‘Architects need to wake up to the carbon emergency’

‘Architects need to wake up to the carbon emergency’

Since the 2007 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, some progress has been made in the past 12 years.

New buildings have become more energy-efficient and pioneering architects are exploring radical new ways of using materials. Yet the focus on eco-design we saw over a decade ago has dissipated.

While the UK government remains legally committed to the long-term goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050 under the Climate Change Act 2008, there is an abject lack of joined-up thinking within Whitehall and precious little leadership from ministers, especially given the distraction of Brexit.

Why architects are key

Architects are only a small part of the global system which got us to this point and it would be wrong to single out the profession or berate them for neglecting this subject. If architects are in denial, then so too are most business sectors and the media for that matter.

But what should give us pause for thought is just how carbon-intensive architecture is and, conversely, what impact for the good architects might make if they began to specialise in this subject and tackle it like social entrepreneurs. This is especially true when construction’s carbon emissions are considered in the round, according to the principles of ‘whole-life carbon’.

The 35-40 per cent of UK carbon emissions said by the Green Construction Board to be caused by the built environment is a significant underestimate, because it refers only to the day-to-day carbon emissions of buildings in use. This is the part of the WLC equation that architects and measuring tools like BREEAM have focused on. The profession has commonly ignored the other part – embodied carbon. This relates to the building’s physical properties and makes up between half and three-quarters of an individual new building’s lifetime carbon emissions. Some of this embodied carbon is expended prior to practical completion – through material sourcing and production, transport and construction – and some afterwards, as a result, for example, of maintenance or replacement of a building’s structure, envelope or environmental systems.

There seem to be few reliable statistics indicating what proportion of overall UK emissions come from embodied carbon in buildings. However, the government’s Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK) has estimated that about 45 per cent of WLC emissions in the UK come from buildings – 27 per cent from domestic buildings and 18 per cent from non-domestic buildings. Comparing that 45 per cent with the Green Construction Board’s figure would suggest that UK construction is responsible for 5-10 per cent of the country’s carbon emissions.

Awareness of WLC is growing, thanks to publications such as last year’s RIBA report ‘Embodied and whole life carbon assessments for architects’, which builds on work by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and aims to integrate WLC assessment principles with the RIBA work stages. Yet architects, on the whole, are failing to think deeply about the short and long-term carbon impact of the materials they use and the principles of the circular economy. How many were shocked by the recent Chatham House report on concrete, which highlighted the 8 per cent of global carbon emissions caused by the cement industry?

Part of the answer is to point out that there is a new role for architects here if they choose to grasp it. The decision-makers may have been slow to act but they can hear that smoke alarm and it is only going to get louder.

Prioritising retrofit  and opposing demolition

But, in order to make the most of the opportunities, architects will need to take the initiative. They will need to bring their problem-solving and creative skills to bear. They will need to better understand materials, help to redefine what ‘good’ architecture looks like and successfully make the case that ultra-low WLC buildings are simply better buildings. They will have to prioritise the retrofit and re-use agenda and oppose demolition unless the case for it is unanswerable. Above all, they will need to get out of the habit of following and start to lead.

Of course, the profession can only be a part of the solution. It is not going to save the planet on its own in the next decade. Clearly, we urgently need to see innovative and progressive new ways of regulating and taxing carbon introduced to keep global warming below 1.5°C.

But architects need to stop waiting for government to act and ask themselves what being a professional means. Concern for others and for the environment is embedded in both the ARB and RIBA codes of professional conduct and here we are staring at a humanitarian and environmental emergency. We do not have another 12 years to waste.

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March 12, 2019
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