Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.


Why architects need to wake up to the carbon emergency


What can you do to mitigate the huge impact of construction on climate change? By Will Hurst  

Twelve years ago, almost to the week, the AJ published an issue on sustainability and climate change. Looking back at the green-fronted 8 March 2007 issue provides a fascinating insight into how much (and how little) has changed. The issue, which came in the wake of the government’s Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, featured work by architects who, still today, are among a small handful deeply concerned with carbon emissions and their effect on climate change. There was a retrofit of a 1970s Seifert tower in the City by Simon Sturgis and his practice and cartoons by Ian McKay of BBM Sustainable Design illustrating the principles of eco-design. No less than 20 pages were devoted to the UK Architecture Stand at MIPIM 2007, which had a ‘green design’ theme.

Things must come in twelves; that is how
many years we have left in which to limit 
global warming to 1.5°C

Things must come in twelves, because that, we are told bleakly by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is how many years we have left in which to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels or face droughts, floods, extreme weather events and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. As the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg told global leaders at Davos last month: ‘Our house is on fire’. If the blaze gets out of control, other parts of the world will be the worst affected. Yet the UK was among those experiencing severe wildfires last summer and one only has to glance at the effects on Europe of the migrant crisis to imagine the consequences of an influx of desperate people on an exponentially bigger scale. 

So what has been the response to this metaphorical smoke alarm, ramped up a notch or two by the IPCC report? Some sections of society are beginning to mobilise, such as the thousands of school pupils from the #YouthStrike4Climate movement, who drew attention to the crisis by following Thunberg’s example and going ‘on strike’ around the country this month. But, even faced with climate change-related events such as the extreme devastation caused by Hurricanes Michael and Florence, dramatic data on the extent of melting ice at the earth’s poles and starving polar bears invading towns in the far north of Russia, architects and others in the built environment seem to have lost interest. 

At this year’s UK government pavilion at MIPIM,
it is hard to find any reference to climate change

Of course, some progress has been made in the past 12 years. New buildings have become more energy-efficient and pioneering architects are exploring radical new ways of using materials. Yet the focus on eco-design we saw over a decade ago has dissipated and, to be frank, so has the AJ’s coverage. At this year’s UK government pavilion at MIPIM, it is hard to find any reference to climate change unless you count a talk about ‘health, wellbeing and happiness’. While the government remains legally committed to the long-term goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050 under the Climate Change Act 2008, there is an abject lack of joined-up thinking within Whitehall and precious little leadership from ministers, especially given the distraction of Brexit. At a design conference held this month in Birmingham by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), architect and TV presenter George Clarke was alone in broaching the topic of global warming. 

Why architects are key

Architects are only a small part of the global system which got us to this point and it would be wrong to single out the profession or berate them for neglecting this subject. If architects are in denial, then so too are most business sectors and the media for that matter.

But what should give us pause for thought is just how carbon-intensive architecture is and, conversely, what impact for the good architects might make if they began to specialise in this subject and tackle it like social entrepreneurs. This is especially true when construction’s carbon emissions are considered in the round, according to the principles of ‘whole-life carbon’. 

News carbon graphs

The 35-40 per cent of UK carbon emissions said by the Green Construction Board to be caused by the built environment is a significant underestimate, because it refers only to the day-to-day carbon emissions of buildings in use. This is the part of the WLC equation that architects and measuring tools like BREEAM have focused on. The profession has commonly ignored the other part – embodied carbon. This relates to the building’s physical properties and makes up between half and three-quarters of an individual new building’s lifetime carbon emissions. Some of this embodied carbon is expended prior to practical completion – through material sourcing and production, transport and construction – and some afterwards, as a result, for example, of maintenance or replacement of a building’s structure, envelope or environmental systems. 

There seem to be few reliable statistics indicating what proportion of overall UK emissions come from embodied carbon in buildings. However, the government’s Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK) has estimated that about 45 per cent of WLC emissions in the UK come from buildings – 27 per cent from domestic buildings and 18 per cent from non-domestic buildings. Comparing that 45 per cent with the Green Construction Board’s figure would suggest that UK construction is responsible for 5-10 per cent of the country’s carbon emissions. 

