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Fight Trump with green design, say UK architects


NEWS ANALYSIS: Six leading architects tell Will Hurst how the profession should respond to the prospect of a climate change denier in the White House

The next president of the United States has described climate change as a ‘hoax’ made up by the Chinese, and has repeatedly promised to cancel the landmark Paris climate change agreement signed a year ago. Given this, plus the fact that the US is responsible for around 16 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and has one of the highest levels of emissions per capita of any country, last month’s shock election of Donald Trump has placed a big fat question mark over global efforts to fight climate change.

But there are also signs that the Trump factor is galvanising those seeking international action on greenhouse gas. Observers say his growing prominence helped the Paris accord (COP21) become international law in record time, and there are reports that environmental groups are experiencing an increase in membership enquiries.

So how are UK architects concerned with sustainability responding? According to RIBA president Jane Duncan it’s time for everyone to take responsibility for sustainable architecture, no matter what is in the brief. ‘There are superb ambassadors for this work already, but they are still in the minority,’ she says. ’The whole industry must assume responsibility’.

For Clare Murray, head of sustainability at Levitt Bernstein, it is vital that architects do not neglect mitigation of climate change in building design as well as energy-saving techniques. ‘Extreme events such as air pollution, flood risk, drought, hot summers and cold winters pose the most immediate threat to the built environment,’ she says.

Meanwhile Sunand Prasad, senior partner at Penoyre & Prasad and a former RIBA president, is concerned that architects and other professionals should become better communicators. If the election of Trump teaches us anything, Prasad says, it is that separate ideological ‘bubbles’ have emerged in society which need challenging, not least with messages on the importance of good design and the need to tackle climate change. ‘We must seek out people who disagree with us,’ he says. 

Aj trump post truth edit

Aj trump post truth edit

Clare Murray, head of sustainability at Levitt Bernstein 

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Regardless of Trump’s or the UK’s withdrawal from their respective deals, our climate is rapidly and irreversibly changing, with 2016 the hottest year on record – 1.2°C warmer than pre-industrial levels, which is worryingly close to the 1.5-2°C target set in Paris.

Extreme events such as air pollution, flood risk, drought, hot summers and cold winters pose the most immediate threat to the built environment. However, these are perhaps the most readily solved problems through simple, good design. 

Architects should be asking for overheating assessments on all their buildings

Architects should be asking for overheating assessments to be carried out on all of their buildings, incorporating the effects of rising temperatures in 2020, 2050 and 2080. Mitigation measures should then include: sensibly sized windows rather than walls of glass, adequate solar shading and effective natural cross-ventilation with thermal mass. 

Masterplans should encourage walking and cycling, while providing meaningful biodiverse green space to reduce the urban heat island effect and improve local air quality. Innovative features can then be included for surface water drainage that blend into the landscape design. 

With or without Trump, our focus should firmly be on reducing the effects of climate change for the people using our buildings. We must consider what we can do now, what can be futureproofed, and who pays the price if we don’t act.

Sunand Prasad, former RIBA president and senior partner at Penoyre & Prasad

Sunand prasad

Trump’s victory has an obvious parallel with the Brexit vote, and very possibly with elections to come in France and The Netherlands. The liberal consensus that has ruled the Western democracies has cracked. 

The steady march of social liberalism since 1945 had left behind some portions of populations but there was general acceptance of change. Economic liberalism has left far more people behind, and done to them and to society a great deal of damage. 

Trump has managed to mangle the two narratives into a poisonous mix to reach sufficient numbers of voters who want, above all, to see the political establishment taken apart by a non-politician. It’s not just that no one had a different story of the future powerful enough to convince this constituency, but that no one who believed in a different future even connected with its anger. 

We must seek out people who disagree with us

In hindsight the most surprising thing is the surprise at Brexit and now Trump. Populations of most countries have been living in increasingly separate ideological bubbles; a tendency that appears to be reinforced by social media. The first lesson of Brexitrump is to try and construct a democracy in which ideas and arguments cross communities of interest more freely and vigorously. That applies not only to political and economic issues but to artistic and social ones.

