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Climate crisis: should architects still be designing airports?


Given the climate emergency and the amount of carbon dioxide created by air travel should architects still be working on airport projects? The AJ asked some of the nation’s leading practices whether the industry should think twice about airport work

Eyebrows were raised when Foster + Partners and Zaha Hadid Architects recently announced they had landed major airport schemes.

Commentators on social media were quick to question whether such commissions were consistent with a drive to reduce the amount of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere. Only months before, both practices had become signatories of the UK Architects Declare Climate and Biodiversity Emergency statement.

Indeed with aviation reportedly accounting for 2 per cent of global human-induced greenhouse gas emissions - a percentage forcast to grow rapidly - the profession’s involvement in airport work generally is coming under increasing scrutiny. 

Those who have ‘declared’ are particularly in the spotlight. Among the pledges in the Architects Declare manifesto is a promise to ‘evaluate all new projects against the aspiration to contribute positively to mitigating climate breakdown and encourage our clients to adopt this approach’.

That is a considerable commitment and one signed up to by all 17 of the Stirling Prize winners who co-founded the movement.

For Steve Tompkins of Haworth Tompkins, a key player in setting up Architects Declare, the decision not to design any new airports is an easy one. His practice, he admits, has ‘never worked in this area and we’re unlikely ever to be asked’.

Even so, Tompkins says: ‘[We] don’t think that expanding air travel is compatible with the overriding need to drive down greenhouse gas generation over the next decade, however efficient the architecture in terms of operational carbon.’

But he is aware the issue isn’t black and white, particularly when it involves retrofitting ageing building stock. ‘It becomes a more complicated question if architects are being asked to make the existing travel infrastructure more energy efficient,’ he says. ‘This is one of many ethical quandaries for architects; part of a much wider debate about the best use of our resources in the climate and ecological emergency.’

When specifically asked about any potential philosophical or practical clash, none of the 17 original ‘declarers’ thought the significant pledges in the manifesto meant architects should categorically not work on airports.

This stance has been criticised by Elrond Burrell, a former associate at Architype and a founding signatory of Architects Declare in New Zealand. He believes the profession needs to ‘show moral leadership in the climate emergency’ and openly reject such appointments.

‘Architects claim to be influential or complain that we are no longer influential,’ he says ‘Which is it?

‘The big names clearly could be influential, imagine the headline “Foster turns down a major airport commission.” It would certainly make the client have a second thought, especially if all the Architects Declare signatories took a stand and said no more airports.’

Burrell adds that positive, vocal action would also show that it was ‘possible to be a successful architect and have a moral backbone’.

He adds: ‘It might not prevent that specific airport being built but it would shift the thinking. If the Architect Declare signatories are not going to change how they do business then it is time their staff start taking a stand – maybe they should strike rather than work on climate destructive architecture.’

However the likelihood of that happening seems remote. Architects, it seems, think that the best way to affect change is from within, rather than refusing to engage.

As an AHMM spokesperson said: ‘In the absence of an alternative form of rapid transport over long distances, airports will continue to be built at least for the foreseeable future, and if they continue to be built then it’s better to have the best architects designing them.’

It is a viewpoint shared by 2017 RIBA Stirling Prize-winning practice dRMM. ‘The greatest impact we can make as architects is to both champion and engender collaborative change,’ it said.

‘The complexities of reducing air travel are many, and we should collectively support policies and legislation that work to meaningfully minimise our country’s air travel and push for paradigm change. But our primary concern as a profession should be to question how airport projects can be designed more sustainably.’

It is an issue to which Grimshaw has clearly given some thought. The global outfit has designed numerous airports around the world and is working on the Heathrow expansion plans.

It said that while it ‘believed in the value of flying’, air travel should not be to the ‘detriment of the planet and people’s health’. The company said the architects’ role should be to ‘design efficient pollution-free infrastructure’ and to help ‘airport owners and their users decarbonise their estate and operations’.

Its recently appointed chairman Andrew Whalley adds that the current debate should not ignore the emergence of new ways of low-carbon travel in the future. ‘Aviation technology has moved at an astonishing pace throughout the 20th century,’ he says. ‘[It] only took 67 years from a flight of a few hundred yards to a round trip of thousand kilometres [and] for Apollo 11 to reach the lunar surface and return to earth. Staggering progress which puts the building industry to shame.

‘I personally have great optimism that the aviation industry will take its global responsivities seriously and with carbon-free propulsion mitigating its impact on the environment well ahead of the built environment.’

Alison Brooks of Alison Brooks Architects believes the question oversimplifies a highly complicated scenario.