Awareness of WLC is growing, thanks to publications such as last year’s RIBA report ‘Embodied and whole life carbon assessments for architects’, which builds on work by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and aims to integrate WLC assessment principles with the RIBA work stages. Yet architects, on the whole, are failing to think deeply about the short and long-term carbon impact of the materials they use and the principles of the circular economy. How many were shocked by the recent Chatham House report on concrete, which highlighted the 8 per cent of global carbon emissions caused by the cement industry? How many were surprised by the row over the sustainability credentials of Foster + Partners’ Stirling Prize-winning Bloomberg HQ, the world’s highest BREEAM-rated major office building, which was nevertheless criticised for its heavyweight construction and high level of embodied carbon?

How green is your building, Mr Foster? 

Bloomberghq jimstephenson 5

Examining Foster + Partners’ 2018 Stirling Prize-winning Bloomberg HQ building solely from its operational energy use, the building does extremely well, writes Richard Waite. The £1 billion City of London block is officially the world’s highest BREEAM-ranked office building. A year’s worth of in-use data confirm that it remains a highly efficient scheme, even with 4,000 staff working there. In fact, the BREEAM score for the building increased from 98.5 per cent in the design stage to 99.1 per cent post-construction

However, that is not the full story. As the Stirling jury’s sustainability adviser Simon Sturgis pointed out while touring the building, the amount of embodied carbon in the project is massive, having gobbled up ‘enormous resources used to create it’, aimed primarily at ‘maximising performance’. The structure includes 9,000 tonnes of sandstone transported from Derbyshire. 

Sturgis wrote in the AJ: ‘[This] building is extraordinary, and indeed a sustainability laboratory; however, in my view it is not a truly sustainable building itself nor is it a model to others for the future.’

Perhaps if the building stands for 200 years – and it is certainly tough enough and flexible enough to last – then this initial environmental outlay may be seen more favourably.

Yet a whole-life carbon assessment would struggle to look beyond the huge volumes of non-renewable materials used. Photo by Jim Stephenson

The opportunity to grasp

At this point, it would be easy to feel overwhelmed and question what impact architectural practices, already marginalised in the wider construction industry, can do about this enormous and systemic challenge. Part of the answer is to point out that there is a new role for architects here if they choose to grasp it. The decision-makers may have been slow to act but they can hear that smoke alarm and it is only going to get louder.

Even now, leading clients are looking to adopt WLC principles because they rightly see them as going hand-in-hand with cutting cost and reducing risk down the line. Developers such as Landsec and British Land and infrastructure companies such as Anglian Water are interested in low-carbon materials and the re-use and recycle agenda because they see it as akin to value engineering. They are increasingly concerned with a far more efficient lifetime use of resources and the need to avoid buildings becoming obsolescent. 

While some in the industry might see fabric-dominated emissions as the responsibility of the services engineer, this is rightly the territory of the architect, who should be able to make the argument for low carbon construction materials on business grounds, including cost. Think of Amin Taha last month telling the AJ that the use of stone at his project 15 Clerkenwell Close not only reduced the embodied carbon of the overall superstructure by 90 per cent compared with steel or concrete but also cost about a quarter of the price. 

Architects will have to prioritise the retrofit
and re-use agenda and oppose demolition

But, in order to make the most of the opportunities, architects will need to take the initiative. They will need to bring their problem-solving and creative skills to bear. They will need to better understand materials, help to redefine what ‘good’ architecture looks like and successfully make the case that ultra-low WLC buildings are simply better buildings. They will have to prioritise the retrofit and re-use agenda and oppose demolition unless the case for it is unanswerable. Above all, they will need to get out of the habit of following and start to lead. 

Of course, the profession can only be a part of the solution. It is not going to save the planet on its own in the next decade. Clearly, we urgently need to see innovative and progressive new ways of regulating and taxing carbon introduced to keep global warming below 1.5°C. But architects need to stop waiting for government to act and ask themselves what being a professional means. Concern for others and for the environment is embedded in both the ARB and RIBA codes of professional conduct and here we are staring at a humanitarian and environmental emergency. We do not have another 12 years to waste.


Understanding whole-life carbon: the basics

Whole-life carbon includes both embodied carbon and operational (in-use) carbon, writes Richard Waite

Embodied carbon

Embodied carbon is the carbon dioxide created by a building: during the manufacture and transport of material; during its construction; through maintenance to its fabric; and by its eventual demolition. For most schemes, this starts with the emissions from the extraction of the raw materials, processing in a factory, and taking them to site. Embodied carbon further includes the upkeep or replacement of a building’s structure, envelope and environmental systems over time. An element of embodied carbon is also accounted for by demolition and disposal of materials at the end of a building’s life.   

