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Image de Scott Webb

(Un)desirable futures

5' read - published January 25th, 2023

When the Impala team had to decide whether or not to approve the publication of projects like The Line - a 170km long building that serves as an entire city - in Saudi Arabia, the 3m2 Goshiwon apartments in Korea or Homed, low cost shelters fo the homeless in Canada, we faced the question of (un)desirable futures. Should an idea that we consider negative for the future be published on the platform? Why do we judge it as undesirable? And by the way, what is a desirable future?

To define what a desirable future is, these three questions can be a guideline: 

  • what futures do we want? 

  • where are the current trends leading us? 

  • how can we transform ourselves towards a desirable future? [i]

The future we want is that of a just society, in a finite world. This challenges the real estate business, which until now has had two objectives: To provide access to quality buildings, under realistic economic conditions for all stakeholders (a just society). A third dimension must now be taken into consideration: Limiting the environmental impact of projects (in a finite world). [ii]

Where are the current trends leading us?

The latest IPCC report breaks down the current trends, and suggests ways to minimize the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) that are due to buildings around the world. According to this publication, in 2019 buildings were responsible for 21% of GHG. [iii]

These emissions were mainly driven by the five following factors:  

  • Population growth, especially in developing countries;

  • The increase in floor area per capita, driven by the increase in the size of dwellings compared to the size of households, especially in developed countries;

  • The inefficiency of new buildings, especially in developing countries, and the low renovation rates and ambition in developed countries;

  • The increase in the use, number and size of appliances and equipment (especially communication tools and air conditioning), driven by the growing welfare (income);

  • The use of fossil fuel-based electricity and heat, which slows down the decarbonization of the energy supply.

Those are the main subjects on which we must work as real estate actors. And how can we do that ? IPCC recommends to work first on sufficiency, i.e. stop building too many square meters per person. Then efficiency, which means renovating more and more ambitiously on the one hand, and stopping over-equipping buildings on the other. Finally, focus on the use of renewable energies. 

The order of these measures is important. It is not with solar panels on the roof that we compensate for the impact of three basement levels and a double flow ventilation. In the same way that one does not compensate cutting down a hundred-year-old cedar by planting an ash tree straight from the nursery.

How can we transform ourselves towards a desirable future?

One tool we can put to better use in order to reconfigure the way we design real estate projects is the scenario:

In 2022, a real estate developer working on a building site will start by examining the regulations to conclude what is feasible. He then imagines a good project on the basis of what is allowed and the conditions of profitability. The final outcome (scenario) is considered last and is dependent on the existing trends of regulations and profitability conditions. In this case, we build based on the past. We do not look forward. 

Faced with the challenges of climate change, innovators have begun to place the scenario at the begining of their work in the last ten years: it becomes the basis, the desirable future towards which we wish to strive. So, instead of looking backwards, they look forward.

If the developer puts the desirable future (scenario) at the begining of his work, he first imagines the ideal project to build on the plot given the local context. Based on his scenario, he adapts the project to ensure its profitability, and works hand-in-hand with the government to comply with the rules or adapt them. It is likely that the final project will be quite different from what would have emerged with a traditional approach.

The public authorities are today required by their population to take the mandatory ecological turn to ensure a decent future for today's young people. They need good ideas to help them achieve their environmental objectives, and trustworthy actors to accompany them in their implementation. To remain competitive, we can position ourselves as proactive actors of change, or reactive to change.

Keeping in mind that building energy codes have been identified by IPCC as the main instrument to reduce emissions from new and existing buildings, it is likely that regulations will become stricter in the coming years.  We have to be at the forefront on the subject so as not to be surprised. What is to stop a town planning regulation from setting maximum sizes of dwellings to ensure the sufficiency of construction?


[i] Bai X. et al, “Plausible and desirable futures in the Anthropocene: A new research agenda”, in Global Environmental Change, n°39, 2016, pp. 351-362.

[ii] Groupe RBR-T du Plan Bâtiment Durable, « Vers une sobriété immobilière et solidaire. Les voies d’une meilleure utilisation du parc de bâtiments », 2022.


[iv] IPCC researchers have assessed GHG emissions from buildings based on the framework called "SER: Sufficiency, Efficiency, Renewables". The axes of this framework allow reducing GHG emissions in three different and complementary ways:

  • Sufficiency limits emissions by reducing the energy demand of buildings and goods throughout their life cycle;

  • Efficiency limits emissions by producing more energy and goods with less raw material;

  • Renewable energy limits emissions by reducing the use of carbon to provide the energy demanded.

This framework was conceived in the late 1990s by French NGO Negawatt.

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