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Carb talk: CBE’s Climate Solutions Community of Practice sparks interdisciplinary collaborations

“Through the materials we use and the ecosystems we alter, arguably more than 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions are related to the built environment,” says Kate Simonen, a professor of architecture at UW’s College of Built Environments and founding director of the Carbon Leadership Forum.

Simonen’s primary research focus is reducing the environmental impact of building materials, and she’s been recognized for her dedication to sustainability by media groups and the University of Washington. She’s one of many UW professors seeking solutions to climate change through their scholarship.

In fact, CBE is a major hub of climate science, from experimental construction design and materials to imagining new narratives about the ways that humans can inhabit the planet. However, the structure of academia can get in the way of productive collaboration to decarbonize the planet. The problem, Simonen reports, is that some faculty are unaware of the research being performed outside of their disciplines.

Is there a way to break through knowledge barriers and foster climate change collaboration within and without CBE? Simonen and other faculty think they’ve found it: CBE’s new Climate Solutions Community of Practice (CoP), a group dedicated to generating climate solutions across disciplinary frameworks that encourages student, staff, and faculty participation.

From strategic planning to a collaborative mindset

CBE’s Community of Practice was born from a strategic planning effort at the college, with climate change mitigation through research and teaching as one of the key pillars. Faculty members initiated the community to advance potential solutions to the climate crisis.

“There are multiple goals of the community of practice, but one is to gather like-minded faculty who either want to work on climate change or who are already deeply involved in that kind of research and share ideas,” says Heather Burpee, a research associate professor and director of education and outreach at UW’s Integrated Design Lab (IDL). She says there are benefits in bringing together researchers with diverse research backgrounds and varying levels of experience for collaborative, interdisciplinary projects.

Burpee’s expertise is in health care, energy efficiency, and decarbonization. She thinks a lot about how buildings perform, not just for energy savings, but also for human and economic health. As she explains, hospitals are one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters and where we spend some of the most poignant and joyous times of our lives. That’s why she’s committed to decarbonizing hospital environments for patients, staff, and energy use.

Burpee does primarily translational and applied research, and she’s garnered years of expertise to share with the CoP. “I think for folks who are just getting started in their climate change journeys, I can be a mentor to them, while also looking to others in the group for mentorship myself,” she explains.

First steps towards a community of practice

“Professors, students, and researchers need to spend more time together and discuss how we can improve our field’s relationship to greenhouse gas emissions,” says Christine Bae.

Bae, an associate professor in the department of urban design and planning researches the environmental impacts of transportation, with a focus on microscale exposure to air pollutants, such as what you might experience when walking, biking, or simply living in high traffic areas. She also recently developed a course called “Carbon Neutral Cities” where students study the policies and plans that cities all over the globe are employing to combat climate change. “This community of practice is about members sharing information and moving beyond the status quo in our fields,” she says.

Bae moderated a recent panel discussion for the CoP. Faculty and student panelists from three CBE labs—the Architecture Research, Built Environments, and Urban Design and Planning Studios—shared their visions for an improved climate future through low-emission design, environmentally just neighborhoods, and connections between climate change and City of Snohomish comprehensive plans.

The community was also involved in a recent round of lightning talks, “Fostering Climate Change Connections,” hosted by the College of Environment’s EarthLab and UW’s Population Health Initiative.

“It’s hard for faculty working on similar topics to find each other on campus,” says Ben Packard, EarthLab’s executive director, who has a goal of connecting folks for transdisciplinary collaboration. Faculty were encouraged to submit short videos on their climate change research, and hundreds of viewers tuned in to a live stream of the compilated videos. Several CBE faculty screened their videos to make connections with like-minded scholars.

One result of CBE’s participation in the lightning talks was a round of successful collaborative grants from the Population Health Initiative, which funded interdisciplinary proposals for climate-focused collaborative planning projects in summer 2023.

Assistant Professor of Architecture Narjes Abbasabadi, along with an interdisciplinary team from construction management, electrical and computer engineering, architecture, and the City of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment, were recipients of a Population Health Initiative research planning grant. The group is developing a digital twin of Seattle, using real-world data and machine learning to determine how to facilitate equitable decarbonization of the built environment. They’re working towards building a software toolkit and framework that can be adopted by other cities seeking to reduce carbon emissions, with human equity and health at the forefront of policy and design.

Abbasabadi is a recent addition to CBE faculty, and her main research focus is understanding energy flows and human health impacts of built environments and reducing carbon emissions within them. She tends to work in teams of researchers who can build upon and surpass the effectiveness of a single disciplinary approach.

“Climate change is a critical global issue,” says Abbasabadi. “And it requires a collective-action approach that brings together with a wide variety of expertise.”

Packard considers the lightning talks, and CBE’s participation in them, a success, and he’s planning future events for faculty to make interdisciplinary connections around climate science. “You can’t talk about climate mitigation and adaptation issues without addressing questions of the built environment,” he says. “I see CBE playing a critical role in our efforts to take action on these issues in partnership with community.”

A community’s future

CBE’s Climate Solutions Community of Practice is revealing the college’s climate change expertise that’s hiding in plain sight, as well as aspects of built environments that aren’t always obvious.

As everyday consumers, we tend to think about reducing transportation emissions,” observes Burpee. “But the built environment’s role in greenhouse gas emissions have come to the forefront of public consciousness in the past five years. We need our homes, schools, hospitals, offices, and more to be more energy efficient.”

Simonen dreams of a future that includes a CBE center for climate solutions to attract interdisciplinary researchers and funding. Rather than working individually to develop initiatives or project proposals, the CoP could become a hub of collaborations across and beyond campus.

However, the community is not only about funding or faculty research. “These are our communities that are generating greenhouse gas emissions, and there are disadvantaged and vulnerable populations who are bearing the brunt of the consequences,” says Bae. “Our community also needs to prepare our students for climate change in the real world and help them become agents of change.”

Want to know more about joining the Climate Solutions Community of Practice? Contact Kate Simonen at


By Jen DeMoss. Jen is a freelance writer based in Michigan.