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Architects Declare – but are they prepared to deliver?


Architecture firms are rallying to the climate change cause with an 11-point action plan. But have they understood the transformation in practice this will commit them to? Will Hurst reports

Three weeks ago, something momentous happened in British architecture. Seventeen winners of the RIBA Stirling Prize, including Foster + Partners, David Chipperfield Architects, Zaha Hadid Architects and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, issued the Architects Declare call: a plea for practices across the country to join them in recognising the twin crises of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss and the ‘paradigm shift’ now required in the construction industry to tackle these looming threats.

Since then, practices of all sizes and types have flocked to the Architects Declare banner. At the time of writing, 429 practices have signed, including about two-thirds of AJ100 firms – 80 per cent of the top 50 and every firm in the top 10. The call to action was mirrored by an open letter from architecture schools, headed ‘Architecture Education Declares’.

Building on the momentum in the profession created by the Extinction Rebellion protests, Parliament’s declaration of a climate emergency, and the AJ’s own ‘Wake Up’ issue on the crisis published in February, the speed and scale of the response has surprised those behind the campaigning initiative.

Do these firms realise this is not a simple bolt-on, but a fundamental rethink of the design process? 

Yet, as with the government’s more recent commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, actions will speak louder than words. The 11 pledges within the campaign are far-reaching and sound almost improbable, coming from design studios famous for their carbon-hungry towers, mega airports and swooping concrete structures.

Assuming the signatories are sincere, most now face the task of transforming their working practices, their business models and indeed their entire approach to architecture in a very short space of time. As Simon Sturgis asked in the immediate aftermath of the declaration: ‘Do these firms realise this is not a simple bolt-on, but a fundamental rethink of the design process? BREEAM 2018 is not sufficient.’

Maxxi paul raftery

Maxxi paul raftery

Source: Paul Raftery

The Zaha Hadid-designed MAXXI in Rome. Many Stirling Prize-winning designs make extensive use of concrete

So what should we make of Architects Declare and how did it come about? Is it truly the start of a profound change of direction for British architecture or panic-driven sloganeering by a sector that has finally got the memo? Moreover, where do those practices who have signed up to the declaration go from here?

Architects Declare has no leaders nor designated spokespeople and each signatory is expected to speak for his or her own organisation. One of the people most active in it is Steve Tompkins, co-founder of RIBA Stirling Prize-winning Haworth Tompkins. Tompkins works on housing, higher education and masterplanning schemes but is best known for his work on cultural buildings, and was named the most influential person in British theatre by The Stage magazine in January. In recent months he has been pondering how architecture should respond to the climate emergency, and hosted a low-carbon focus group organised by the AJ in February. This involved several of those architect-campaigners who later worked behind the scenes on Architects Declare, including Julia Barfield and Waugh Thistleton co-founder Andrew Waugh.

Many observers point to the yawning gap between the rhetoric and the ongoing work of some of the best-known Stirling winners

‘The idea was born out of a conversation with [architect and author] Michael Pawlyn in the early part of the year,’ Tompkins recalls. ‘We were both frustrated by the lack of urgency within the construction sector around the climate and biodiversity crises and were discussing how the UK architecture profession as a whole – as opposed to the familiar pioneers who have been quietly working away for years – could find its voice.’

Architectural consultant Caroline Cole then facilitated a meeting of Stirling Prize-winning practices to discuss the idea of a joint public statement or open letter and it soon became clear that all those present agreed in principle on the need for action. The association with the Stirling and the extraordinary coming-together of an otherwise disparate group of leading architects gave the open letter added impact.

Tompkins is heartened by the response, which, he says, confirms his recognition that many architect colleagues ‘share both a deep anxiety about the environmental realities we face and an unmet desire to find ways to work together to respond’.

Dbox foster  the tulip bird's eye crop

Dbox foster the tulip bird’s eye crop

Source: Dbox

Would Foster + Partners still design a building like the Tulip after signing up to Architects Declare?

The wider reaction to Architects Declare has been extremely positive, although many observers point to the yawning gap between the rhetoric and the ongoing work of some of the best-known Stirling winners.

In an AJ column last week, writer Will Jennings described the declaration as ‘brilliant’ but added that meaningful and symbolic action must be added to the words as a matter of urgency. Pointing to the pledge to ‘evaluate all new projects against the aspiration to contribute positively to mitigating climate breakdown and encourage our clients to adopt this approach,’ Jennings suggested that Fosters should immediately disown its much-criticised Tulip tower in the City of London and RSHP state that its Taoyuan Airport Terminal would be its last ever air-travel job. Of ZHA, he added that it might promise to limit its use of concrete – a material responsible for about 8 per cent of global carbon emissions – for ‘critical structure and not aestheticism’.

