Architects Take Climate Action!
Updated: Oct 8, 2021
Archinect speaks to practitioners and educators taking on the challenge of adapting to the climate emergency
The IPCC, backed by the UN Secretary-General, issued a warning in fall 2018 that there are just 12 years left to take action on the climate emergency before triggering a global environmental and economic crisis. ‘Architects Take Climate Action!’ Part I investigated how, catalyzed by inertia in the construction sector, architects have self-organized to call for change and launch targeted campaigns. Major industry bodies, including the AIA, have now confirmed their commitment to support urgent climate action and exponentially accelerate the decarbonization of the built environment. How can architects bring about the deep operational change required across the construction industry in the 10 years which remain?
In Part II, Archinect explores the work of practitioners and educators striving to embed climate principles into their practice and organizations. Matthew Barnett Howland and Dido Milne from CSK Architects, a UK Architects’ Declare signatory firm, explore the opportunities and challenges of enacting change in a small-sized commercial office; Building Services Engineer Clara Bagenal George, co-founder of the London Energy Transformation Initiative, speaks about their actionable recommendations and ‘net-zero’ guidance for architects; Billy Fleming from the Stuart Weitzman School of Design discusses how the McHarg Center’s research focus has evolved to help launch sustainable startups in Philadelphia; and Scott McAulay from the Anthropocene Architecture School discloses his ambition to integrate climate principles into curriculums for trainee architects to ensure that they are equipped with the skills needed to build a sustainable future.
“The catalyst for the studio to rethink our approach to sustainable design was the completion of the Cork House project”, reflects Dido Milne, director of CSK Architects, a small-sized firm based in Windsor, UK, in reference to their award-winning carbon negative house completed in 2019. “We were being asked to design more buildings using cork, yet our studio discussions centered around the design methodology we had developed to realize that project. We thought that these strategies might be more broadly applicable as a framework for architects to develop more sustainable projects.” The RIBAJ article, ‘We Spoke Now We Must Act’, by CSK Architects’ director of research and development, Matthew Barnett Howland, introduces how the practice has integrated innovative design approaches into their studio workflow, starting with lifecycle design. “One aspect we have chosen to take forward into other projects is to draw focus away from the building as a finished object”, says Milne, “and instead to convey to our clients that their building came from somewhere and it’s going to go somewhere. We have found that it’s important to have that conversation from the outset, ideally when designing the project brief. Now we are trying to put a framework in place to ensure this lifecycle approach remains central throughout our design process.”
Milne acknowledges that it can be challenging to embed these principles into each design decision without falling back on an ‘out of sight out of mind’ philosophy when there are tight deadlines to meet. “We have begun a reeducation process at the office which is designed to bring both our clients and the local government along with us”, she explains, accepting that while architects can lead the way on sustainable design, they operate in wider professional teams. “We take an ‘attack on all fronts’ approach. As soon as sustainability becomes a planning and building control requirement, we can say to clients that their design will not be accepted unless they consider these things.” Soon after the completion of the Cork House, the local authority earmarked the project as a best practice case study in sustainability. The CSK team saw an opportunity and teamed up with the local authority’s Climate Change Councillors to develop a further exemplar project which aims to help reformulate local sustainability policy and develop new in-house training. The Global Risks Landscape survey 2020 places climate action failure as the top risk to the global economy, WEFPolicy transformation and implementation are central to the work of the London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI) as, arguably, green rating systems, voluntary action and reliance upon goodwill from investors and developers has not yet led to a wide-scale adoption of sustainable construction methods across the sector. A regulatory amendment by the Greater London Authority (GLA) in 2017 acted as the initial trigger to spark action among the professional network of Building Services Engineer Clara Bagenal George. At the time there was a shared concern that CO2 emissions in new buildings would increase as a result of the emendation and that something needed to be done. “As a group, we came together — including Clare Murray, head of sustainability at Levitt Bernstein and James Woodall from Allies and Morrison — to ask policymakers whether they were amenable to a change in their approach”, she recalls. “We were delighted to hear not only that they understood where we were coming from, but that they would integrate our recommendations. Then they asked us to assist in reviewing the next draft of the legislation, which led us to form LETI”.