‘Of course “declared” architects who work in this sector should bring to the problem of airport design their commitment to mitigating climate change along with their expertise and design intelligence,’ she says.

‘[But] the question reduces a complex global socio-economic and environmental challenge to an argument of “reductio ad absurdum”. It [implies] that in order to help mitigate climate breakdown architects must not design infrastructure for air travel/transport, or for that matter, they should not design any building types that involve movement of people and goods using fossil-fuel-based forms of transport. This is an impossible scenario.’

More reading


A spokesperson for Foster + Partners
Global connectivity is essential in exchanging ideas and knowledge. The aviation sector is projected to grow until the end of the century according to United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The 2015 Paris Agreement and 2016 ICAO report allow for this rise in its pathway to achieve 1.5°C maximum temperature increase globally.

They accept that aviation decarbonisation may be slower than other sectors due to immature technology to help find alternative fuels. Aviation buildings will decarbonise at a faster rate since technology to build and operate them is much more advanced. Our commitment is to design and construct infrastructure buildings that aim for carbon neutrality. Our Queen Alia Airport in Amman achieved this in 2018 under the Airport Carbonisation Accreditation (ACI) system.

We, together with IATA, aligned with the ACI, is leading on sustainable airport guidelines which will be driving airport terminal design to carbon neutrality. The Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) of which IATA is the leading organisation, has agreed that the industry will aim to reach carbon-neutral growth from 2020 and a 50 per cent net reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 relative to 2005 levels.

Nick Deeming, partner, FaulknerBrowns
We need to be pragmatic and ask ourselves can, or will, society really reject all forms of air transportation for perpetuity? Surely for architects to contribute to the discussion with clients and be a positive influence in mitigating climate breakdown, we need to be in the discussion. The wider context is that there is much that architects can influence in buildings and infrastructure associated with airport design to minimise the climate impact, and in parallel, there is ongoing innovation exploring future mechanisms of cleaner air travel that we must ensure there is the flexibility of infrastructure to support.

Jerry Tate, partner, Tate Harmer
So the demand for airports is there and is not something architects can influence. However, we can influence two things: Firstly, we can make airports themselves sustainable developments. Airports are large buildings with high energy demands and often bad health and wellbeing; we can fix this. They also have large tracts of land which provide opportunities for biodiversity and sanctuary (for certain species). Secondly, architects can ensure that we futureproof for a sustainable aviation industry. There are emerging trends such as electric-powered planes which will need an infrastructure and we can promote investment in this field now. If we do not engage then we will lose the opportunity to address both of these issues.

Ben Cousins, director, Cousins & Cousins
Architects declaring a climate emergency is not going to stop airports being built. This isn’t a problem that will be solved by a knee-jerk reaction. This is a big tanker that will need time to change course, so I think architects who have declared, should carry on building airports, but do so as sustainably as possible. If architects who have declared, decline airport commissions, the work will go to those with less scrupulous credentials. Architects should decline private airport commissions which are incredibly wasteful.

This isn’t a problem that will be solved by a knee-jerk reaction

Other efforts can be put in place to mitigate the impact, such as a reduction in airport expansion plans; providing regulation ensuring that very stringent sustainability requirements are at the core of all airport design; investing in research into alternative aviation fuels; improving rail infrastructure and other transport. Also, clients could strive only to give airport commissions to local architects who don’t need to fly so far to attend the meetings.

A spokesperson for Scott Brownrigg
Air travel has connected the world and makes cross-fertilisation of knowledge and cultures possible and will still happen until a realistic alternative can be found. More than ever, architects have an important role to play in minimising the environmental impact of airports and the associated built environment and infrastructure requirements, through carbon-neutral and minus design.

As a profession we can collectively use our knowledge, skills and experience to have a positive impact. Our involvement in every airport design project is thoughtfully considered on a case-by-case basis. We are seeking ways to find the solutions to these global challenges. Once commissioned, our designs are similarly reviewed internally against our own sustainability targets, which align with our commitment to Architects Declare: carbon reduction, adaptation and resilience, resource depletion, equity and social justice, healthy environment and circular economy. We use our global expertise and influence in this sector to make a positive difference.’

Francis Gallagher, managing director, HKS London studio
Yes, architects who have declared can design airports; commercial aviation is and will be a critical part of global transport for the foreseeable future, so those of us committed to designing the best, most climate-positive airport terminals and passenger processing facilities are best placed to minimise their environmental impact.

Our airport clients globally share that goal. Many require net-zero energy and task us with going beyond that. We employ all relevant technologies and take a creative approach to passive planning and design to enhance the airport terminals’ positive effect on peoples’ lives and the environment. We recognise that most of the negative carbon and other harmful effects of the airport as a whole come from the ground vehicles accessing it. We work with our clients to ensure that non-carbon-based transit and other means of access are provided for or planned for short-term implementation.’