A small but pertinent example: when John Hayes, the transport minister, made a speech asking for more beauty in buildings, the published reaction from architects was dismissive. Yes, the rhetoric was pompous and the ‘reactionary’ references guaranteed to irritate Modernists (speaking as one). But we must focus on the audience and not the speaker. A minister talking about beauty is a great chance to push the case for great architecture and design in schools, for example, to reach a different set of people. 

We need to talk less among the converted and seek out people who disagree with us. The disagreement may be about the importance of design, or of action on climate change or on why buildings and neighbourhoods are not nicer. That will require a different way of talking and behaving with less complacency about one’s own fact and logic-based beliefs and greater willingness to step into other world views and concerns.

Jonathan Hines, managing director of Architype

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Oxford Dictionaries has just declared ‘post-truth’ to be its word of the year. Others described this as a ‘post-factual’ age. The Daily Mail slated High Court judges as ‘enemies of the people’ for upholding the sovereignty of parliament. Donald Trump claims that climate change is a ‘hoax’ invented by the Chinese. Worrying times. 

While we should not underestimate the depth of suffering and length of damage that may be caused, many of the actions Trump is proposing will in time be reversible through human campaigning and concerted action. We should hold on to this hope and in the meantime avoid ‘normalising’ Trump.

Fight back against ‘post-truth’ by focusing on evidence-based design

However, if he does pull out of COP21 – reversing all the environmental progress being made in the USA, and required to be made in the future to prevent global climate change – much of the damage will be irreversible.

As architects, our remit is surely to use our skills to shape a better environment for the future. We should do everything in our power to create a sustainable future, designing our buildings to minimise the use of energy and reducing the carbon embodied in construction.

Architects should respond to this post-truth era, by focusing more than ever on evidence-based design. We should learn from post-occupancy evaluation monitoring, and use the laws of building physics to design buildings that actually work, eg through Passivhaus, demonstrating that efficient low-energy design makes sound commercial sense.

We may never be able to persuade climate deniers through the power of argument alone, but we should never give up trying. Truth and evidence will ultimately prevail.

Lynne Sullivan, architect at LSA Studio and chair of the Good Homes Alliance

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Trump’s election seems to represent a cry to be heard from those who disassociate from mainstream politics. Shocking to some, but if we take the cry to heart on our home territory we must all be better advocates for our industry to put building users’ best interests to the forefront of design priorities; to re-engage with the notion of public good. 

For architects this means doing as much as we can to embrace transparency of outcomes and advocating routine performance evaluation in buildings; to make a better connection between people/users and the impacts on them of their built environment instead of defaulting to regulatory compliance and ignoring our wider responsibilities. 

We must go beyond regulatory compliance

This would require architects to take a lead in delivering building projects that deliver on energy performance and costs, as well as being uplifting and maximising comfort, health and environmental benefit.  

In general, architects do not question the adequacy of current methodologies and are blind to shortcomings of compliance (evidenced by the UK government’s own Building Performance Evaluation meta-studies), let alone recognising that a warming climate puts at risk buildings and users alike in the case of both flooding and overheating.  

Trump’s pronouncements on global warming and climate change fly in the face of overwhelming scientific opinion and ignore growing numbers of businesses and insurers concerned about their developments’ exposure to climate change risks. 

Governments and industry alike must be more articulate about these risks, and more collaborative and convincing about our plan of mitigation and action, which COP21 agreements demand. 

Renewable energy accessibility and innovations in energy storage make investment in fossil fuels seem ever more anachronistic, and new stories of corporate divestment appear daily. We must add our voice and promote building energy efficiency as a vital component of our global energy future. Hopefully, business sense combined with public good will chime with Trump and he will rethink his campaign rhetoric.

Robin Nicholson, senior partner at Cullinan Studio and convenor of built environment think tank the Edge

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I am writing from Chongqing, a city of more than 8 million in central south China – the source of Donald Trump’s climate change ‘hoax’. As Trump reboots the US coal industry and endeavours to revive manufacturing in a country where labour is too expensive, his ‘victory for the common man’ raises questions of who we are and where we are trying to get to as the climate changes. 