The LETI team has collaborated with the GLA ever since, subsequently expanding their scope into other issues relating to the decarbonization of the built environment. Their Climate Emergency Design Guide may be of particular interest given the AIA’s net-zero ambition for 2050 and the UK’s RIBA 2030 climate challenge, among other commitments, as it defines concise targets for architects aiming for net-zero. As the LETI team worked on the guide, it emerged that there was no accepted definition of ‘operational net-zero’ in the UK which could be pinned to reliable metrics. A recent AJ survey and internal Architects Declare (AD) signatory feedback have also pointed to the ‘whole-life carbon modeling’ declaration point as the most challenging for architects to deliver on — only 7% of AD signatory firms felt they had the ability to ‘completely meet this commitment’. In response to the net-zero knowledge gap, in December LETI released a Net-Zero Operational Carbon factsheet in collaboration with the UK Green Building Council and Better Buildings Partnership, which highlights ten key requirements for new buildings. Their recommendations include reducing embodied carbon, ensuring access to a renewable energy supply and calculating the operational carbon balance on an annual basis, among other measures. “Given that all new buildings in the UK must operate at net-zero by 2030, it was critical for us to expand upon what that target actually means, and how to measure it”, explains Bagenal George. “We dedicated 6 months to the task, with an aim to propose requirements and offer a roadmap of how to get there. We hope the Climate Emergency Design Guide will be a useful tool to guide architects on how to achieve operational net-zero.”
LETI’s Embodied Carbon Primer is a further guidance document that emerged from the group’s process of filling knowledge gaps between new industry recommendations and current practice. “When researching the Climate Emergency Design Guide, we asked the embodied carbon team for 6 pages, and they returned with 120”, remembers Bagenal George. “It was clear to us that additional guidance was also needed on embodied carbon, so we got to work on producing it.” The recognition LETI’s publications have received among architects has given the group a reputation for cutting-edge sustainable design research. Their Climate Emergency Design Guide, Net-Zero Operational Carbon factsheet and Embodied Carbon Primer have been downloaded over 30,000 times across 120 countries and their membership has grown to over 1000 built environment professionals. LETI’s voluntary research workstreams update annually and currently include retrofit, embodied carbon, hydrogen and modeling, among others. Scottish architectural designer and educator Scott McAulay is also working to cultivate innovation in sustainable design by advocating for a greater focus on the climate emergency within architectural education. He launched the Anthropocene Architecture School (AAS) at Scotland’s Architecture Fringe during June 2019 to draw attention to the lack of urgency around global heating in the event program. By extending the theme from ‘In Real Life’ to ‘In Real Life There is a Climate Crisis’, McAulay’s action advocated for all Scottish architecture curriculums to prioritize delivering an architectural education that safeguards the Earth’s ecosystems for future generations.
“AAS began as a lone protest in response to architecture’s nonresponse to the 1.5ºC report from the IPCC published in October 2018, and the lasting inertia around climate action”, McAulay explains. “As a species, we were issued a chilling warning yet business continued as usual nonetheless, and still does — educational systems continue not preparing students for the future, and evermore resources and time are sunk into self-congratulatory awards and ceremony, whilst the climate breaks down. I simply could not understand why this emergency was not mobilizing all the architects and architecture students around me to immediately do something.” Since its inception, the AAS has flourished into a decentralized architecture, activism and climate literacy school which utilizes educational, professional and public workshops to champion built environment responses to the climate emergency, a significant feat in just over a year. The AAS has instigated transdisciplinary studios to improve architecture students’ sustainable design skills; contributed to over a dozen climate action events across the UK; and partnered with organizations and firms such as John Gilbert Architects, the Mackintosh Environmental Architecture Research Unit, the Scottish Ecological Design Association and the Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN), among others. Information sheet on Net-Zero Operational Carbon © LETIOver at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design in Philadelphia, the McHarg climate research center had somewhat of a different beginning — it was initially instigated to mark the 50-year anniversary of the publication of Scottish landscape architect Ian McHarg’s bestselling book ‘Design With Nature’. Often compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the publication became a seminal text in the environmental movement of the ’60s and ’70s as it connected with a global audience. The Wilks Family Director Billy Fleming and his team (including the Dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design Fritz Steiner, co-director professor Richard Weller and associate professor Karen M’Closkey) were assigned to curate the anniversary exhibition, an international conference and a publication to mark the occasion titled ‘Design With Nature Now’.
