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Porritt: 'architects are failing to tackle climate change'


Architects are failing to live up to their professional responsibility to tackle climate change, leading environmentalist Jonathan Porritt has said

Speaking at the Bartlett ethics symposium held earlier this week, Porritt said no-one in the built environment had ‘immunity’ from engaging with the latest scientific data on carbon emissions and the predicted rises in global temperature and considering what this meant for their work.

But he said architects on the whole were relying on out-of-date science less alarming that the most current projections.

‘When I look at the combined contribution of architects in the UK to addressing climate change – doing something to influence policy makers, doing something to get a handle on what it means to live with climate change, I’m a bit questioning,’ he said.

Architecture on Trial - climate change

‘There are of course brilliant individuals talking about how important it is to engage morally with this question but for the profession in the round, you’d have to ask the question of whether anyone would associate it with tackling climate change in our troubled world.’

Porritt added: ‘I call it client dependency syndrome. Contractors and architects all suffer from various degrees of this syndrome and it is complicated knowing how to deal with it.

‘Some have one foot in hydrocarbon-intensive earth trashing [client] companies and another foot in innovative and environmental low-carbon companies.’

Asked if he was surprised by this, given architects’ belief that they are a socially conscious profession, he said: ‘It does surprise me. It’s this question of a changing knowledge base. There has been a reduction in uncertainty [about climate change] and growing levels of confidence about causation. It’s been a 30 year process of doubts being diminished.

‘The profession needs to engage with the science as it is today but my hunch is that a lot of professionals like architects are still engaged with the science of five, 10 or 20 years ago.

‘It is hard to keep up with the science and there is this throb of pathetic anti-science in the UK. But I suspect that a lot of architects do not fulfill that…minimum professional responsibility and I’m worried about that.’

Porritt, a former director of Friends of the Earth, is a founder director of environmental group Forum for the Future.

He was speaking at the Practicing Ethics in Built Environment Research event on Monday hosted by Jane Rendell of the Bartlett.


Readers' comments (3)

  • Porrit J is right on the money in his analysis of our profession's response to climate change. All strength to his albow. I take the view no building should be constructed or altered that does not conform to the latest advice from those who know.
    Simon norris architect.

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  • Couldn't agree more. However of course we are dependant on the commitment of clients because its their money we spend. We are also dependant on government policy as its within that framework and the parameter they set that the clients operate. We need the RIBA to be a stronger voice in pushing forward greater environmental standards and lobbying for improvements at government and statutory authority level. We also need the industry press to focus more on real sustainability issues, not green wash projects ( urban parsley) and we need to design buildings now for the climate of 20, 40 and 80 years time. I refer you below to our manifesto statement first issued 4 years ago - perhaps time for an update:

    1 – The Challenge
    Constants and Change
    As we face the challenges brought about by the economic, political and social context of today, the effects of climate change will take greater prominence on future design. Global warming is real, its effects estimated and its consequences will be widespread and varied. Approximately 50% of all resources consumed on Earth are used in construction. Construction is reported to be the least sustainable industry in the world. It is about to go
    through the most dramatic period of change since the invention of steel framed buildings and the industrial revolution. This is not only because of the political commitments and the increased public acceptance of the need to be sustainable, but the buildings we design now
    need to be designed for the foreseeable effects of climate change. A new epoch will be recognisable in years to come, created by the need for architecture to respond to global
    warming and prepare our towns and cities for a new environment.

    The UK escapes the worst effects of climate change compared to many places; however the UK Met Office predicts that the south of England’s average day time temperature will be 9 degrees higher in the summer of 2080. Our future here will be hotter, we will have less
    predictable water supplies, more violent storms and we will have less reliable sources of fossil fuels. The procurement of buildings today needs to take all of these issues into
    account. Design solutions need to adapt to the effects of climate change whilst minimizing their contribution to the causes; design solutions need to be embedded within the form, construction and materials of all new buildings. Design now must allow us to maintain a good quality of the life without hindering future generation’s ability to provide the same for themselves. The challenge for the construction industry and Architects today, therefore, is
    how can we design for the long term to give people places that will serve them well through many times, changing technologies, and over many years in an earnest, considered and truly sustainable way?

    2 – The Response
    Design Principles
    Sustainable development is defined in the Brundtland Report as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. This definition contains two key concepts, that of needs and limitations. The basic needs of all people, and the limitations reached by contemporary technology, social context and the environments ability to meet future and present needs. All definitions of sustainable development depict the world as an interconnected system: One world that is connected in space and connected in the sequence of time. Architecture, building and development is by its very nature a positive investment in our future. It is the undertaking of work to sustain or improve our future quality of life. Architects
    working today for the benefit of people in 25, 50, 80 years time and beyond. The timescales involved mean that our buildings need to be designed not only to ‘meet the needs of the present’, but will need to serve future generations. Given the evidence and predictions of how our environment is changing, a more adequate/appropriate definition of sustainable development might be, ‘development that meets the needs of the present and foreseeable future without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs’. This principle calls for designing and building focused not on short-term architectural awards, or
    acclamation , or even on building regulations or BREEAM standards, but to the best possible solution that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.
    This change in mindset is not about using low energy light bulbs, but rather about why electrically powered lighting is required at all. It is about asking difficult questions that
    generate a shift in our perception of the things we take for granted and the way in which our homes, offices and all buildings operate, look and are procured. The One-World view is that sustainability recognises the nexus linking the economy, society, and our environment. We have one world and the resources of one world only. Until such a time when resources from other worlds can viably be procured we need to base the design of everything on this brief.
    A one-world approach to design stipulates that we consume resources only at a rate at which they can be replenished and produce waste only at a rate at which it can be recycled. It requires that we deal with the relationships between all aspects of building habitation and
    use holistically rather than as individual elements in isolation. Architects now must seek out and support sustainable development opportunities and create solutions that offer both an environmentally sound and a high quality product. We will achieve this through understanding how things have been done before, learning the practical lessons of the past, and by staying ahead of the statutory regulations by meeting future standards today. We will use architectural tools to adapt, improve and craft existing
    and new buildings in a way that serves people to the best possible effect, without submitting to ego or seeking monument. Through clear thinking, not swayed by fashion or fads, we need to use intuitive approaches to address the challenges of regeneration that are fit for purpose, context and the future in a truly sustainable development.

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  • In the words of my old Dad...'I'll shove a brush up my a*** and sweep the floor on the way out'
    Anything else architects should be responsible for as their fees flatline, their employees salaries rocket and the surrounding industry Piranha's circle to nibble the last morsels of flesh off the bone?
    Time for Architects to put on their proverbial Doc Martens and kick back.
    Lets focus on improving the lot of the profession first. Charity begins at home.

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