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Architects Declare is a remarkable call-to-arms on climate change

Hattie Hartman
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The Architects Declare initiative is a landmark statement which now needs to be followed up with action, writes Hattie Hartman

The organisers of Architects Declare, with their call for a declaration of a state of emergency with respect to the world’s climate and biodiversity, should be applauded for providing leadership for the profession and the remarkable accomplishment of speaking in a unified voice on behalf of 17 RIBA Stirling Prize-winning practices.

 I imagine further signatories will flood in from across the country. Just as the AJ’s recent Wake Up issue on the climate crisis touched a responsive chord, few architects will oppose this thoughtful and thorough declaration.

Particularly welcome is the manifesto’s top-line billing for biodiversity loss, as well as carbon-dioxide emissions. This is as much about masterplanning and site planning as it is about building design.

But sustainable design is not easy. In my decade of promoting greener design at the AJ, I have seen ambitious aspirations diluted time and again.

To succeed, sustainability must be championed from the earliest project inception – before the first concept sketch – right through to the mundane matter of daily building operation. This requires expertise, advocacy, collaboration, persistence and resources. Good intentions are not enough.

The Architects Declare manifesto has hugely far-reaching implications for everyday architectural practice. Some of the signatories and many other leading UK practices are designing vast infrastructure and airport projects around the world. What does this mean for those projects?

In the least controversial sense, design, including structural and services design, is often based on the worst case scenario, with way too much of a project’s embodied carbon buried in oversized foundations and structure and M&E plant. Safety cannot be neglected but we must now finesse smarter and sharper ways of working.

And so the 17 founding signatories to Architects Declare must now walk the talk. An obvious first step would be for them to share their sustainable design best practice, both current and planned. These should include measurable targets, reported regularly. A handful of practices already do this but they are in the minority.

The generous spirit of the collaborative Architects Declare statement surely must result in knowledge sharing. For example, many practices could learn from Foster + Partners’ bespoke system for tracking projects’ sustainable design. Sustainable design veteran Architype, ranked number 75 in last year’s AJ100, delivered more than 50 lectures over the past year. How many have the Architects Declare signatories delivered?

The 17 founding signatories to Architects Declare must now walk the talk

And what about the lack of swift action from the RIBA? The ambitious recommendations of the Ethics and Sustainability Commission, released last year, have yet to be acted on. A UK version of the American Institute of Architects’ AIA+2030 online learning syllabus (10 one-hour courses on topics ranging from climate responsive design to thermal envelopes) should be a no-brainer for 66 Portland Place.

Likewise, a UK version of Architecture 2030, whereby firms commit to actually doing post-occupancy monitoring on their project portfolio should be developed. Adopt-a-practice, another American initiative whereby one practice mentors another, could also be explored here.

On a more positive note, the RIBA has upped its game with the sustainability statements that now form part of the Institute’s awards programme. The institute should now put these statements in the public domain to hold clients and project teams accountable and for others to learn from. An easy win would be to publish the sustainability statements for the RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist going forward.

With less than 12 years to go to keep global temperature rises below 1.5° compared with pre-industrial levels, time is running out. These tools and initiatives take time to develop. We need binding targets and, dare I say it, naming and shaming. I’ve always preferred to shine a light on best practice rather than call out poor performers. But, like Greta Thunberg, we can’t mince words any longer.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Comment posted on behalf of Duncan Baker-Brown:

    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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