When, in 2017, the McHarg team were preparing to launch the exhibition — which showcased a wide array of speculative and far-reaching projects including Energetic Odyssey and the Great Green Wall — they felt that there was a demand for ongoing collaborative research around climate crisis mitigation and adaptation, and that their position within the Stuart Weitzman School of Design offered a unique opportunity. “We really felt the McHarg Center was filling a niche by taking on climate policy and design, as no one else seemed to be working in that kind of intersection”, says Fleming. “That other design school administrators and faculty have since approached us to ask about starting their own version of the McHarg Center has somewhat confirmed that there wasn’t a lot of work going on like this when we started.” When Fleming, Steiner, Weller and M’Closkey proposed to continue the McHarg Center’s research and collaborate with local companies to launch sustainable landscape architecture projects, Barbara Wilks (principal and founder, W Architecture and Landscape Architecture in New York) and Bonnier Sellers (former CEO of Christie’s International Real Estate) stepped in as benefactors to help realize their vision and hire student researchers. To define a strategic plan for the Center’s next chapter and pinpoint where existing research capabilities were, Fleming reconnected with friends and colleagues in the climate movement from his time working in the Obama administration and instigated one-to-one meetings with faculty at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design. From these conversations, three research directions emerged: biodiversity, environmental modeling and climate policy. The McHarg Center’s environmental modeling group (also known as M-Lab, directed by assistant professor Sean Burkholder, associate professor Karen M’Closkey and senior lecturer Keith VanDerSys), have found their base at startup lab Pennovation, where they work with flow tables and other large physical and digital instruments to analyze how coastal projects will perform in dynamic, marine environments. Their recent investigations include evaluating storm surge risk in undermapped places, such as the Galapagos islands; imagining novel habitats in New Jersey using material dredged out of the Delaware river; and developing a strategy for incorporating recycled crushed glass into soil mixes to replace mined sediment (in collaboration with Olin Labs). An unexpected outcome of their work is that the group has been asked to collaborate with the US Army Corps of Engineers on their ongoing habitat restoration projects in the Philadelphia region.
The biodiversity team, led by Meyerson Chair of Urbanism Richard Weller and M’Closkey, are currently investigating the ‘sixth extinction’ crisis set in motion by global heating. By adopting a global perspective, they aim to design landscape interventions that reduce habitat loss and enable diverse wildlife to endure changing climatic conditions. For example, Weller’s ‘World Park’ project proposes an ecological corridor across the American continent to facilitate the migration of both animals and plants to new regions, an approach that developed from his former ‘Atlas for the End of the World’ project. The team are also developing biodiversity loss mitigation strategies for 60 ‘hotspot cities’ — urban regions around the world that are rapidly expanding into some of the last unprotected, yet critical, biodiverse habitats. The climate policy group, guided by Fleming, have directed their energy during active political cycles towards filling a knowledge gap in how Green New Deal (GND) policy will relate to the built environment, a research direction that emerged from his conversations with former colleagues working in the climate movement. Fleming teamed up with sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen, senior lecturer Nicholas Pevzner and Data for Progress, among others, to work on a propositional project. “The early days [of the GND movement] involved a lot of smart economists, science and technology people and organizers, but it didn’t include anyone with spatial or built environment expertise”, Fleming explains. “Our approach was driven by the realization that the GND will be understood by most people through the buildings, landscapes, public works and infrastructure that it creates and not through molecules in the atmosphere or electrons in their circuits”.
