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Architects are sleepwalking into a climate crisis. Time to wake up!

Emily Booth

We’ve got 12 years to reduce global warming to 1.5°C or face droughts, floods and extreme heat – a huge challenge, but also an opportunity for the profession, writes Emily Booth

Climate change is the biggest issue of our time. It makes Brexit look like a little red, white and blue blip on a landscape that is heating up, perceptibly. As I left the AJ office to grab some lunch this week, walking out into summer weather in February, I couldn’t help thinking that most of us are like those frogs in a pan of water over the fire, enjoying the comfort for now, ignoring (or blissfully oblivious to) the imminent lethal outcome.

Maybe this particular balmy spell has nothing to do with global warming; maybe that particular extreme storm doesn’t either. But the trend, and the science behind it, is overwhelming. According to the IPCC report, we’ve got 12 years to reduce global warming to 1.5°C or face droughts, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. Twelve years. That’s about how long it takes from land assembly to occupation for a large scheme. If we’ve all known about climate change for years, why has the issue been ignored, or seen as unfashionable, or viewed as a quirky ‘add-on’, for so long? What will it take to wake us all up?

The AJ invited a group of  experts to advise us on how we can support the profession

We’re focusing on climate change now because business – and architecture – doesn’t have an option. The construction industry is one of the key causes of global warming. Within that, we’re highlighting the challenge of reducing ‘whole-life carbon’ emissions, because it’s not enough to look just at the energy use of buildings in operation. What about all the embodied carbon inherent in the materials and the processes required to build a project in the first place?

To kick-start our coverage, the AJ invited an advisory group of architectural, engineering and environmental experts to discuss the issues and advise us on how we can support the profession in this area. The fact they met with barely a week’s notice highlights the urgency of the issue – and what came out of that meeting feels like a game-changer.

Architects cannot, of course, take sole responsibility for ‘fixing’ climate change, but they are at the heart of the building process and have the opportunity to forge a new role. Reducing carbon emissions goes to the heart of what being a ‘professional’ means – acting for the public good and with an awareness of the wider world.

As Andrew Waugh of Waugh Thistleton has recently observed: ‘It is tragic that the architectural profession needs a committee of scientists to state the obvious and to wake them up to their responsibility. I was taught that architects were thought-leaders; the lack of action on climate change could signal their extinction, too.’

We’re talking about a paradigm shift here. This is an opportunity to rethink what good architecture is and can be. And we might have to rethink architectural notions of beauty as part of that. Yet it’s not just about a morally pure aesthetic; it’s also important to recognise that reducing carbon cuts costs and de-risks buildings for the future (clients are very aware of the ‘sell-on’ potential of their stock and environmental legislation is likely to get stricter.) So, in the coming months, you’ll see the AJ cover more building revisits, analyse sustainability data, and provide practical tips on ways to reduce whole-life carbon emissions. It is as much a mindset as anything else – do architects even need to build new? The possibilities for intelligent retrofit have never been so compelling.

We’re making a commitment to learn about the critical issue of reducing whole‑life carbon emissions and will share that information with you, our subscribers. And please do share your experience and expertise with us – we need to work together on this. We know we have a long way to go, but there are reasons to be hopeful and we want to support this amazing profession to have a better future, too. We’re waking up.


Readers' comments (2)

  • John Kellett

    Architects are not sleep-walking into a climate crisis, our clients are.There is only so far that you can ‘advise’ a client before you lose the commission. Work is short and we all need to stay in business. Legislation is needed before most commercial clients will do anything.

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  • The elephant in the room here is the exponential growth in housing supply that is supposedly required by the UK (and many other countries and regions of the world) is totally at odds with sustainable development.

    Maybe a lowering of expectations regarding outdated notions of continual economic growth, along with a massive reduction in rampant and unnecessary mass consumerism would be a better course of action worldwide, in order to deal with this problem?

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