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Five views on sustainability in architectural education

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Should architecture students be taught sustainable design? And if so, how? The AJ presents five contrasting views

Green infrastructure specialist Blanche Cameron proposes a ‘deep green’ strategy informing everything an architect does. Environmental engineer Doug King wants a collaborative approach, with Nottingham’s course director Sergio Altomonte calling for sustainable design to be prioritised by educators. And, while Tim Waterman argues landscape architecture must play a key role in architecture students’ understanding of what sustainability is, lecturer and journalist Austin Williams - who opens the debate - thinks the ‘S’ word should be completely ignored.

Austin Williams: The anti view

The University of Gloucester has ‘embedded Education for Sustainability across the curriculum’. De Montfort is ‘integrating sustainability into the very fabric of the university’. Coventry seeks to be higher in ‘the People and Planet Green League by 2015’. Nottingham is ‘committed to becoming a leading green university’. Blah, blah. The list goes on.

Sustainability is ingrained in higher education. It is an orthodoxy… and one that I resent. When the Higher Education Funding Council for England states that it seeks ‘to promote sustainable development across the sector’, one wonders where the critical engagement with government instrumentalism has gone. Where, too, are independence of academic enquiry and pride in intellectual rigour?

As the Unesco Decade of Education for Sustainable Development comes to an end, it is worth asking whether the autonomy of educational enquiry is being sacrificed in a climate of conformity. Are students being educated, or indoctrinated?

Indeed, such is the power of the sustainability mantra that it is almost unconscionable to be opposed to it. When asked to contribute to this feature, it was suggested that I take the view that sustainability shouldn’t merit special consideration and should just be ‘embedded in good teaching’. What other political ideology should be taught in universities (and schools) as if it is uncontestably a good thing?

I am opposed to the teaching of sustainability because I disagree with it. It is misanthropic, parochial and risk-averse. But primarily I am opposed to it because it undermines critical engagement and replaces it with blind loyalty.

The European Copernicus Charter insists that it is the ‘duty’ of universities ‘to promote the practice of environmental ethics in society’. I think not. For me, it is the duty of universities to prioritise unadulterated education - without prefixes.

  • Austin Williams is director of the Future Cities project and a lecturer in architecture and urbanism at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Suzhou, China

Blanche Cameron: The deep green view

A fashion for concrete, glass and steel and swathes of impermeable paved surfaces has turned our towns and cities into hot, dry and polluted urban heat islands. At the same time, our natural ecosystems are in severe decline. Add to this the built environment sector’s sloth-like response speed, vested interests and a lack of ecological understanding, combined with the dogma of ‘starchitects’ - and we the public and the planet have a problem.

Architects need the skills to respond to this challenge. If we want livable 21st century towns and cities, we need to train our future built environment professionals to integrate soil and vegetation into every site, with rain gardens that manage storm water, living roofs and walls that cool the city and reduce energy demand, street trees that provide shade and beauty all providing biodiverse habitats for nature and countless economic, energy, water and health benefits for us all.

I taught ecological design for many years at the Graduate School of the Environment in Wales, where the architecture Masters and RIBA Part 2 courses include in-depth theory and practical training from urban green infrastructure pioneers, such as Dusty Gedge and Gary Grant. Working with nature is not the preserve of a single profession.

Each discipline has a role to play in integrating ecology into development. Working in groups on design projects, site-based assessments of the potential to retrofit green infrastructure and visits to exemplar projects give graduates the tools and confidence to integrate nature in their own work as architects, landscape architects, engineers, ecologists, contractors, planners and policy-makers. We revere the Victorians for their innovative solutions to public health, housing and transportation challenges. Today we face similar challenges to make our cities resilient in a hostile climate. Unless we adopt a deeplyrooted restorative approach, we may just end up fiddling while Rome burns.

  • Blanche Cameron is director of RESET Development

Doug King: The engineer’s view

Clients often view sustainability as optional. It isn’t.

Government seems to think BIM will drive sustainability. It won’t.

Teaching sustainability as an isolated subject reinforces these ‘technological fix’ fallacies. For a sustainable future, we need to teach integrated design thinking. The complexity of modern buildings exceeds the expertise of any single profession. Components and systems of construction have a wide range of attributes, which must be managed simultaneously. Cost and embodied carbon are important, but so are other attributes like strength, insulation value, durability and manufacturing toxicity.

No single professional can manage all the attributes of even a simple component, such as a façade panel. Some will be expert in weathering, some in energy and some in deflection. Formulating designs on a limited range of attributes, such as cost and appearance, is obsolete. We must instead collaborate across professions to optimise designs over the gamut of attributes.

In buildings, other factors come into play, such as spatial organisation and human performance. Whilst concentrating on the impacts of construction, we must focus equally on cost, operational efficiency and social benefits. We need a method to manage all these diverse issues in synchronicity.

