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Seventeen Stirling Prize winners unite to declare climate emergency


Some of the UK’s most influential architecture practices have joined forces to issue an unprecedented rallying cry for the profession to take action on the ‘twin crises’ of climate change and biodiversity loss

This morning (30 May) 17 winners of the RIBA Stirling Prize – including Foster + Partners, ZHA and Rogers Stirk Harbour – announced a call for practices across the UK to join them in declaring a ‘climate emergency’.

It comes weeks after the UK parliament became the first in the world to declare a climate emergency, one of the key demands of the environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion.

In an open letter, the diverse group argued that the buildings and construction accounts for nearly 40 per cent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, and more must be done to tackle the ’most serious issue of our time’.

It also unveiled a set of pledges – from sharing knowledge on climate mitigation to adopting more regenerative design principles – and has urged practices to sign up under the slogan ‘Architects Declare’. 

The work we take on as architects today will endure for the next half-century and beyond … we must reset the objectives

Ivan Harbour, Rogers Stirk Harbour

According to the letter, meeting society’s needs without ‘breaching the earth’s ecological boundaries’ will demand a paradigm shift in the way the industry currently operates.

It reads: ‘The research and technology exist for us to begin that transformation now, but what has been lacking is collective will. Recognising this, we are committing to strengthen our working practices to create architecture and urbanism that has a more positive impact on the world around us.’

Rogers Stirk Harbour senior design partner Ivan Harbour said parliament’s own declaration of a climate emergency confirmed that we ‘now need to go much further, much faster’.

He added: ‘The work we take on as architects today will endure for the next half-century and beyond. To combat this emergency now we must reset the objectives, with our clients and the industry, if we are to help safeguard the future for all.’

Haworth Tompkins director Steve Tompkins, who recently called on the RIBA to declare a climate emergency itself, said the group of architects with ‘widely differing design philosophies’ had come together to commit to change and he hoped every UK firm would join them.

‘As a profession, we often complain that we have been marginalised and our agency diminished, so this is a chance for us to stand up and be counted,’ he said, ‘If enough architects commit to positive change, we can make a difference in a sector that is a still a massive contributor to the UK’s energy-based CO2 generation.’

As a practice which must travel by air to work, we would not wish for anyone to think that we are moralising on this matter

Jim Heverin, Zaha Hadid Architects


He added: ‘The open letter makes clear that we all need to change the way we work, so it’s not a question of inviting only those who think they have a spotless track record – no one does.’

Meanwhile, Zaha Hadid Architects director Jim Heverin said: ‘We aren’t so naive to think a single statement by architects will lead to immediate change. Moreover, as a practice which must travel by air to work, we would not wish for anyone to think that we are blind to our faults or that we are moralising on this matter.

‘Nevertheless, the facts on climate change are clear and grave. This statement is a public note to ourselves that we need to do much more, both in how we practise design and how we can work with clients to address these challenges. If this statement also lends some weight to influence others beyond our own industry, that is also a positive step.’

Gerard Maccreanor and Richard Lavington of Maccreanor Lavington commented: ‘It’s been hard to avoid the environmental implications on our planet with the recent media coverage. However, actually reading the UN’s biodiversity report is a shocking reminder about how complacent we’ve been.

‘We’ve all been taking things for granted and this is a call to everyone to do their bit. Sustainability should be at the core of every architect’s work. As a profession, we need to be at the forefront of the discussion, keep the pressure on and fight for more sustainable future policies within the built environment.’ 

The founder signatories to the declaration are: AL_A, Alison Brooks Architects, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, Caruso St John, 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 and Zaha Hadid Architects. 

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.   

Readers' comments (7)

  • Well, that explains the surfeit of used Porche Cayennes on Autotrader this morning.

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  • Is Patrik Schumacher a Sterling Price winner?

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  • Why these "11 commandments" now? Are you afraid public opinion might get to your clients and make them think differently who to commission? Have you finally decided which way the wind blows, and try to get ahead to sail downwind (ask DC how that works: it often doesn't get you where you need to go). Maybe you founding signatories should sponsor a research project looking at your projects to asses them against your commandments, and see how they fare. I am sure you, and many others, could learn a lot about how not to build. Maybe I am too biased, but I don't think so.

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  • “This is great news. Now it’s time for the RIBA to take a stand and declare that we are in the middle of a Climate Emergency. The construction industry is the major consumer of the world’s natural resources (approx 50%)..... and the Cement/ Concrete industry is a major part of that and associated CO2e emissions. So all signatories to this noble group have got to get over their love of concrete if we are going to go anywhere near the huge reduction in whole life carbon, let along the ambition for zero carbon/ zero waste targets many of us desire.... A good step forward though - well done”.

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  • Well done the top people, but we all have get on board, and upgrade our expertise. We are usually called on to solve several problems at the same time. Don’t forget the housing crisis? Fire safety? Poverty and lack of pensions in the developing world that is causing over population. Gender and racial equality?

    We obviously can’t be expected to solve them all, but we can try? Rome wasn’t built in a day, and mostly by slaves?! And quietly resist the silly Nimbies? Stop flying then. Stop driving. No, we will find more efficient and less polluting ways of flying by the location of airports. We will drive hybrid. E Types belong in a museum? A fond memory? This is beginning to sound like a Ranganation. With HSBC?!

    There is no going back, but there is a better route? We grew a battle fleet that ruled the world in the forests of Hampshire! Therefore timber frame where possible, with sheep’s wool insulation and a log fire at Xmas?!

    We have the expertise. The future is slim, green and fitter?

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  • Dirk Bruns is on the nail. Nice to imagine "The Tulip" project now being quietly withdrawn in a cloud of acute envarrassment. And almost any other much publicised ego-trip by the rest of the 'initiators' of this surge of quasi-guilt. Some of us have already spent decades designing and building to last centuries rather than decades, in low-tech carbon-sequestering materials. But better late than never; give these 'declaring' people no more publicity in this subject, and follow the students' move to have their educators educated in real sustainability.

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  • Wasn't Norman Foster proposing a massive airport in the Thames estuary just recently?

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