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Why Architectural Norms Need to Change


The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris on the 12th December 2015 outlined a set of sustainable development goals to address climate change which were published in the Paris Agreement. One of these is Challenge 2030, an initiative specifically targeting the built environment which illuminates how crucial it is for architects and designers to actively respond to the climate crisis.

This focus is critical. The building and construction sector represents 39% of the world’s carbon emissions, placing architects in the spotlight for pioneering change. The Paris Agreement states that all new and retrofitted buildings should be designed to achieve net-zero whole-life carbon by 2030. However, it does not specify the future of regenerative approaches which are necessary if design is to align with the goal of global temperatures being kept below 1.5 degrees centigrade.

The United Kingdom, along with countries all over the world, is taking part in Challenge 2030. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) is promoting this by outlining its own guidelines and solutions, and which they encourage its members to subscribe to. Architects Declare, led by leading UK architects such as Zaha Hadid, David Chipperfield Architects, and Foster and Partners, have also publicised design criteria that reaches beyond the idea of net-zero carbon, and advances regenerative approaches to design. Architects Declare also have a complimentary scheme to Challenge 2030 that reaches beyond the realm of its recommendation which they are promoting to firms worldwide.

"...only 60 of the UK’s 3,800 chartered practices have committed to Challenge 2030."

It may appear that things are moving in the right direction and that architects are taking the necessary action. Unfortunately, this is not de facto. Considering the current climate crisis and the amount of media attention it has received over the last year alone, you would think that dedicated action would have already been taken. Alas not.  A paltry number of practices are committing to the progressive schemes put in place and RIBA is not using its influence to adjust curriculums to reflect the seriousness of the situation.

RIBA is yet to make the challenge mandatory. However, one would hope architectural practices are independently adopting its recommendations. It is startling, and deeply concerning, that only 60 of the UK’s 3800 chartered practices have committed to Challenge 2030. Architects Declare has had more success in membership, having received 870 signatures. This means that 870 out of the UK’s 7515 practices want to conform, which does advance on RIBA’s figures, but is still a low percentage considering the change that is necessary. RIBA is currently looking into making Challenge 2030 a compulsory step for its members. It is also looking at promoting their guidelines in Schools of Architecture. This is a critical step toward making a difference. Currently, abiding by the guidelines is not a requirement, but as the majority of universities in the United Kingdom offer a RIBA qualifying course for Architecture, an immediate change could be made to all graduating architects to be informed and inspired to enter the working world and contribute a positive climate-conscious development.

So, why are architecture schools ill-preparing the next generation of architects to comply to Challenge 2030? The gap between academia and practice for architecture is often considered cavernous. Many students feel as though they are ill-equipped to be in the industry after long periods in education, let alone to face the climate crisis. Emphasis on learning about ecological and technological systems must be promoted and the brutalist attitudes must be dismissed. University students can be a valuable resource in exploring unfamiliar building materials and pushing low-impact, natural, or reusable materials as alternative methods for the future of construction. And yet, students are encouraged to use concrete.

"So, how can we reconcile entrenched architectural norms with environmental sustainability?"

The chemical and thermal combustion involved during the fabrication process of concrete is the key factor behind why this architectural staple accounts for 8% of carbon emissions worldwide. 4 billion tonnes of cement is produced each year. It is used in most student designs and has long been the go-to material for understanding load-bearing physics. If you’ll excuse the pun, this status is not constructive. To bring the production of cement figures in line with the Paris Agreement, its annual production levels must be reduced by a daunting 16% by 2030.

So, how can we reconcile entrenched architectural norms with environmental sustainability? Firstly, it is vital that students are taught how to utilise other materials, to move away from the brutalist precedents that have been set. Furthermore, an alternative and more productive sustainability assessment method is required for teaching and in practice. For example, architects and students are taught to use buildings standards such as ‘Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method’ (BREEAM).

This is a system that promotes sustainability in design decisions by providing a score based on environmental sectors that have different weights: management, energy, water, materials, pollution, waste, health and wellbeing, and innovation. Using their algorithm, a score is calculated in which a building’s performance and upkeep can be measured on a sustainable scale. However, it is not a rating that equates to having net-zero whole-life carbon, which is the building standard that architects need to be abiding by. Less than 1% of buildings in the UK achieve 85% (outstanding by their terms) on the BREEAM rating, and it should be unacceptable that achieving 30% on the rating is a pass. So, if students are meeting that pass for a sustainability threshold that doesn't consider carbon neutral design to be a necessity, there is a worryingly long way to go before all new designs align with the Paris Agreement.

As outlined by Architects Declare, a more regenerative approach is necessary if we want to deliver climacteric change. For example, The Living Building Challenge offers an alternative way of measuring the sustainability of a building. They promote regenerative design through biomimicry, which is one of the many branches of research which can be explored to find critical building solutions. Criteria like this should be a leading precedent in education, and the current scale requires a vast update. Different innovative approaches and research into design solutions along with prevalent guidelines need to be followed by universities and architects in the profession. Radical alterations to curriculum and mainstream material use is not only important for practical reasons but is also fundamental for inspiring the next generation of architects, hopefully my own included, to conform to Challenge 2030 and engage the climate emergency with the sincerity it deserves.

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