The ingenuity deficit
Schools of architecture are largely in disavowal of the need to adapt building design to climate change, write Fionn Stevenson and Irena Bauman
By way of ideas, and your mastery of them, will come your value as an architect to your society and future,’ said Frank Lloyd Wright. The relevance of this statement could not be greater now, when the future for which we are preparing our students needs every ounce of ingenuity and skill to stay on the right side of a global catastrophe.
Our students have ideas by the bucketful: our job as teachers is to give them skills to develop these to their full potential and to channel their ideas in the right direction. This right direction, in our view, has to be designing with climate change in mind. Climate change impacts are already tangible in our lives, as any farmer will tell you.
Last winter was the wettest on record, with significant areas of England flooded. With every flood comes suffering. Following the Hebden Bridge flooding in July two years ago, 21 businesses failed to re-open after three weeks of successive flooding: too much stock was damaged, insurance did not cover replacement costs and the owners could not dry their premises quickly enough to maintain their business cash flow. And things are set to get tougher still: the 2014 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that the UK will have significantly increased rain, storms and warmer temperatures. We will see more droughts, soil erosion and extreme weather events, such as flash floods, resulting in disruption to transport and communications, food shortages, power cuts, biodiversity loss, increased subsidence and movement, overheating, materials shortages, as well as repeated damage to property.
These changes also have economic and social implications: the cost of 2014’s floods in Somerset have been estimated at between £23,000 and £30,000 per household, and a quarter of households were not fully covered by insurance. The communities affected are living in fear of further floods and inability to get insurance in the future.
A 2013 survey by the Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) found that 63 per cent of the British population are simply ignoring climate change. So what can we do to make things better and how we are making things worse? Last year environmental campaigner and psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe argued that most people are in disavowal about climate change: ‘Disavowal trivialises the damage, locates it as far away, discredits the messenger, or finds instant virtual “solutions” that apparently “fix” the damage. Disavowal enables us to live “as if” we see the damage, but without taking in the consequences.’
Our perception, based on students’ work on view in summer exhibitions, is that schools of architecture (and by this we mean the academic staff) are also largely in disavowal of climate change. There are, of course, notable exceptions, but we are still, predominantly, teaching students how to design ecologically-illiterate buildings in a fixed point in time, rather than acknowledging the evolutionary role of architecture.
‘Dynamic dimensions’ of architecture such as time, re-use, life cycle, seasons, use, change of use, change of ownership, culturally diverse users, biodiversity, feedback loops and climate change are hardly ever in evidence. Strategies for positive social resilience based on robustness, redundancy and decentralisation, with rapid and wide adoption of radical adaptation and mitigation strategies, are even less visible. At best, hidden in the technical reports, one can find drawings with blue and red arrows flying through the proposal as a token acknowledgement of the dynamic nature of environmental design. There is a poor understanding of the building physics principles needed to produce good design.
If this comment provokes indignation, then its intended purpose has been achieved, because whatever we might be doing now, much more is needed. At the moment, society as a whole appears to have an ‘ingenuity deficit’ of how to deal with the challenges described, yet at the same time there is an explosion of environmental, technological and social innovation in response to climate change and other societal challenges.
Many of the innovators are architects and researchers working in multidisciplinary teams. We are designing eco-villages and low-carbon housing, helping to develop solutions for building on water and in flood zones, developing strategies for climate change adaptation for buildings and neighbourhoods, inventing and fabricating green building systems and products, investigating the potential of new digital technologies to reduce environmental impact and helping to re-imagine services and processes.
When we accept the challenge of climate change, we are a vital community that cares and can develop the skill sets to redefine how we relate to the planet. If more architectural educators were to confront their own climate change disavowal, they would find a great deal of knowledge at their disposal to share with their students.
In the University of Sheffield School of Architecture we are seeking ways of talking about the challenges of climate change without increasing levels of anxiety, but with a determination to embrace it as the key condition for which we must educate our students.
As a first move, SCHOSA (the Standing Conference of Heads of Schools of Architecture) will be hosting a conference on ‘Beyond Building Performance’ in Spring 2015 and Sheffield School of Architecture is organising an international conference on ‘Architecture: Building Local Resilience’ in autumn 2015. Both of these events will tackle head-on the contribution that architecture and architects can make in an age of climate change. We are hoping many educators can join us on this journey.
Fionn Stevenson is head of University of Sheffield School of Architecture, where Irena Bauman is professor of sustainable urbanism