Many clients, too, seem to have been taken aback by the strength of the architects’ declaration – a sign, perhaps, that environmental design is seen as a minority pursuit among architects. ‘It’s fantastic. I’m very heartened to hear the profession declaring a climate emergency,’ says Edward Dixon, sustainability insights director at Landsec. ‘But I’ve never seen the crisis at the top of a design team’s agenda. It varies from practice to practice, but sustainability is rarely a critical factor. There are still many architects that prioritise aesthetics, leaving others in the team to consider sustainability as an isolated issue. We need rapid adoption of sustainable design practices if we really want to address the climate emergency.’

But is it possible that Architects Declare will be able to redirect architects’ competitive focus away from the aesthetic arena? Might they start to compete on whole-life carbon performance and regenerative design, a process-orientated approach whereby a development restores or revitalises its own sources of energy and materials? After all, the Architects Declare statement was not made in a vacuum but amid a groundswell of promises on climate change. While the industry sorely needs a proper Green Deal to be implemented, the campaign has coincided with other significant initiatives. 

Astleycastle helen binet

Astleycastle helen binet

Source: Hélène Binet

Witherford Watson Mann’s retrofit of Astley Castle in Warwickshire won the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2013

These include Fosters’ pledge to make all its buildings net zero in emissions by 2030 and the successful push by more than 120 UK businesses, including Allies and Morrison, Bennetts Associates and Sheppard Robson, to get Theresa May to commit to the Committee on Climate Change’s 2050 Net Zero emissions target.

Anna Woodeson, a sustainability expert and director at LTS Architects, puts Architects Declare in the context of six months of intense national discussion and action on climate change and says its strength lies in the fact that architecture practice leaders and owners naturally jockey to get ahead of the pack, whatever the race.

‘[Architects Declare] can’t be anything but a good thing,’ she says. ‘Architects must now be aware that we have an issue on our hands. But they should also remember that on any job they take on they can make a difference – and a lot of that is about what you do in the first six weeks of a project.’

So what first steps should practice signatories now be taking? Tompkins is reluctant to comment but his own practice is trying to focus on creative reuse of existing buildings, switching to low-carbon materials and analysing previous work in terms of embodied energy. What he will say is that Architects Declare is now working with architects and other built environment disciplines in the UK and abroad to assist with partner initiatives. ‘We are in the process of building a central website to connect these various groups and we envisage this becoming the place to communicate with each other and share links to open source data,’ he says. The small working group behind Architects Declare is also planning a meeting of all signatories to work on next steps and the best way to bring about ‘systematic change’.

For Mark Elton, an architect and Passivhaus expert who works at Cowan Architects, Architects Declare is a laudable promise but keeping it will require architects to transform their mindsets, become experts in building physics and engage far better with those in power, such as developers. ‘Architects design buildings for clients and it is clients you have to convince,’ he says. ‘I’m not sure even [multi award-winning low-carbon architect] Architype would achieve all of these pledges on every project. Low-carbon design is something I’ve been trying to do for my whole career and it’s very hard. You have to cast aside the normal way of doing things and a lot of this has to start back at architecture school.

‘Are all these architects going to start designing to Passivhaus or equivalent standards? Are they going to stop creating building forms which are so complex that they require huge material resources to achieve the right levels of air-tightness and avoid thermal bridging?’

Architects Declare is a powerful cri de coeur about the greatest challenge we face. The stakes could not be higher. It is now up to the architects who have signed it to deliver.

The Stirling 17

  • Alison Brooks Architects
  • Allford Hall Monaghan Morris
  • AL_A
  • Caruso St John Architects
  • David Chipperfield Architects
  • dRMM
  • Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
  • Foster + Partners
  • Haworth Tompkins
  • Hodder + Partners
  • Maccreanor Lavington
  • Michael Wilford
  • Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners 
  • Stanton Williams
  • WilkinsonEyre
  • Witherford Watson Mann
  • Zaha Hadid Architects 

Comment: Simon Sturgis

Simon sturgis

The RIBA’s adviser on sustainability and founder of consultancy Targeting Zero Carbon outlines the practical steps firms that sign up to Architects Declare can take 

The climate-related commitments made by signing up to Architects Declare will require us to think differently about how we design buildings. Over a new building’s lifespan there will be more materials-related carbon emissions than there will be from day-to-day energy use, so carbon reduction is now predominantly the architect’s responsibility. 