Since David Cameron oversaw the UK’s loss of global climate leadership, we now have to put climate change at the heart of all our work and concentrate on retrofitting our existing buildings, an interdisciplinary task that calls for a major rethink of our education.

Chongqing’s recent Sustainable Built Environment (SBE16) conference and the launch of a new Joint International Green Research Laboratory witnessed Donald Trump’s voters scoring a spectacular own goal. The USA has surely ceded its joint leadership of the global green economy to the Chinese, who still value UK knowledge and expertise. 

Let’s focus on retrofitting existing buildings

Over the weekend, Edge members helped Matthew Priestman tutor the first RIBA/Chongqing urban planning and design workshop, in collaboration with the China Academy of Urban planning and Design. The enthusiasm, intelligence and self-awareness of the young urbanists impressed; they debated the future and their role in it as we worked on another aspect of the five-year plan, the balance between urban and rural.

Our understanding is still world-leading in parts and the UK is well respected here, but Britain’s investment in green building research needs to be maintained and its dissemination improved or we will be on the receiving end rather than being part of the solution.

Jane Duncan, RIBA president

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No doubt the election outcome will have put a damper on the spirits of the 200 countries that convened in Marrakech at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP22) to discuss how implementing the Paris agreement can bring us closer to a zero-carbon, resilient future. 

However it’s true to say that climate change action is now in the global mainstream, driven not only by politicians, but by societies and businesses alike.

For most countries, investment in sustainable and smart building technologies and infrastructure will be on the cards in the foreseeable future. This provides an opportunity for the profession to research and create innovative design processes and considerate interventions in the built environment that facilitate sustainable development while meeting client expectations. 

The whole industry must assume responsibility

It is up to all of us in the built environment sector to champion the principles of sustainability even when not specified in the brief, to inspire customers with good quality, value-driven cost proposals and cost-effective maintenance solutions that are also considerate of the environment, social and economic improvements.

There are superb ambassadors for this work already, but they are still in the minority. The whole industry must assume responsibility for and prepare to tackle the 20 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide generated by the built environment.

At the UN Climate Change Conference, the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GABC), of which the RIBA is a member, launched a global roadmap for buildings, with a focus on energy-efficient building and climate finance, particularly for developing countries. 

It sets out how the building sector can do its bit to ensure global warming levels are contained within 1.5- 2°C limits. I hope that this will mobilise and inspire professionals to up their ante. 


Readers' comments (2)

  • I most sincerely hope the architectural profession is not about to further sully its reputation by going overboard in the embrace of the disputed climate change belief. Whilst being fully onboard with the responsibility of endeavouring to create sustainable, energy-efficient buildings, I question the almost religious fealty so many demonstrate with their gung-ho acceptance of what is, yet, an unproven theory.
    Already we have seen the most absurd failures in the pursuit of inflicting on the public grossly expensive, and quite frankly, idiotic projects that can only add more damage to the public's already low perception of the design and construction industry.
    Need we look any further than the Dartington Primary School fiasco; now demolished after so few years. Why is the RIBA not doing something to salvage its reputation rather than stay silent on what can only be described as monument to the utter incompetence of those involved in the project?

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  • Though we focus on the USA, the risks from changes to legislation and encouragement for green design in the UK are also significant issues. In England (rather than the UK as a whole because the devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are taking their own directions) the receding enthusiasm for low energy/low carbon design within legislation and regulation is alarming. This will leave us with potential to be ‘designing down’ to a rather poor and inadequate minimum standard.
    All this is more than unfortunate, though all is not lost on either side of the Atlantic if architects and other building professionals can demonstrate the health, comfort, and productivity (as well as energy) benefits of good environmentally sensitive design; factors which increasingly prove the economic case too.
    It should also be mentioned that there are a number of cities in the US where there exists significant support and beneficial development of energy-efficient design. I also concur with Robin Nicholson that China is making significant development towards greener design, and from my own links in south-west China, this can be extended to rural areas (where more than 600 million people continue to reside) as well as to urban zones. So perhaps we can focus on the positive opportunities in times of concern.

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