Operational carbon

This is the carbon dioxide emitted from a building’s energy use: heating, cooling, lighting and equipment operation.

News carbon graphs2


Who is doing what to tackle carbon emissions in construction?

London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI)

LETI was launched in 2017 by environmental engineers Elementa Consulting. It is a voluntary network of more than 250 built environment professionals (including more than a dozen architectural practices), who have collaborated to develop proposals to revise London’s energy policy. It believes that, by 2020, the industry needs to have developed a definition for what ‘operating at net zero’ means, with defined, measurable targets and a design approach. It estimates five years to sense check, refine and validate the approach to ensure that by 2025, all the buildings that are being designed operate at net zero. LETI’s overall ambition is for all new buildings to achieve net zero by 2030. leti.london

UK Green Building Council (UKGBC)

The UKGBC has launched a task force to unravel the debated definition of ‘zero carbon’, now reframed as ‘net zero’. Four architects are among the industry heavyweights that make up the 35-strong group with a consultation currently under way until 1 March. The taskforce has recommended principles in five topic areas: disclosure; energy efficiency; renewables; offsets; and whole-life carbon. Recommendations, due in April, will be accompanied by potential policy levers at national and local level. The initiative is in response to a global campaign led by the World Green Building Council (WGBC), which is calling for all new buildings to be net zero carbon in operation by 2030, and all existing buildings to achieve this standard by 2050. www.ukgbc.org

American Institute of Architects (AIA)

In December the AIA penned an open letter to US president Donald Trump, imploring him to address climate change. It follows his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement in 2017 and his recent rejection of a major report on how climate change will impact the economy. The AIA asked architects to sign its call to action; has helped set the federal 2030 net zero energy goals; and updated its code of ethics to address sustainability issues directly. It has also signed up to Architecture 2030, a voluntary disclosure initiative in the USA, which tracks operational energy use and has developed a building standard for new construction resulting in net zero-carbon buildings. www.aia.org

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC)

Last October, the UK government instructed the CCC to advise on whether the UK should set a target for net zero emissions. The watchdog will report back in May but last week published a hard-hitting report, which argued that the UK’s housing stock is ‘unfit’ for tackling climate change. www.theccc.org.uk


The RIBA responded to the IPCC report by pointing to its alignment with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which, according to the institute, sit ‘at the heart of everything we do’. Its newly established Ethics and Sustainable Development Commission recently made a series of recommendations, including drawing up a ‘comprehensive plan’ to drive the advancement of sustainable architecture. The RIBA’s Sustainable Futures Group is also updating its Plan of Work, set to be published in the autumn, which will help project teams aim for meaningful sustainable outcomes in the brief, manage their delivery and undertake analysis up to three years after handover. www.architecture.com

Reporting by Ella Jessel


Readers' comments (10)

  • Does the AJ offer a reduced cost subscription yet to encourage the take up of digital only readership? Surely there must be a significant environmental impact and cost associated with printing and distributing hard copies.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Thanks for your comment. Every business should be responding to the IPCC report and we are currently thinking hard about what changes we can make.<br/><br/>AJ does offer a digital-only subscription, which costs less than the print and digital package. More details here: www.architectsjournal.co.uk/subscriptions

  • Gordon  Gibb

    What Will Hurst fails to acknowledge is that architects are not the decision makers in these matters. It would be different if architecture was only about need. It appears to me that most architecture in London (the local area predominantly represented by the AJ) is about celebration of excess for the benefit of a narcissistic organisation or authority.

    We have been told by Sir Michael Latham that the architect should not be the decision maker; it should be the consumer, and by Sir John Egan that the process should not be driven by the architect but by the contractor. Government policy has followed that advice ever since and that has been adopted by the private sector. Now the only thing left with a public face, the rather silly concept of "prettiness", is being put in the hands of an untrained and out-of-date privileged traditionalist with friends from the old school to give him a chance to spout about what he likes to see on a Wednesday.

    So why are you telling architects about sustainability? We know about it. We are at the cutting edge of this and know that there is far more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in your article. The problem exists because no-one is interested in what we say.

