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Peter Zumthor is wrong: architects do have the power to tackle climate change

Hattie Hartman

Zumthor thinks he ‘can only do so much’ to protect the environment – but there are plenty of ways architects can effect policy change, writes Hattie Hartman

After the recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, many harked back to wartime mobilisation as the only effective way of mitigating climate change. That same week, Bloomberg’s Stirling win sparked controversy about whether the ‘greenest ever’ office building should be lauded as Britain’s best building this year.

The convergence of these two events sparked a lot of self-reflection about what architects can and can’t do to address climate change. Last week, Peter Zumthor told Dezeen that ‘the issue was on his mind but that he didn’t feel he had much power to make a difference’. 

In fact, there is much that architects could do. Several current initiatives are potential game-changers and offer architects a way to become better informed and effect policy change.

The London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI) was launched last year by environmental engineer Elementa Consulting. It is a voluntary network of more than 250 built environment professionals (including over a dozen architectural practices) who have collaborated to develop proposals to revise London’s energy policy. 

LETI’s first 18 months have seen remarkable success. Several of its recommendations have been incorporated into the draft London Plan, the London Environment Strategy and the GLA’s Energy Assessment Guidance documentation which forms part of planning applications. These include updating superceded methodologies, prioritising fabric energy efficiency and a requirement to calculate and minimise unregulated energy consumption (this means all plug loads, including IT).

The draft London Plan also includes a pioneering reference to embodied energy: all schemes that are referred to the mayor must calculate whole-life-cycle carbon emissions and document how they have been reduced. Architects are ideally placed to lead here, scrutinising the choice of materials in a building. Hawkins\Brown recently developed H\B:ERT, a free-to-download embodied carbon calculator which plugs into a Revit model, and can be used to identify big wins early in design.

In another bold step, the GLA has adopted LETI’s Be Seen policy, whereby all major developments must monitor and disclose their energy performance for five years. 

1,000 UK buildings are certified Passivhaus, with an equal number in the pipeline

LETI member and Levitt Bernstein head of sustainability Clare Murray says the idea that architects lack the technical knowledge to contribute to such policy development is a myth, adding: ‘Only a well-designed building where all disciplines work together can get us to zero carbon.’ Topics such as embodied carbon, zero carbon buildings and Part L are fundamental to architects’ work.

In my decade of writing about sustainability for the AJ, rarely have I seen so much passionate expertise gathered in a room as at last month’s launch of LETI’s 2019 workstreams held at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. This was not just another panel discussion, but rather an active workshop for brainstorming ways forward.

Reassuringly, LETI is not a lone voice. An updated sustainability overlay to the RIBA Plan of Work is underway. Last month, the UKGBC launched an Advancing Net Zero campaign and is setting up a cross-industry task force to push this agenda. As of September, more than 1,000 UK buildings are certified Passivhaus, with an equal number in the pipeline. And the Better Buildings Partnership has launched a Design for Performance initiative, which asks its members to commit to verifying performance in use. Key players in UK property are signatories.

Woefully though, those involved in LETI and these other pioneering initiatives are in a minority. We now need the bulk of the industry and the architecture profession to remove their heads from the sand and join them. 


Readers' comments (3)

  • I wonder how easily the aims of the London Energy Transformation Initiative sit with the readiness of some of our most apparently respected architects to eagerly participate in the tearing down and replacement of relatively modern buildings of high quality?
    Arguably the replacement is designed to much higher energy standards than the original was, say 30 years ago, but is anyone extending the 'sustainability' balance sheet to consider the premature destruction of valuable building stock?
    One glaring current example - outside London - is Foster and Partners' replacement of an iconic New York skyscraper, SOM's Union Carbide Building (admittedly 57 years old but comprehensively renovated in 2012) with something considerably taller for JP Morgan.
    Who's taking climate change seriously, and who's just going through the motions when it suits them?

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  • Well said Robert. This is all too little and too late now...comprehensive action should have been taken decades ago, when the debate was significantly stimulated by economic oil shocks. Instead so-called green architecture was marginalised more than the architectural professional itself. It really isn’t helpful to have an optional ‘sustainability overlay’ in the RIBA PoW. But this reflects the position of architects as handmaidens of capitalists. Now we have 12 years to sort out climate change and just 2 to reverse inexorable biodiversity decline. The power of the exponential (Prof Al Bartlett). Destroyers of worlds!

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  • There are in fact terrific efforts being made to save existing building stock and upgrade them to meet the performance objectives necessary to drastically reduce carbon emissions in buildings. It is important for design professionals to be aware of these efforts- and that Passivhaus-level performance is not only reserved for new construction.

    The Energie Sprong program, first devised in the Netherlands, is spreading to other countries including the UK and USA (where I am based). The advances in Holland at reworking public housing- with tenants in place- are rapidly transforming the market and driving Holland toward the goals of fossil-free energy and zero emissions. Replicability through mass-production of components, applied to standardized building typology is making these rehabs work financially and at scale. Contractors are guaranteeing "zero on the meter" performance as well as general maintenance from 30-40 years. https://www.energiesprong.uk/

    The efforts we are attempting in New York State are similar, but with ambitions at hitting a wider range of building typologies- including mid- and high-rise residential and commercial buildings. We are plagued with cheap energy costs here, which is confounding the effort to make these upgrades pay for themselves in energy savings as they do in Holland, but we are doing the work anyway as that is what must be done to address the climate crisis.

    There is in fact an excellent example of an energy efficient retrofit of a New York City skyscraper. The Empire State Building has gone through drastic energy efficiency improvements. This being USA, and this being New York City, the performance gains were outlined in cost savings rather than in carbon savings- but if money is a motivator than so be it. http://www.esbnyc.com/esb-sustainability/process

    Tearing down existing building stock is rarely done with the sole objective of energy savings in mind. Rather, such redevelopment of pre-built sites has to do with increasing real estate value- greater rentable floor area, visibility, prestige, etc. Building new to net zero/Passivhaus can meet all these objectives, and actually increase value through reduced floor area dedicated to mechanical systems, downsized or even eliminated shaftways. Less expensive, simpler mechanicals due to reduced loads is a smaller up front cost with much lower maintenance and online costs. And the solid-state investment in energy performance makes these buildings more resilient during crisis, and more comfortable for regular use, ergo more desirable.

    The real challenge for Peter Zumtor and the celebrity architects is that they need to reset their approach with energy efficiency in mind as they create. Light, stone, wood, steel and glass- these are the noble materials that he and others are accustomed to using. But the profession needs to wake up to the reality that we need to also design with insulation, shading, energy simulation software, as materials and design tools too. Human comfort and climate-responsible design are mandatory, and can no longer be ignored- think of it as newly found gravity. No serious architect gripes about needing to respond to Newtonian gravity- the same must apply to climate gravity.

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