Decarbonizing public housing was the first key issue the climate policy group brought to decision-makers, starting at the office of Congresswoman Cortez (whose team was particularly engaged with the issue due to the high density of public housing in the district they represented). “Our approach was that if decarbonization is the goal, there is no better place to start than with public housing”, urges Fleming. “Typically, public housing tenants would be last in line for a program like this, so given the ‘frontline communities’ mandate of the GND, we wanted to focus there first.” The climate policy group has subsequently been asked to assist in the writing of legislation HR5185 (which includes a proposal for retrofitting over a million housing units across the US), and transportation policy for the GND. They are now focusing their attention on public schools, infrastructure, and the energy system. Before Philadelphia went into lockdown earlier this year due to the spread of COVID-19, the climate policy group hosted a ‘Designing a Green New Deal’ conference co-sponsored by T-A-L’s GND working group. The event featured 20 invited speakers including climate activist Naomi Klein, Jane McAleveyand, Rhinana Gunn-wright and 1400 attendees showed up on the day. Fleming recalls, “we only had standing room and our host joked that he had never seen the auditorium that full, even for the Democratic nominee Joe Biden”.
Off-cycle, the group has been working on an American public housing policy tool; a research project which maps the impact of climate change across America; and the ‘Atlas for the Green New Deal’. The Atlas presents climate and built environment data in a series of illustrative maps and has gained a following of over half a million unique visitors online. “We wanted to inspire action rather than a sense of nihilism or fatalism about the sort of world that the climate emergency portends for us. Therefore our aim is to create specialized, open-source climate impact information that is accessible to anyone with an internet connection, as much of it is currently paywalled or otherwise not available to the public”, says Fleming. Since the Atlas went live in mid-December, it has fed back into design school curriculums, including at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, and been picked up by secondary schools across the globe.
“The McHarg team has been at the forefront of pushing climate issues into the center of the conversation on campus, which is evident when we organize events”, says Fleming. “No matter whether it’s in person or virtual, we are always oversubscribed. Therefore we’re trying to attract additional funding for people doing interesting climate research that requires additional collaborators and deserves a bigger audience. When people come to us with a strong climate and environmental research proposal, we do whatever is within our power to make it happen.”
McAulay is also working to develop existing capacity and knowledge within the architecture education system which draws from scientific climate emergency research. “The AAS catalyzes and delivers education like the house truly is on fire”, he explains, “immediately and with urgency. Other campaigns, open letters, petitions, and the like, are valuable, but to wait for the modern architectural education system to catch up is to waste time that science says we simply do not have. So, instead of waiting for the kind of systemic overhaul necessary, an overhaul that must include the education and upskilling of educators, the AAS chooses to get things done now.”
McAulay suggests that from the start, the response the AAS has received from educators has been overwhelmingly positive. “When I issued the provocation during last year’s Architecture Fringe that architectural education was no longer fit for purpose in the context of climate breakdown, I was ready for a fiery kickback… but there was none, simply an acceptance that something must be done and urgently”. Some architecture schools that did not initially register an interest in the AAS following McAulay’s public stand have since changed their approach and invited him onto campus to present lectures and coordinate workshops. Sessions include ‘Climate Literacy and the Built Environment’ (for professionals and the public) and ‘Crisis Studio’ (for students). Continuing professional development (CPD) in the format of training and workshops on sustainable design is also central to CSK Architects’ approach. Their education program at the studio includes both recognized CPD courses on environmental construction topics, such as the Green Register, and innovative in-house training sessions. Their 4-part project assessment strategy training, characterized by ‘form follows lifecycle’, evolved from the Cork House project design process. “The form of the Cork House and its ‘stack system’ developed from exploring how a cork wall could be assembled without glue or mortar”, explains Barnett Howland. “The idea, broadly speaking, is to make strong, legible connections between the environmental issues that we’re facing and their architectural, spatial and sensory experiences.”
Inspired by an increased emphasis on lifecycle design in the UK RIBA’s 2020 Plan of Work, which now includes a Sustainable Outcomes Guide, CSK Architects are developing their lifecycle approach into an in-house matrix which maps construction work stages along one axis and a project’s lifecycle on the other. Their aim is for this thinking to inform their decision-making process at each project design stage. “Rather than making a material selection on embodied energy only”, says Barnett Howland, “we want to develop a more holistic approach that factors in considerations right across a building’s lifecycle, such as resource impacts on biodiversity, or the implications of complex construction on the recovery of materials at the end of a building’s life. We’re currently trialing this approach on two or three projects where we know we have open-minded clients, then we aim to develop the system in line with new work coming into the office. The key thing for us is to ensure that the ecological arguments are always framed in an architectural way.” Milne agrees, “it’s very important that the architectural design process doesn’t just become carbon number crunching. Architects enjoy the design process and should be framing the ecological discussion in their own terms.” Over the coming years, CSK Architects plan to develop this methodology while continuing to explore low-carbon design solutions and materials through their collaborative projects. Insights from this research and development will feed into the technology modules of a new MSci course that Barnett Howland is in the process of developing alongside colleagues at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. CSK’s approach of asking questions about the products they are specifying, developing innovative research and educational programs alongside their studio projects and initiating conversations with their local authority may be useful techniques for other small-sized firms aiming to practice more sustainably.