Bill Dunster of ZED Factory
There are already too many airports, there is already excessive global air travel capacity and it’s important that this transport mode is scaled down – not up. Alternatives to airports need promoting, such as electric airship terminals in city centres, high-speed rail terminals and sub-ocean rail tunnels. I am really looking forward to catching the train to New York.

It’s important air travel is scaled down – not up

The existing airports already provide more than enough capacity to cater for the limited amounts of biofuel that may in future power intercontinental passenger aircraft. 

Lee Bennett, partner at Sheppard Robson
The aviation industry is a serious problem for the environment. But, by refusing to design airports, we are distancing our profession from a major issue and stripping ourselves of the ability influence it.

Architects cannot define behavioural change, nor can we increase regulation or rethink tax on aviation fuels. However, we can design airport buildings to be as efficient and thoughtful as possible.

Would dislocating the most experienced and environmentally aware architects from the issue have a positive impact on climate change?



Readers' comments (4)

  • middletonpaul@me.com

    Do you honestly think airports won’t be built if architects generally refused? Of course not so let’s design the most efficient airports that is possible. The world has always changing so let’s be open to new opportunities!

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  • MacKenzie Architects

    There is no climate crisis, there is nothing happening just now that hasn't happened a thousand times in the past, long before our time.
    Send every climate scientist off to do a 1-day geology course and then ask them again if CO2 at 400ppmv is a big deal, or sea levels are a big deal, or greening the Sahara to feed a couple of billion people is a big deal.

    Life on this planet only evolved because of the cracked shell, the tilt of the earth, the position in the Milky Way and our elliptical orbit. From the amount of oxygen in the air, to the salinity of the sea, every single tiny creature had to adapt to change or go extinct. We are no different. We've got skeletons, eyes, brains, stomachs only because our family tree replicated with enough flaws for some of them to be fat enough, hairy enough, mobile enough or smart enough to cope with the next phase of climatic change.
    Even the amoeba figured that out.

    Perhaps if we focused on saving the rainforest, and planting a billion trees, they would take up the CO2 that 'architects' are worried about.
    Perhaps if we also focused on true pollution and plastic, we would make some progress.
    Perhaps if we focused on true sustainable energy, and low-impact design, we would make the world a better place.
    Building electric cars running off the power grid is just infantile, building huge steel windfarms which can only operate with massive subsidies, is no better.
    If 50% of the UK population stopped flying, you wouldn't need the airports, so maybe start there. Don't buy this week's iph*ne with all it's rare-earth metals, and don't replace your kitchen furniture every 5 years.
    Perhaps design buildings with less concrete, less steel, less heating and cooling.

    That doesn't need anyone out on the streets with banners -and might use some of our more objective creativity. Focus on that.

    If you want a real climate crisis, wait 'til the poles switch around 2042, they've already started a serious wobble.

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  • Common sense at last, from the MacKenzie Architects' correspondent!

    World temperature has constantly oscillated - over Millenia and over the shorter timescales of centuries and decades. Most climate alarmists only refer to the temperature change since the 1960s, which has indeed seen a gentle rise. Actually this stopped about 15 years ago though, since when temperatures have been fairly stable. No doubt that’s why the alarmists stopped calling temperature change ‘global warming’ and started calling it ‘climate change’ instead!

    In the 1930s and 40s the temperature was significantly hotter than it is now. The American dust bowl of the 1930s was partly a result of that. Then world temperature declined until the 1960s (I remember the bitter three month winter of 1962/3). Throughout this period, and for millennia, CO2 levels have always followed temperature changes, not preceded them, so CO2 increase is NOT a cause of temperature change; it is almost certainly a result of it.

    We should also stop regarding CO2 as some sort of evil pollutant. It is an essential ingredient of life! Indeed farmers who grow food in glass houses or the like, increase CO2 levels to 400 ppm or thereabouts to boost plant growth. Plants love it! And the very modest increases in atmospheric CO2, from whatever sources, is almost certainly why the Earth is greening at the moment such that if it continues, the Sahara may well become the significant arable agricultural area that the Mackenzie Architects’ correspondent referred to.

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  • so bored of the opener "given the climate emergency...."
    thank you all 3 comments above
    enough bunk about climate emergency... climate change yes, but not emergency.

    ps heard a great comedian last week talking about sea level rises

    he said "so, can't we walk a little bit uphill... ?"

    ps venice is sinking... it was built on wooden piles.

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