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Architectural education is key to a sustainable future

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Last week’s IPCC report confirmed the urgency of tackling climate change and architects can help do so – but only if architecture schools integrate the appropriate training into their curriculums, writes student Scott McAulay

Scott mcaulay

The recent IPCC report confirms what we already knew: to have any chance of mitigating ongoing climatic breakdown more must be done, and fast. Architects are perfectly placed to be advocates for this in the built environment and beyond.

Sustainability in architecture has taken positive steps that we should be proud of, but the UN’s findings definitively show us that what we are doing as a society is simply unsustainable. To continue with a mindset of simply being ‘less bad’ is going to have worsening ramifications the longer it goes unchallenged. What we can do is identify where we can do ‘more good’ for our natural environment, and play the pivotal role in championing this, whether minimum standards necessitate it or not.

Business as usual is killing our planet, wiping out entire species by the year; business as usual is polluting the very air we breathe; business as usual still fills increasingly airtight buildings with toxic chemicals; business as usual is why plastic pollution is an international epidemic; business as usual led to the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

Simply put, business as usual cannot go on because it will not present future generations the same chances that we had handed down to us. It is time we break from business as usual and instead lead in transforming the very culture of construction and design; and it is time to embrace and encourage the energy of our students in this vital process.

If we are to evolve from the way we have always done things into more restorative practices, a lot of learning must take place. We need to broaden understanding of both ecological and technological systems; the effect of buildings on mental health; working with unfamiliar building materials such as low-impact natural materials; and the uptake of ever-more complex software – and this is where students and schools of architecture could contribute mightily.

At present, ecology and similar classes are optional, elective classes within schools of architecture; not bearing a weight remotely comparable to design nor structural technologies. This must fundamentally change.

For the sake of the planet, students must be taught to design climate-responsive architecture as standard

Our next generation of architects will be working within a climate that we cannot predict, and an understanding of architecture’s place within environmental cycles, its effect on human health, the implications of the materials we build with and the necessity for retrofit skills are only going to rise in importance. This is a knowledge that we must foster an uptake in. For the sake of people and the planet, students must be inspired and taught to design climate-responsive architecture as standard.

Concurrently, this learning is not a compulsory CPD requirement. This is where the RIBA and the collective profession could immediately effect a positive shift. Architecture is home to many specialists and the sharing of these individual specialisms would have an immense knock-on effect, improving the built environment for all and lessening architecture’s environmental impact. Mandatory CPD components in restorative practice would raise the bar environmentally universally; and enabling student attendance of these events would build bridges between academia and practice, helping end the disillusion that sustainability is a ‘specialism’ within schools of architecture.

Students urgently need to be given a voice, and the platforms, to engage with and influence sustainability and ethics in architecture both within university, and in the studio environment. This is set to be the most critical 12 years in human history; we need to be inspired and enabled to positively change the world now more than ever. After all, we are the ones set to inherit this degrading environment – at the very least give us the chance, and the means, to do more good instead.

Scott McAulay is a masters of architecture student and student representative on the Glasgow Institute of Architects Sustainability Committee

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Yes, sustainability needs to be at the heart of 21st century architectural education, but no matter how well informed, inspired and prepared our graduates are (and they are, increasingly so), the barriers really lie elsewhere: lack of political will within governments; energy policies still in thrall to fossil fuel lobbyists; a construction industry slow in shedding its ossified traditions; a general public still too sceptical or reluctant to embrace more sustainable lifestyles, etc. I think the best we can do as architects is, as your article suggests, to advocate. However, as a profession with decreasing power and influence, I'm not sure that architects (or architectural schools) really are "the key to a sustainable future", or, in the best position from which to advocate. We should be, but we're not. Unless! Unless, that is, more graduates choose to pursue a career not in traditional practice, but also/instead becoming clients, developers, contractors, politicians, broadcasters, writers, researchers, industrial entrepreneurs - bringing their unique and brilliant insights into roles and sectors that possess more influential capital than does the architectural profession at present.

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