“One of the reasons we were able to focus on sustainable innovation in the Cork House was that, as architects, we wore many hats, which is quite unusual”, Milne recalls. “We acted as architect, researcher, builder and client, which gave us a unique opportunity to understand the impact of design decisions from a range of perspectives.” “A key realization for us was that architect-driven processes often lead to leaps in innovation”, adds Barnett Howland. “However, at our scale of operations, you also need the regulatory frameworks to be in place.” An ongoing setback for CSK Architects — also faced by many small and medium-sized firms attempting to reduce the ecological impact of their projects — is that lifecycle carbon does not currently feature in most national planning or building control regulations. It therefore often falls upon architects to convince their clients of the benefits of taking steps to make projects more sustainable, while juggling the competing demands involved in the day-to-day running of a commercial architecture practice. “For small offices, who can’t afford a head of sustainability, it can be challenging to run expensive carbon assessment tools, which require high levels of BIM and time investment”, says Barnett Howland. “The thought of all the changes which need to be made, at the pace required, can be daunting for many small offices. It’s like changing the wheels while the car is moving. We still have a dozen people here with mortgages to pay. How do you weigh up all that seemingly contradictory information, all that complexity, but keep it simple enough for a small practice with limited resources to reliably follow and really embed deep operational change?”
“At the end of the day, architecture is a service industry, so we need to balance encouraging our clients and the wider construction sector to engage with the issues at stake, whilst taking on board where they are coming from and the other factors in play”, continues Barnett Howland. “This outlook is guiding CSK Architects as we pave the way towards something more suited to our scale of operations. We are looking for approaches that balance the intricacy of the current situation with the need for a degree of operational simplicity, so that we can sustain any changes we make long-term.” Both Barnett Howland and Milne agree that while the architecture profession has witnessed a shift in approach to the climate emergency over recent years, there may be murmurings of wider reform across the construction sector at large. “When we speak to our contacts at the bigger London practices, they are seeing the first large-scale developers and landowners begin to prioritize climate-positive design solutions”, affirms Barnett Howland. “As with most things, the big money will drive the change.”
Bagenal George says she often comes across clients with the common misconception that it costs more to commission an energy-efficient building, while mounting evidence suggests that this approach can in fact save money over a project’s operational lifespan. In a change of direction driven by LETI members, the group is now diverting their focus towards developing guidance for retrofitting existing buildings to achieve net-zero. “In the UK we’re currently under building regulations review, so it is an important time for LETI to work on getting our recommendations implemented”, she explains. In the coming years, LETI plans to assist local councils to implement policy change in line with their climate emergency declarations and further refine their embodied carbon offsetting comparison tools. LETI is also developing a feedback system, Pioneer Projects, where firms can submit their work to a members’ forum to develop an enhanced understanding of what the specific practical barriers are in terms of achieving net-zero. McAulay is currently developing a ‘Climate Breakdown Library’, which aims to prepare architects, both present and future, for practicing in the climate emergency and to expand horizons on sustainability. “My first recommendation for Archinect readers is Letters to the Earth: Writing Letters to a Planet in Crisis, published by Culture Declares”, he offers, “because it explores the emotional, human response to the climate crisis in a beautiful and necessary way. The second would be Housing Fit for Purpose: Performance, Feedback and Learning by UK-based architecture professor Fionn Stevenson, as it is a rallying cry and thorough manual with which we can imbed building performance and post-occupancy evaluations into architectural practice, to learn from what we build and rise to the challenge of the climate and ecological emergency. Lastly, I’d suggest Sustainable Construction by Sandy Halliday, as it is the foundation for the world’s first ever sustainability accreditation for architects and an endlessly invaluable resource.”