The efficiency of a building’s shape and the quantity of material used to create useable space are basic low-carbon considerations. We’ll need to think holistically about materials and energy, using the minimum of both over a building’s entire life cycle. 

Practical completion is not the end of our carbon emissions responsibilities, just the first phase. We need to know how the materials and systems we have chosen are likely to perform over 60 or even 100 years; how much energy they will use; and what the carbon cost of replacement cycles will be. 

Avoiding ‘short-life’ systems with high carbon replacement costs will be key. We will also need to understand and ‘design in’ how our buildings are dismantled and disposed of at the end of their lives. This should include scenarios for the future post-first-use life of materials and components. We should be designing for future retrofit, not future demolition.

The durability and flexibility of our designs will be crucial to a low-carbon future. Materials and system choices will be driven by carbon cost in relation to the life required, which implies low maintenance, yet easy replacement. It will include the low-carbon and circular economic considerations of using recycled material, minimising waste and designing for future adaptability and reuse.

The buildings we design must be able to readily evolve and adapt over time to changing use patterns, and a changing climate. Materials should be considered to be ‘on loan’ from the environment and capable of proper, beneficial future re-use. We will need to engage more closely with the supply chain to achieve these things.

Making the best use of resources links directly to future-proofing a building’s long-term value. This is not about increasing costs, as greater resource efficiency will help increase value and reduce the total cost of ownership. 

Buildings that are not ‘climate clean’ will be increasingly seen as an investment risk. Architects have, therefore, a responsibility not only to reduce the impact of buildings on climate change, but also to ensure that clients understand the risks of not doing so.

If, as the pledge urges, you want to ‘evaluate all new projects against the aspiration to contribute positively to mitigating climate breakdown’ and therefore undertake ‘life cycle costing and whole-life carbon modelling’, then there are two key reference documents for practical guidance. 

The RIBA’s Embodied and Whole Life Carbon for Architects, a free download, is an easy-to-read primer and an explanation of what to do to mitigate carbon emissions over the RIBA Stages. 

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) has produced Whole Life Carbon Assessment for the Built Environment, a detailed assessment methodology and also a free download. This is currently the industry standard and is referred to, for example, by the UK Green Building Council’s Advancing Net Zero project. 

There are several life cycle carbon software packages available, but architects need to ensure they comply with the RICS document. The RIBA Stirling Prize criteria already have a whole life carbon section, and the forthcoming RIBA Plan of Work will include whole life carbon through the project stages.

The full implications of following a truly low-carbon design approach will change the way we design buildings.   

The commitments

  • Raise awareness of the climate and biodiversity emergencies and the urgent need for action among our clients and supply chains. 
  • Advocate for faster change in our industry towards regenerative design practices and a higher Governmental funding priority to support this. 
  • Establish climate and biodiversity mitigation principles as the key measure of our industry’s success: demonstrated through awards, prizes and listings. 
  • Share knowledge and research to that end on an open-source basis. 
  • Evaluate all new projects against the aspiration to contribute positively to mitigating climate breakdown, and encourage our clients to adopt this approach. 
  • Upgrade existing buildings for extended use as a more carbon efficient alternative to demolition and new build whenever there is a viable choice. 
  • Include life-cycle costing, whole-life carbon modelling and post-occupancy evaluation as part of our basic scope of work, to reduce both embodied and operational resource use. 
  • Adopt more regenerative design principles in our studios, with the aim of designing architecture and urbanism that goes beyond the standard of net zero carbon in use. 
  • Collaborate with engineers, contractors and clients to further reduce construction waste. 
  • Accelerate the shift to low embodied carbon materials in all our work. 
  • Minimise wasteful use of resources in architecture and urban planning, both in quantum and in detail.   

Architect and circular economy expert Duncan Baker-Brown, of sustainable practice BBM Architects, will be keynote speaker at the AJ100 Awards at the Tower of London tonight (19 June).  


Readers' comments (3)

  • There's still a lot of lazily claiming concrete has high embodied energy here (inaccurately). I applaud Zaha for actually designing facades with openings in walls. It is fully glazed, laminated curtain walling systems that have huge embodied energy, cant be recycled and are full or rare and toxic materials.

    The big problem with Zaha's designs is her enormous ego and the resulting complete lack of flexibility or even usability of some buildings

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  • I am being lectured on climate change by architects that use private jets, right?

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  • Yeah, you got it dude, parametric architecture will save us all from global warming by reflecting sunlight at different angles, get with the programme!

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