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Ten things you can do to fight the climate crisis in 2020

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HOK’s Gary Clark outlines the vital steps architects can take now to reduce the built environment’s impact on the planet

If 2019 was the year that the world woke up to the extinction events of climate change and declared an emergency, then 2020 has to be the year we took global action, writes Gary Clark.  

The 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26), to be held in Glasgow this November, will be a defining moment in human history when we decide what sort of future our children and grandchildren will inherit. Our children, through Greta Thunberg, have already voiced their fears and demanded that we ‘responsible adults’ take action. We must commit to a radical transformation of our industry, which still emits 40 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions – about 200 million tonnes of CO2 annually. 

If you are committed to addressing climate change, I would urge you all to sign up to the RIBA 2030 Challenge to reduce fossil fuel consumption. At the moment, the 2030 Climate Challenge is voluntary, but in the next few years it may become a mandatory position.

As chair of the RIBA Sustainable Futures Group, I am struck by the profound positive steps towards sustainability the profession has taken since I began my own journey in sustainable architecture over 30 years ago. However, we cannot waste this year getting bogged down in procrastination and bureaucracy and must come together in the spirit of collaboration that defines any great crisis.

So, what needs to be done, by whom and by when?

The RIBA Sustainable Outcomes guidance defines the key outcomes, metrics and targets for a sustainable future. Essentially, it gives the DNA of a sustainable project and signposts the strategies and tools to deliver sustainable outcomes. 

And the RIBA 2030 Challenge defines an aggressive yet realistic trajectory to achieve net zero for new and deep retrofit buildings by 2030. You might be wondering if this is possible but look no further than two Stirling Prize-winning projects: Mikhail Riches/Catherine Hawley’s 2019 winner Goldsmith Street and Haworth Tompkins’ 2014 winner, Everyman Theatre. Both achieved the 2030 target without renewables or offsetting. 

These RIBA guides will be followed shortly by the new RIBA Plan of Work 2020, including the RIBA Sustainability Strategy Overlay, and a new RIBA Plan for Use Guide, which is an architects’ version of Soft Landings (BSRIA/Usable Buildings Trust). These guides provide a clear process for practice to deliver sustainable outcomes in use.

What do you need to do now? Well, when you finish reading this article and return to your immediate work deadlines, bear in mind that, since our sector is accountable for 33-40 per cent of global CO2 emissions, this is your defining moment to shape the future of our planet. You can help by taking the following key actions:

  1. Call your client and offer to help read the energy meters and tune up the performance of your previous buildings (research has shown that 20 per cent energy and carbon reductions are possible)
  2. Prioritise deep retrofit of existing buildings. Offer options that avoid knocking down existing buildings 
  3. Carry out whole-life carbon analysis and target net zero carbon
  4. Target DEC A-rating for non-domestic buildings. Work collaboratively with your service engineers to step up to the challenge together
  5. Target Passivhaus performance levels for domestic buildings
  6. Target 50 per cent reduction in embodied carbon in your building design. Work with your structural engineer to step up to this challenge
  7. Target 40 per cent reduction in potable water use by the creative storage and re-use of rainwater
  8. Be mindful of health and wellbeing, and use the principles of the Well Building Standard
  9. Target significantly enhanced bio-diversity and urban green cover, including productive landscapes 
  10. Sign up to the RIBA 2030 Challenge and declare your buildings’ operational data.

This is the defining moment of our professional careers, where we can make a difference and create a sustainable future for the next generation. If we do not act now in everything we do as professionals, then future generations will be faced with frequent climate events that will kill or displace millions of people. In the worst-case scenario, they will witness the collapse of land and water ecosystems and we face the very real prospect of an extinction catastrophe.

Gary Clark is a principal and a regional leader for science and technology at HOK London and chair of the RIBA Sustainable Futures Group 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • There's an eleventh 'thing' for all those architects who are commuters - see if you can reduce your commute (maybe even to zero) if you're serious about fighting the climate crisis, and honest about your own part in it.

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