The coronavirus lockdown has presented an unexpected opportunity to tap into international networks responding to the climate emergency, says Hattie Hartman
A sense of urgency engendered by the health crisis permeated this month’s open meeting of the Architects’ Climate Action Network (ACAN) on 8 April.
With speakers dialling in from Sheffield, Glasgow and Tampere, Finland, to a 220-plus online audience, the virtual format fostered new networks and instantaneous knowledge-sharing through a live chat box.
ACAN shared two timely initiatives: its collaboration with Helpful Engineering UK, a volunteer group designing, producing and delivering PPE equipment to London hospitals, and its Save Safe Structural Timber campaign in response to current government consultation (ongoing until 25 May) on the banning of combustible materials in and on the external walls of residential buildings above 11m in height.
Unexpectedly, the coronavirus lockdown is actually facilitating the construction industry’s response to the climate emergency. Those poised to work virtually via Zoom meetings, WhatsApp groups and Google Docs are building new networks by connecting remotely, regardless of where they are in the world. The combination of partial suspension of workload, no travel time and virtual meetings is fostering a rapid sharing of knowledge.
Virtual meetings democratise participation in London-centric events. People without the time or money to travel or who have children at home can take part. Simon Sturgis, of Targeting Zero, who is leading a virtual network to improve consistency of reporting on whole-life carbon, has observed: ‘This would not have been possible pre-virus. Most meetings are 50 per cent travel, so this is much more efficient.’
During the ACAN session, I found myself in a breakout chat with two people from Scotland. According to ACAN organiser Joe Giddings, the virtual open meeting offered an opportunity ‘to cast our net much wider and reach out to people from abroad who have expressed interest in setting up local ACAN chapters’. He noted that attendees logged on from more than 15 countries, from Canada to Kazakhstan, including two French structural engineers keen to set up a Paris chapter.
National networks seem to have become international overnight
Consistent with its decentralised and transparent ethos, ACAN’s vision is of local chapters operating autonomously, and plans are afoot for a handbook on how to set up a chapter. Emailing later from Sheffield, professor Fionn Stevenson noted: ‘National networks seem to have become international overnight and it is exciting to see these barriers coming down.’ In Tampere, professor Sofie Pelsmakers is spearheading a Nordic chapter which may extend to the Baltic countries.
Commentators from global management consultancy McKinsey & Company to environmental activist George Monbiot are speculating on ‘the flip’: how we can emulate the drastic transformation of the way we live and work in response to coronavirus to address the climate emergency. Pelsmakers noted a new awareness that we are globally connected. She said: ‘We can make radical societal changes. The climate change movement can build on this.’
And according to Giddings: ‘The problems we are facing are global, and we cannot tackle them with a group solely from London. Opening up to wider participation is vital if we are to start applying decentralised pressure that will really make a difference. In some ways it’s surprising that it took a crisis to catalyse that shift.’
Now the question is how to generate the same sense of urgency to help bring about systemic change in construction
Now the question for architects is how to generate the same sense of urgency to help bring about systemic change in construction.
Upskilling is an essential first step. In addition to the recent ACAN meeting, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ March seminar on embodied carbon and the Architects Declare all-day event last November are a small sample of recent events that are also available online. Organisations such as The Green Register and the Alliance of Sustainable Building Products, to name but two, are offering virtual seminars and webinars.
There is a real opportunity here. You, too, can use the current downtime to tap into these new networks online.