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Architects Declare organisers: ‘We want to influence, not name and shame’

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Three of the instigators of Architects Declare – Steve Tompkins of Haworth Tompkins, Michael Pawlyn of Exploration Architecture, and Julia Barfield of Marks Barfield – discuss the movement’s progress and its plans to become far more vocal in a Q&A with Will Hurst

Architects declare collage line

Architects declare collage line

Q. What are you most proud of?

Steve Tompkins: The numbers have to be a real source of pride. It has exceeded my wildest expectations about the speed and breadth and diversity of the sign-up. When we first started, I thought 500 would be a real result and we’re almost at double that in the UK alone and nearly 10 times that across 22 or 23 countries around the world. And it’s not only architects. Crucially it’s a much wider sample of construction professionals.

Julia Barfield: Right after we declared, engineers ‘declared’ and we have several engineers on our steering group. We’ve tried to make our steering group as diverse as possible. That then extended to Landscape Architects Declare, to Project Managers Declare and we are trying to extend that up the food chain to developers and clients and just expand it as much as we can. This needs to come from all parts of the construction industry to make it work.

Q. With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would do differently?

ST: Some of the more recent declarations have included commitments around social justice as an inseparable part of achieving climate justice and that feels like an absolute omission from our original declaration. That’s one thing we’d all go back and include if we were doing it now.

Q. How can you help practices live up to the 11 pledges made by Architects Declare in practical terms?

ST: We’ve been doing quite a lot of work around that. We’ve got people like Clara [Bagenal-George] from the London Energy Transformation Inititative (LETI) and Lauren Shevills and Kat Scott from Architects’ Climate Action Network (ACAN), who have done some amazing work around practical help and guidance and engagement. We’re in the process of preparing some practical guidance.

Social justice feels like an omission from our original declaration

Because [among the things] we said we’d do were: change our own practices and; share it as an open source and try and get over that competitive, slightly hermetic mentality which a lot of architectural practices are still working under. We’re trying to be more generous.

Q. Why have you not called out examples where your own members are not living up to these pledges?

JB: It was very definite, right from the beginning, that we didn’t want to ‘name and shame’. Everyone was saying ‘we’re all hypocrites’ and we haven’t got there yet [in terms of the 11 pledges]. So we really don’t want to get into that.

Interestingly that is also one of Extinction Rebellion’s principles that they don’t do naming and shaming. I think that’s absolutely right. To be a positive movement of change we want to keep it positive and supportive and not start sniping at people, as that creates completely the wrong atmosphere.

Q. But isn’t the other side of the coin that you’re allowing negativity to take hold in Architects Declare if signatories do things that don’t seem in keeping with their promises?

ST: Yes, I think that’s right. But one also has to extrapolate that situation. I would certainly hold my hand up and say I think Haworth Tompkins fails by the standards set by Architects Declare. Some of the projects on our books, we’ve not been able to meet some of the criteria, even now. Logically, Architects Declare would have to call out every signatory for some breach or another.

We’ve not been able to meet some of the criteria ourselves

But what we continue to do is engage in a quiet and reasoned dialogue out of the public spotlight. That’s the way to encourage people who have signed up to be more rigorous.

Q. What do you think of the media stories about practices seemingly not living up to their commitments?

JB: I think that’s part of the remit of the media and it’s absolutely fine and is holding people to account. But the movement is more of a collective movement. It’s great the press is doing its job but it’s not what we should be doing. Each signatory is meant to be taking responsibility for their own actions.

Q. Have you thought of being more vocal in terms of government policy – wouldn’t leveraging your big name practices to lobby government on regulations and legislation be a more effective route to change?

JB: We are doing that. We’ve got involved in supporting ACAN and LETI on the changes to Part L and regulations on timber. We made sure our whole network knew about those and encouraged them to participate. That’s absolutely what we should be doing. We’re also in the process of writing an open letter [to government] which we haven’t finished because it’s subject to fierce debate. Influencing government is absolutely one of the things we want to do.

Influencing government is absolutely one of the things we want to do

Michael Pawlyn: For me, this is possibly the most important role for Architects Declare. Bringing about this kind of change is very difficult to do at the level of an individual company or an individual project. I know that from personal experience – it’s very difficult to bring about system change when you’re only working with a project or just within one company.

Q. The Architects Declare statement and pledges repeatedly stress the word ‘urgency’. Do you think practices who’ve signed up have generally responded with urgency in terms of their business practices?

JB: I think [the results of] our forthcoming survey suggests that they are trying to, but that they recognise that they have a long way to go.

ST: From my point of view, there’s a constant tension between the knowledge of the urgency [of climate change] … and going into the office on a Tuesday morning and facing up to the things that are happening – the jobs that are on and the relationships that are running. It’s not easy to reconcile those things and make those radical decisions … I’ve got a lot of sympathy with practices that are struggling to reconcile that. But what we’ve got to do is keep pushing ourselves and our colleagues towards that new paradigm that we think is necessary.

Q. Can you say which practices have come furthest in the past 12 months?

MP: Ironically we know a bit more about what our international colleagues have been doing as we’ve had some Zoom meetings with the instigators in different countries. We know some of them have really got the bit between their teeth, have written letters to government, lobbied institutions and so on.

We’re just about to start doing this kind of thing in the UK. We spent quite a bit of the first year organising ourselves, working out our strategy for change and so on. But we’re going to do quite a bit more in terms of engagement with signatories in the year ahead.

Q. How is Covid-19 going to affect the transformation of the architecture profession?

MP: There’s so much to say about that. I hope this marks the end of the idea of exceptionalism. That we are removed from the laws of physics and biology. We’ve seen quite a fundamental change in public attitudes to experts and we’re perhaps realising that, however much we might like to remove ourselves from biology and the living world, that we can’t.

Unless we rethink they way in which we are disrupting ecosystems, we may see more and more pandemics in the future. So I’m hoping this leads to a more sophisticated understanding of the idea that you can’t separate human health and planetary health. That idea is really gaining ground, particularly among medical professionals.

ST: Part of the wisdom which will come out of this experience is that if you have the will and the demonstrable necessity, then radical change can happen. That gives us all a cause for optimism.

Architects Declare was founded by Steve Tompkins and Michael Pawlyn. Julia Barfield joined soon after and is part of the steering group.

AJ survey: Has Architects Declare been a success?

The AJ wants to know what you think Architects Declare has managed to achieve in its first 12 months.

Click here to take the independent survey which should take you no longer than five minutes to complete. The results will be published later this month.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • seems about as useful as offering thoughts and prayers to me

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  • Industry Professional

    Many thanks to Steve Julia and Michael for setting up the Architects Declare initiative. I think the main creative challenge to architects is to make sustainable buildings look interesting. Making a building low energy, inexpensive to build and to maintain hinges on making the layer of external insulation smooth and being mindful of minimizing the surface area to volume ratio. Unfortunately, the articulation of the façade and the sculpting the massing are a large part of what makes buildings interesting. Hence the creative challenge!
    The bits and pieces that go into the building need to be selected to make it as sustainable as possible, but the initial shape will set the course.
    There are of course ex-NASA type technologies that can try to mitigate the thermal bridging of a complex façade and much thicker insulation to address the larger surface area, but buildings do not have the same £/m2 budget as space vehicles.

    Bill Watts, Partner at Max Fordham llp

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