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How a baked potato challenge can help lead the way on climate change

Hattie Hartman

A sustainable architecture workshop for primary schools is one way of involving the next generation in how the built environment can save the planet, writes Hattie Hartman

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Source: Henry Paticas

Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg told The New York Times last month: ‘It’s annoying when people say, “Oh you children, you young people are the hope. You will save the world.” It would be helpful if you could help us just a little bit.’

Greta has skipped school for 27 Fridays to get her message out, culminating with invitations to COP 24 in Poland and the Davos World Economic Forum to spread her message. 

This month, her message reached the UK with several thousand schoolchildren demonstrating across the UK on 15 February, prompting a reaction from Downing Street that ‘disruption increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time.’ Greta retaliated on Twitter: ‘British PM says that the children on school strike are “wasting lesson time”. That may well be the case. But then again, political leaders have wasted 30 years of inaction.’

Greta’s message is that we all have to do our bit. At the AJ we can unpick complex issues, shine a light on best practice and obstinately target difficult issues. 

Taking a cue from Greta, here is a simple thing every architect can do right now: talk to schoolchildren about the thermal performance of buildings. As an RIBA architecture ambassador, Arboreal Architecture founder Henry Paticas recently led a climate change, architecture and thermal performance workshop for 80 children in his local primary school in south-east London. This is effective direct action that can change the minds of children – and their parents. 

To bring the message home, Paticas’s show-and-tell session included a ‘baked potato challenge’ where children worked in 15 teams of five to form an insulating enclosure for a freshly baked potato. They used wood fibre, cork and sheep’s wool, while adopting the principles of insulation and airtightness, as explained by Paticas.

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Source: Henry Paticas

Two hours later, each potato’s temperature was measured and the designs assessed with a thermographic camera to identify three winning teams. Their prize was a site visit later in the term to Paticas’s home, a Passivhaus EnerPHit retrofit. During the afternoon workshop, each class analysed different classrooms by using a thermographic camera to take infra-red measurements of external walls, looking at ventilation and heat sources and producing posters to summarise their research. 

The RIBA should also be doing more. Entries for the 2019 awards cycle closed last month, with each entry accompanied by a sustainability statement. These statements are a snapshot of current practice and contain a wealth of intelligence. They make great reading for sustainability nerds like me and I believe the RIBA should put this information in the public domain. A first step could be to publish key data on its website from the sustainability statements of those projects that make the Stirling shortlist. 

The American Institute of Architects has been publishing detailed information on its Committee on the Environment (COTE) awards programme winners for over 20 years. This body of knowledge, available on the AIA website, constitutes an excellent reference of best practice. It requires resources but the RIBA should follow suit. 

We all need to take heed of Greta’s message. For the most part, this means mainstreaming what we already know how to do, such as discussing a project’s environmental aspirations with a client at briefing stage, scrutinising design decisions for their whole-life carbon (operational and embodied) and revisiting completed buildings to understand what worked, what didn’t and how to do it better next time. Start by visiting your local primary.


Readers' comments (2)

  • great article, hopefully we can engage current generations as well though! Didnt we already go through this with millenials, and didnt they create this: https://www.carbonbuzz.org/ whatever happened to that?

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  • Great piece. Great idea and what a way to engage the minds of tomorrow!
    Every school should be having events like this, including dare I say it schools of architecture....

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