    Look at the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, as a perfect example of the direct consequence of all that the government has advised. No sandstone there. Existing building reused. Cheapest, lightest materials used. Decisions made by client and contractor alone. Big sums saved on oversight. Big sums saved by the Westminster government by not changing the law and the regulations for England when neighbouring countries had done so, based upon the same knowledge. And the result? Unimaginable human loss, and terrible social and environmental cost. This was followed by further resource waste through the government, who are seriously conflicted, setting up a public enquiry that omits reference to their procurement route and a police action which cannot look at a failure in the law. How sustainable did that turn out to be?

    I think it is time for people to stop telling architects what they should know about the subject in which they are extensively trained and start listening to them. It is also time to start appreciating that the terrible problems we have with the lack of sustainability in the construction industry do not lie with architects. The failure is that the process of procurement, taken away from architects in recent years, is led by the ephemeral priorities of the paymaster and the current government, and not the wider and lengthier-impact needs of the user and the environment.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Gordon  Gibb

    I also find the title of this article "Why architects need to wake up to the carbon emergency" offensive. Do you have any evidence that we are less aware of this issue than we should be? Are you stating, as you appear to be, that we are asleep?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • perhaps it would be more accurate to label this "why clients need to wake up..."

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Excellent news about the reduced cost digital option. It was n’t an option when I signed but I’ll definitely look to make the change.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • why lawmakers need to wake up to climate emergency...and why they should ask architects what to do.... a more fitting title perhaps.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • For Ian Goulty:
    I trust that you're aware that to access the digital editions of the AJ requires electricity - which, even if of 'green' origins, is still likely to involve significant embodied carbon (the concrete footing required to resist the overturning forces on a large onshore wind turbine tower has to be seen to be believed).
    And turning to the print edition, many decades worth could contribute substantially to both the insulating qualities and thermal mass of external walls if library shelving is located on these walls. Just saying.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Thanks Bob, I was aware of those things, but since we need installations to generate the electricity anyway, but don't need to actually print the AJ or ferry the hard copies around for the information contained in it to be distributed, and since the AJ has in the past outright refused to consider a cheaper digital only option when I have made enquiries, I thought it was worth raising here given the subject matter being reported on. Like I said, I'm glad they have put the option in place and will certainly be looking into it.

    Have you ever thought about reviewing your comments on the AJ website? you come across as a deeply unhappy person who goes out of his way to tear down everything and everyone. Perhaps you're outlook needs to change so that you can have a more positive and constructive outlook on life and actually contribute to the issues that clearly bother you, rather than just point scoring which achieves nothing but to encourage others to give you as wide a margin as possible. Thereby reducing your potential to impact the issues which presumably are causing this clearly felt frustration.

    I have myself felt the need to lash out in comments where matters have significantly bothered me but your contributions seem much more problematic.

    Just saying.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Gordon Gibb’s cogent and apt contribution outlines the contextual issues that have marginalised the architectural profession for the last half-century. Possibly summarised in the toxic trinity of neoliberalism, deregulation and privatisation. Ironically, the problem of energy profligacy was focused by the oil price crisis of the mid-seventies, and then the opportunity for improvement was largely wasted, in the intervening decades.

    Far from being asleep to the carbon emergency, those of us who have engaged with this issue on a serious level for the last four decades have been forced to live a waking nightmare, for to the reasons that Gordon outlines above. When our efforts are described as ‘green crap’ and new zero carbon homes legislation is pulled at the last minute, we have to wake up to the fact that the political and commercial will is simply not, nor ever will be, with us. Instead we get asinine policies such as austerity and help-to-buy. Nice one Persimmon and the other volume housebuilders.

    While it is encouraging to see WLC issues finally making the headlines, it is only when buildings are extremely energy efficient that embodied energy becomes a significant factor. Walk before you run. Subjective, tick-box labelling schemes are part of the problem rather than the solution and don’t take WLC impacts into account. As the late, great Professor Al Bartlett said in his masterwork ‘The power of the exponential! For the future of our planet’ calling something sustainable does not make it so. He also said that ‘extinction is forever’.

    To quote a proverb of the Cree Nation ‘When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money’.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I am a practicing architect and part of the Extinction Rebellion Group in Oxford. I am the only practicing architect in this Group. I am so disappointed that in this whole city there is not one other architect in this group. Aren't we supposed to be highly educated individuals with a special interest in the future? Architects may be aware, and they may care, but climate delay is a form of denial, and this plays into the hands of the system that has failed us so badly that the only thing it offers our children is ecological catastrophe on a world scale. I wish my colleagues were leaders in the fight against climate change. They should be. So where are they?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.