At the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, the McHarg team hope to continue their research and initiate new collaborations that take an increasingly global outlook on the GND. “If we’re going to get to net-zero carbon, we’re going to need a lot of rechargeable batteries, electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines, and those all have serious implications for how and where we live, so we want to make those impacts legible and understandable for decision-makers and those who may not have understood the severity of the climate crisis”, says Fleming. “So when elected officials say, we need to swap out all 272 million internal combustion engine vehicles for electric vehicles, they are also aware that they could be asking for a massive, exploitative extraction of rare minerals from regions in Chile and the Congo. Our strategy is to be able to offer well-researched alternatives to these kinds of techno-utopian visions of climate policy.”
CSK Architects, LETI, the AAS and the McHarg Center are just some examples of practitioners and educators working to embed deep operational change into their organizations in light of the climate emergency. By taking on the challenge, they are cultivating a richer experience of what it means to be an architect practicing in the world today. Their toolbox of strategies for maximizing impact include being agile and propositional, rethinking design approaches, developing self-guided research, prototyping innovative ideas to fill knowledge gaps, taking the lead in wider project teams and pitching in to advise policy as it is being written. These approaches begin to redefine what design excellence means in the 21st century: to utilize architects’ creativity, tools and imagination to build a future that works with, rather than against, the world’s ecosystems. Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis, published by Culture Declares, 2019As the US withdraws from COP26 next month (regardless of the outcome of the election), architects are called upon to mobilize the power of the profession to put an end to the construction industry being the largest CO2 emitting sector on the planet. “Do what you can”, says Barnett Howland. “If you work in a small practice, this could start with a review of your current projects in terms of, say, four high-level issues, such as impact on biodiversity, resources, embodied and operational carbon. It’s about getting the conversation started.” “Team up with practitioners working in larger offices”, adds Milne, “from our experience, we have seen that climate design tools often favor large practices, yet over a quarter of UK architects are sole practitioners or work in small businesses, so it’s essential they can also access these resources and processes. Also, it’s essential to win over our client’s hearts and minds. You have to be slightly ahead of the curve, pushing for change”.
“To folks in academia”, adds Fleming, “I’d say we have the luxury of operating outside market forces, therefore we have the obligation to take on workloads and projects that a practice cannot. We need to build alternative professional pathways for students who are soon to be practitioners. To professionals, I’d say consider following Barbara’s lead and consider ways you can seed partnerships and research that span the academic / practice divide, or, like Olin Labs, investigate how you could team up with or initiate a research group and become trailblazers in the industry”.
“As engineers, we need to think of every job in a fresh light and understand how to design truly low carbon and energy efficient systems”, explains Bagenal George. “That might be different to what we have done before — a change means doing things differently, and this requires time, energy and passion.” “First, take a moment to forgive yourself for not knowing everything and find a comfortable space to talk about the feelings that climate change brings up for you”, says McCaulay. “Your first ‘action’ on this need not be huge. Start by learning: listen to that podcast, read that blog or book, take that course, watch Anthropocene: the Human Epoch and Tomorrow. Vocally support the efforts of others, activists and architects alike, and collaborate. One person asking their network for help to catalyze an idea can be very positively disruptive.”
If you work in an architecture firm, you may be interested in signing up to the AIA’s 2030 commitment, the UK’s RIBA 2030 climate challenge and the World GBC Net-Zero Commitment. Sustainable project certifications that may be of interest include the Living Building Challenge, LEED v4.1, the Green Building Standards, BREEAM 2018, CEEQUAL, ILFI Zero Carbon Certification, Climate Positive Design and WELL Certification, among others. Other tools and resources which may be of use include the 2030 Palette, Architecture 2030 the Zero code and the UN’s Race to Zero.
This feature was written for Archinect. Read the original article here: https://archinect.com/features/article/150232535/architects-take-climate-action-archinect-speaks-to-practitioners-and-educators-taking-on-the-challenge-of-adapting-to-the-climate-emergency