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The green curriculum

Drawing on experience of a Part 2 course focused on sustainability issues, Laura Mark looks at the challenges climate change lays down for education

As a graduate of the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), I was in the second cohort to undertake the new Part 2 course at the centre, originally set up in 1973 by Gerard Morgan-Grenville as a test bed for eco-friendly ways of living.

We were pioneers. I chose to study there because I felt that sustainability had been lacking in my Part 1 education. At the time I struggled to find a school where sustainability was at the forefront of the design teaching.

There have been many changes in architectural education since then (I started my Part 2 in 2009). The importance of sustainability is widely recognised and is now taught in every architecture school - and it’s growing in popularity. According to Simos Yannas, course director at the Architectural Association, enrolment in the school’s MSc/MArch Sustainable Environmental Design course has doubled and it is now its second-largest postgraduate course after the Design Research Laboratory.

The RIBA likes to insist that the criteria are deliberately open to interpretation

But the quality of sustainability teaching within architectural education is a mixed bag. The RIBA provides no fixed curriculum - the institute’s criteria state that students must have a ‘knowledge’ of sustainability, but it’s up to the individual schools to decide what particular skills or subject areas will be covered. This is not just difficult for students and tutors. As Harriet Harris, senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University says: ‘The RIBA likes to insist that the criteria are deliberately open to interpretation, allowing schools freedom to set their own curricula.

‘However, this means employers have no clear expectations on students’ capability in this area. The RIBA needs to be braver about making a clear commitment to sustainability teaching in all its forms.’

Leading institutions agree that the way forward is an integrated approach to sustainability. Huddersfield University, which once taught sustainability in isolation, has now brought it within the course. Richard Nicholls, course leader for the MSc in Sustainable Architecture, says: ‘At the outset, sustainability was considered in a separate module. However, it is now an integral part of building design and so is taught within design and technology modules.’

Anglia Ruskin

Ana Filip of Anglia Ruskin University’s project looking at re-use

Anglia Ruskin University is currently developing a Part 1 course in which sustainability will be ‘embedded’ - and with the unusual approach of teaching architecture students alongside construction managers, quantity surveyors, civil engineers and planners.

‘We teach with the firm belief that sustainability and environmental responsibility need to be embedded, not only in architecture but in all built environment professions,’ says Alison Pooley, a tutor in sustainable design at the school. ‘It cannot be readily separated out or taught as a separate entity or a detached concept.’

At Cambridge, sustainability is interpreted in a broad sense. Koen Steemers, head of architecture, says: ‘Cambridge incorporates ideas of cultural, social, economic and political resilience and adaptability, particularly at the urban scale. In this sense sustainability is taught at all levels, completely integrated, not optional, multifaceted, essential and assessed through marked work.’

The University of the West of England (UWE) has long been thought of as a school which values sustainability in its teaching. It has recently introduced a new way of studying the impact of health on sustainable design. With funding from the Centre for Education in the Built Environment (CEBE), it has established a twist on the artist in residence methodology. In this case, a ‘Health Practitioner in Residence’ was there to inspire architecture students to immerse themselves in the world of public health and to bring science into their creativity. This project has now impacted the teaching of Parts 1 and 2 students.

Environmental diagram by Joe Hewlings at UWE

Environmental diagram by Joe Hewlings at UWE

Elena Marco, associate head at UWE, acknowledges the importance of teaching post-occupancy evaluations and energy simulations to architecture students, but concedes there are limitations. She says: ‘It is very difficult to introduce in any real depth in a straight three-year Part 1 course.’

Other schools, including those at Leeds Metropolitan and Nottingham universities, have a strong sustainability
focus within their design work. The Bartlett has a focus on research and the Kent School of Architecture is teaching the Passivhaus methodology.

The way forward for the teaching of sustainability within architectural education is to fully integrate it within the course. Yet most are not going far enough: sustainability is not being taught holistically.

All aspects of sustainability should be compulsory for all students

All aspects of sustainability, be it monitoring, understanding the impact of energy use and building construction, or social sustainability, should be compulsory for all students and incorporated as a valuable part of their design projects.

This should be done through a mixture of teaching and design work and all students should have the opportunities to carry out live projects. The success of the teaching at CAT, which is not a RIBA-accredited school, lies in its emphasis of hands-on experience. The campus boasts self-built Walter Segal homes and green pavilions, some constructed by students.

‘We are surrounded by examples of sustainable experimentation, demonstration and learning. We’ve learnt through building and this is crucial for students to see,’ says Trish Andrews, programme leader for the professional diploma course.

The Bird Hide at Coed Gwern designed and built by CAT students as part of their summer school

The Bird Hide at Coed Gwern designed and built by CAT students as part of their summer school

A surprising amount of the CAT course takes on this practical approach. During the annual week-long building workshop, students are given a brief, a budget and a site to build a structure that celebrates sustainable design. We had modules focused on building with timber, lime, hemp, earth, and straw bales, and then monitored what we built, looking at air quality issues, moisture balance and energy use.

The practical approach isn’t new, nor unique to CAT. The AA’s Hooke Park and Sheffield University have long used live projects to engage their students in ‘real world architecture’. Similar opportunities to build are offered by summer courses such as Studio in the Woods, Roots Architecture Workshop and Dartmoor Arts. But these are separate from university teaching, and should ideally be integrated into architecture courses.

Not every school can be expected to go as far as CAT and, indeed, the profession doesn’t want or require all students to be this ‘deep green’. What is clear is that if all schools are to embrace sustainability within architecture, producing students who can design for the future needs of the planet, there is a challenge ahead.

Architecture is changing and students are going to need different skills

The future of architecture is changing, and students are going to need different skills, as Pooley indicates in her question: ‘How do we best equip our students to become the responsive, reflective and radical professionals they will need to be to work in the coming decades where energy, economy and ecology are becoming increasingly fragile and uncertain?’

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