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It’s crunch time for Architects Declare

Architects declare at global stike
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We must now consider what are the real hurdles to practising the kind of architecture that genuinely reflects a commitment to fighting climate change, says Duncan Baker-Brown

As we start to emerge from lockdown, architects are now open for business again and the recent increase in job enquiries and opening of construction sites perhaps gives us all a reason to feel a bit more positive.

However, before we get back to some new form of ‘business as usual’, think back to 2019 for a moment, to those pre-coronavirus days when all we had to worry about was Brexit. You may remember that there was another major issue that grabbed our attention: the climate and ecological emergency. It was the year that 90 per cent of UK local authorities pledged to be net zero-carbon by 2030. Around the world over 814,000,000 people now live in regions that have declared a climate emergency.

So now that we have declared (Architects Declare has 944 practices signed up to its pledges) perhaps it is time to consider what are the real hurdles to practising the kind of architecture that genuinely reflects this commitment? And how can we do this while also learning how to live in the midst of this worldwide pandemic? 

Well, it appears that it’s going to be quite a difficult ask. For all its good intentions, most of the media coverage that Architects Declare seems to get at the moment relates to the apparent contradiction between a number of its founders pledging one thing and doing another. Is it appropriate to declare an environmental emergency, pledge to do something about it, and then accept a commission for an airport expansion, or such like? 

I guess that the real question is: Would you accept a commission for a project that you knew in your heart of hearts actively encouraged a way of life that will undermine our net zero-carbon ambitions? It’s interesting, and probably not surprising, that many of the staunchest advocates of what some of us might describe as a ‘radical’ position (if one thinks that wanting to survive on this planet is radical) are academics and activists, rather than directors of leading architectural practices.  

It’s difficult, isn’t it? Running a practice that doesn’t simply serve as, in Jeremy Till’s words, ‘an agent of The Modern Project, with its twin killers of continued progress and growth’. Large corporations which became more powerful and richer promoting the pre-Covid-19 lifestyles that most of us enjoyed are now quite understandably very busy thinking of ways to convince their once enthusiastic consumers to get back to consuming Planet Earth’s natural resources as voraciously as possible. Getting back to ‘business as usual’ is the big pressure we all face today.

Our profession has the tools and collective knowledge to deliver outcomes that enable a net zero-carbon lifestyle

Despite the fact that this strategy actively contributes towards accelerating the climate and ecological emergency, are you in a position to say no to the next climate-illiterate project you get offered? Do you really believe that the built environment can sustain humans while not destroying everything else? If not, what is the future that you imagine is on offer by your acceptance of a simplistic return to a new normal?

I believe our profession has the tools and collective knowledge to address these issues seriously and deliver outcomes that enable a net zero-carbon lifestyle. Our industry has been talking about it, writing about it, and even practising it for over 40 years. So I put it to you that we just have to believe in our collective powers and learn to say no to carbon-guzzling projects. 

In the meantime, our schools, networks, and institutions need to promote what some people are calling ‘climate literacy’ – the understanding of the problems that need tackling and exactly what to do next so we don’t accelerate the climate emergency further. With this collective knowledge architects and their clients will appreciate the huge benefits that an environmentally sustainable future presents to all of us in this new Covid-19 world.

Duncan Baker-Brown is a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton and co-founder of BBM Sustainable Design

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