that the future of architecture and building looks a lot more like it did 150 or a hundred years ago, where most of the weight of the material was being sourced within a region, and it was only the kind of specialty things that would have to come from further and further away.

These sectional diagrams indicate the percentage of project embodied carbon emissions below grade, showing the embodied carbon impact of foundations and underground parking. Courtesy Canadian Architect.

BS: Because this is a conversation for a series of programs called “Beyond Concrete,” I’d like to turn the conversation more specifically toward that material.

I think the public is realizing the environmental impact of our concrete use. But I don’t think people fully recognize how—and I think by that I mean where within a building—the majority of that concrete is used. The research studio you run at the University of Toronto, which you mentioned, is called the Ha/f Research Studio. It recently studied mid-rise residential buildings in this city. I wonder if you could just talk about what you discovered about that form and how embodied carbon—so much of it—ends up in those buildings.

KAD: Across Toronto right now, the majority of the embodied carbon of a project is in its concrete structure. In mid-rise and tall buildings, reinforced concrete is by default the main structural system that you’ll see in new construction here. And there’s a few reasons for that. We are very close to very high-quality cement in Ontario. The Niagara escarpment has among the best quality lime you can get in North America. That basically has made concrete king in this city. Toronto invented fly-form concrete. But we use it in ways that are beyond need, as well. 

So much of it’s happening below grade, below ground, right? 

The mid-rise and tall buildings across Toronto have very big basements, very big underground areas, primarily for parking, historically. This city, like many cities, has had parking minimums. It’s been an unintended kind of incentive to push buildings deep into the ground to accommodate underground parking. What this results in are between thirty to sixty percent of mid-rise and tall buildings’ emissions will be below ground, in underground parking because of just how concrete-intensive it is to dig a hole, to shore it, and then to retain that hole, and then to put the concrete for the parking. And then to have a transfer beam to then convert that parking space to the other use above it that has a kind of structural difference with it. So the entire ground floor of one of the condos you would walk into, more often than not, is all concrete just to mediate the fact that you’ve got parking below ground. They are, as I’ve said, the carbon icebergs of our cities.

BS: Can you take a moment to explain the term whole life carbon and how it’s different from simply measuring the materials that are used in a building? 

KAD: Absolutely. Whole life carbon is basically looking at the whole life cycle of any object. So, um, take your watch. The aluminum, the glass, the chips, the rare earth metals that are in it—all of the extraction and processing, you can quantify that in terms of global-warming potential, expressed as a carbon equivalent. You could look at its impact on water and on biodiversity, these are the things that go into this. That’s the up front emissions of it.

Concrete at Toronto condo construction site, April 26, 2021. Photo: UrbanToronto user AlbertC

And then you’d have the maintenance part. If you broke your screen, you’d have to replace it. That’s the embodied carbon. Then, there’s the operational, you know, emissions of that, which I’ve been trained to focus on. Every time you’re plugging your watch in, that’s taking power from the grid and putting it into your battery. The grid intensity of the electricity, that has a carbon footprint.

And then finally, end of life, what you do with it? Does it go to a landfill? Or do you take it back to the supplier to have it refurbished, where they’re gonna take it apart for its rare earth and the chips? All those points have certain impacts that you can measure. Carbon is one measurement of that lifecycle. And when you hear “embodied carbon,” it refers to all of the emissions of the material itself and then, when you marry the operational piece to it, that then is the whole life. And that is the, I think that’s where we really need to get to, not just in the construction industry but in society more broadly. That kind of transparency is where we need to get to quickly.

BS: It’s a recognition that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and you have to account for all three of those phases.

KAD: Exactly.

BS: I’m becoming increasingly aware that so much concrete and so many other building materials go to waste when buildings are knocked down for new developments. At one point you wrote, “We have more than enough floor area to go around, our challenge is figuring out how to redistribute what we’ve already built.” And so I wonder if you can talk about whether you’ve seen or been involved in any adaptive-reuse projects that meaningfully address that challenge.

KAD: Yeah. Absolutely. Between Canada and the United States, we have the biggest problem to solve. We are the highest emitters. Canada, among G-20 nations … we have the highest per-capita emissions and it has a lot to do with how we live and the built environment that we’ve created to support that lifestyle. Our houses are too big, they’re too far apart, right? And we’re heating them with gas. So, how do we change that? We have a lot of buildings we hardly use any of. The house my parents now live in, it’s way too big for them. It’s ten times per person the size of the house I currently live in in the UK.

Sustainability is no longer a useful word. We need to move toward sufficiency. What’s the bare minimum we need?

As a kind of opportunity for future thinking about how cities can grow in population but mitigate their footprint, it’s how do we subdivide the buildings we have? And give them other uses or accommodate more families into the area we have? The second piece is also the reuse of all the other kinds of building types. There’s a lot of work around, you know, the conversion of the historical. The Distillery District is a reuse project, so to speak. So that’s good.

Toronto’s municipal waste is dominated by construction waste. Because we have a propensity to demolish not deconstruct, and that demolition then goes into a truck and we currently ship that waste to a landfill in Michigan. What we ought to be doing is taking that building and taking it apart, stud by stud, taking out all the nails, and thinking about how we use that material again in the next building. We have more than enough material already extracted, already above the ground, in our buildings to accommodate far more people than they currently are. 

BS: Maybe then, as a final question, is changing legislation the strongest lever that we have to move us away from concrete usage in general and toward a lower embodied carbon city?

KAD: I think so. Maybe I’m naive to go to policy to create regulation to help drive the market. It’s a really good constraint, right? I definitely think the best projects I’ve been involved in have been the most constrained, like that Ilima project. And it’s not about just using less concrete. It’s about using less of everything, right? It’s a sufficiency mindset. Sustainability is no longer, in my mind, a useful word. We need [to move] toward sufficiency. What’s the bare minimum we need? In terms of building area—do we need a new building at all? Is there one that we could take over and repurpose to suit our needs? Are there materials that already exist before we need to source new materials? There’s enough concrete we could then crush and reconstitute in itself. We can recycle concrete. We can recycle glass. We know we can recycle steel and aluminum. We can recycle buildings. I think that that needs to be the first order.

I’m certainly not saying we need no concrete or no aluminum or no glass. We have plenty of buildings still to build and plenty of foundations to underpin. But, the volume at which we’re currently consuming needs to decrease radically.

For more on these topics, see also Ella Hough’s Beyond Concrete project The Benchway, which draws attention to the deconstruction movement as a way of counteracting the waste of the construction industry.