Design is the most powerful tool for solving complex, multi-dimensional problems. Sustainable education must nurture an awareness of attributes and proficiency in design, delivered in a collaborative, interdisciplinary context.

Today’s students, architects and engineers alike, must be challenged to apply their creativity to jointly solving real-life problems. This way they’ll develop their own sustainable solutions rather than simply following received wisdom. They’ll also develop a healthy respect for the contribution of their peers.

  • Doug King is a building performance specialist and visiting professor at the universities of Bath and Chongqing

Sergio Altomonte: The view from Europe

Education for sustainability must facilitate multidisciplinary dialogue between different professions. Such was the conclusion of EDUCATE (Environmental Design in University Curricula and Architectural Training in Europe), an EU-funded research project which reviewed sustainable design pedagogy across seven European universities, including the Architectural Association and the University of Nottingham. The project, which ran from 2009 to 2012, was funded by the European Commission to propose strategies for the integration of sustainable design into the teaching and practice of architecture.

The project concluded that an architecture curriculum must make sustainability a priority from the beginning of studies through to continuing professional development. This means that academic and professional institutions must be fully committed to championing sustainable design and inspiring learners through appropriate methods, tools, and techniques.

A variety of programme structures can deliver these aims, depending on the ethos and organisation of a particular institution. Disciplines can be taught in parallel, be partially or fully integrated into the studio, or the programme can be taught by domain-specific elective classes. In all cases, teaching should be informed by the results of research and built practice as well as by policies and market demands.

Sustainable design education can be understood in three stages: sensitisation, validation and reflection. This can be delivered across undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate degrees, or be condensed in a single cycle of higher or postprofessional education. Without prescribing an ideal curriculum, these three different stages of learning - from the exploratory, through a propositive onto a critical approach - suggest the progression of abilities in sustainable design that should be attained for responsible practice.

  • Sergio Altomonte is associate professor and course director at the University of Nottingham

Tim Waterman: The landscape architecture view

As little as a decade ago sustainability was seen as optional in landscape architecture. This is no longer the case, especially among young practitioners and students, who tend to be very green indeed. A sustainable ethic now dwells at the core of landscape architecture. Landscape architects are downplaying conceptual approaches in favour of pragmatic contextual design in which working with landscape is seen as an open-ended dialogue between human needs and desires and natural forces.

The vastness and complexity of landscape as a medium has always imparted a measure of humility upon landscape practitioners. This, paired with confidence along with a willingness to listen, communicate, and collaborate is the recipe for sustainable landscape design. Architecture is changing too with the realisation that buildings and landscapes must work together to satisfy environmental, ecological, social, and economic sustainability. No element can stand alone. Particular exemplars include Jeremy Till’s wise and contingent approaches as developed in two books: Architecture Depends and Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture.

The Bartlett at UCL has also embraced landscape. Notable scholars there include Mark Smout, Laura Allen and Peg Rawes, whose forthcoming book Relational Architectural Ecologies: Architecture, Nature and Subjectivity promises to crack open whole new realms of architectural theory.

I fantasise about a future for education in which students begin without a specialisation but are exposed to lectures from across the architectural disciplines, building their appreciation of context. If we are to build a model for education that supports sustainable architectural practice into the future, every architecture programme should be paired with its landscape architecture complement.

  • Tim Waterman is a landscape architect, author and honorary editor of Landscape


  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • I'm with Austin on this.

    Somewhat reiterating my comments on the related thread “Who should be taught in the architectural canon?” the education of architects is quite simply too important to jeopardise with such errant syllabi as that stated.

    Syllabi that indoctrinate views on architecture masters, theorists, sustainability or whatever else, is rather for researchers, not architects. Unless of course it’s again part of that prerogative that get’s 1000s of names (not really architects) or in a word ‘false-livelihoods’ onto the ARB Register.

    Saying ‘sooo-naa’ instead of ‘saw-na’ for ‘sauna’ might have fooled someone’s perception of an architect in the 1990s, but linguistic corruptions won’t work now!

    The newer generation of staple architects in the UK will indeed need to sift for those with a command on research vocabulary: the new black for architects’ livelihoods, tinged with accent & red trousers for additional security by all means...

    RIBA/ARB, I’ll bring my fee down to help you differentiate the difference between researchers’ and architects’ courses. I said £50/hr: I’ll go £40/hr now. I don’t want the UK embarrassing itself anymore!

    I know the NHS is bursting at the seams as Earth’s 6th biggest employer (source BBC), but throwing livelihoods, for livelihoods sake, into the architecture profession is no way to go about manufacturing affluence, or taking the weight off the NHS. It’s not working!

    We’ll need real architects (if not real doctors and nurses) to get out of this recession, so give that call RIBA/ARB and I’ll sort it out. I’m not going less than 40 on this: I need to make a living too!

    Apologies for not editing as it's Saturday night for crying out loud!

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