Everyone is declaring a climate emergency. Countries, councils, organisations. Australian architects joined in declaring in July this year.
This is to be especially welcomed as architects are at the centre of the built environment which contributes approximately 25 percent of all emissions in building operations and another 10 percent in construction and materials.
Responses to rising emissions and climate change have gone from academic to emergency and architects, realizing the role they play, have reacted by forming a nascent organisation to highlight the urgency. Few of the 30 ‘foundation signatories’ of the declaration, outside the organisers, have a track record of sustainable design or a public profile of activism on climate change.
This leads to suspicions of vanity virtue-signalling by signing up. The right-wing mainstream media goes further, saying it is nothing more than a publicity stunt. But they would, wouldn’t they?
Recent meetings in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, show the enormity of the issue, the willingness of many to participate, but the problem is establishing exactly what to do. There was considerable enthusiasm at the Sydney meeting to transform the current good intentions into a well-funded professionally run organisation to advocate for urgent change. It doesn’t even have a website yet, but is on Facebook, a major minus in this social media aware digital age.
This desire to make a new organisation may well be a response to the failure of the architects’ ‘union’, the (once Royal) Australian Institute of Architects, to address the issue of the age. The ‘Architecture Awards’ is a prism through which to see the stodge.
For many years in the 90’s and beyond, the AIA had two awards, for ‘energy efficiency’ or ‘ESD’ (environmentally sustainable design), separate from the main awards that architects entered. Sustainability became marginalised and confused.
In 2006, a change was proposed by the AIA National Environment Committee, composed of volunteers; (note that the AIA is founded on volunteers unlike many other professional organisations). It proposed a change to create a single ‘sustainable award’, and that entrants would enter only the main awards, with every entrant having the opportunity to highlight sustainable initiatives.
Sustainable awards would be selected from all entries. And this would then have a sunset clause of 5-8 years, to a point where EVERY main award would only go to a sustainable building.
Well, step one took years to implement, and step two was thwarted by the paid staff at the urging of the ‘Big End of town’ who could see their awards potential plummeting. Perhaps that was why getting an awards program with realistic sustainable standards is high on the list of the new initiatives of the Sydney group. But it won’t be with the AIA.
There are lots of other issues raised in the first meetings: so many issues, so little time. To sort through them we might characterise the mission of ‘Architects Declare’ as working on three different levels: personal, professional and political.
The personal is epitomised by a three-step proposal by Jeremy McLeod of Breathe Architecture at the meeting in Melbourne where he advocated three steps that every architect should take:
1. Subscribe to green power by January 2020 (first step to lower their impact)
2. Have a carbon audit by June 2020 (to understand their footprint)
3. Be carbon neutral by end of 2020 (get their own ‘house’ in order).
A perfect example of ‘Think Global / Act Local’. One wonders if there will be any verification process to ensure that the signatories, particularly the ‘high-flyers’ with foundation status, meet the targets or be removed from the list.
Caroline Pidcock at the Sydney meeting emphasised ‘regenerative design’, going further than carbon neutrality to create buildings that make a positive contribution in operational energy and CO2 output (perhaps to make up for all the ones that are a drag). Just how architects could convince their clients to adopt such a virtuous, but expensive position is less clear. Being personally zero is one thing, but ensuring that all the projects they design, and build, are positive is quite another.
Tactics could include asking clients to swap costs by having (say) 10 precent less built area, turning the savings in capital costs into sustainable initiatives to achieve lower ongoing costs.
Or to follow an ingenious UK initiative described as presenting (no cost) advice on the benefits of possible sustainable ideas to lower the carbon footprint, but not adopted at the time of final design, presumably to make clients re-think their position. Tricky that, not shaming the hand that feeds.
The sustainable industry is replete with hundreds of matrices showing issues and responses: green consultants, particularly engineers, have made an artform of configuring graphs in power-point presentations, that will make your eyes glaze over.
Declaring architects could do a lot worse than use their talents to translate these many matrices into demonstrative designs: making un-commissioned plans to demonstrate better design to local communities, how future development might be carbon neutral or regenerative. Drawings trump spread sheets in talking to the public.
Architects don’t have a great tradition of participation in politics, with some standout exceptions. Milo Dunphy created the Total Environment Centre from his own income, a voice for sustainability that continues in physicality and in the naming of the NSW AIA supreme sustainability award.
Ted Mack served as an independent in all three levels of government with an exceptional commitment to the environment and ethical behaviour (and to his beloved Citroen Traction Avant). And Evan Walker, Daryl Jackson’s early partner, served as a visionary planning minister in Victoria.
Otherwise high-profile advocacy by architects is a slim volume. But many serve on a wide variety of alphabetical advisory committees, from ASBEC (Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council) to ABCB (Australian Building Codes Board). It’s a slow slog, deep in the trenches fighting back against conservative reactionaries like the HIA (Housing Industry Association). But architects have to do it.
A review of standards and codes is desperately needed. NatHERS, the national digital building energy -assessment tool is still full of loopholes that deny effective sustainability. Basix in NSW has been very successful in raising standards from a low base, but needs to go further: for instance the high take up of PV’s in houses is not matched in apartments, maybe it could be improved by requiring certain quantity of PV panels/bedroom, instead of car parks/bedrooms.
Declaring architects will need to be active in all three levels of government. Local councils control development via local plans, which are often in need of a good dose of sustainable reality rather than the glib greenwash that is situation normal for most.
Architects, as opposed to planners, could play a valuable role in contributing to the way in which those plans could be rewritten; in particular to encourage a change in the definition to ‘design excellence’ away from being pictorially attractive to being sustainable contributory.
State governments need substantial changes to the way cities are master planned, to coordinate changes in transport, zoning, area planning, and infrastructure for energy efficiency. We need to move away from the dominance of economists and geographers to those who have a better idea of physical outcomes; hello declaring architects, and saluting the life’s work of architects like Rod Simpson who is the Environment Commissioner at the Greater Sydney Commission.
Possibilities for genuine sustainability by the federal government are particularly bleak. This month we celebrate, or rather commiserate, the 10 years since the Greens, under Bob Brown, voted against an emission trading scheme, treachery that set Australia into climate change action purgatory.
The only certainty in federal politics at the moment is that there will be no action on climate change for at least another two and a half years.
Even more reason for declaring architects to take action to change federal policy, not by bashing their heads against the current government, but to ensure that the Labor party has a viable policy for cities and infrastructure and energy emissions when they come to government.
On this point it's worth noting that only three Labor ministers have ever been strongly interested in the development of our cities, Tom Uren, Brian Howe and Tanya Plibersek. All from the left and all deputy leaders at some point. Pretty clear who to talk to.
Community, it’s the buzzword of the future. Architects Declare is a vital initiative in moving architects’ concentration away from individual clients to positioning their work within a community, helping their clients to understand the necessity to be part of a community and work within it for better sustainable efficiency. Not every building can be carbon neutral, but every community can.
Disclosure: Tone Wheeler was chair of the AIA NEnvC at the time of advocating the awards changes, and has received several AIA Sustainable Architecture awards, including the Milo Dunphy Award in 2014. He is non-vegan, drives an old Citroen, lives in a house with failed experimental PV’s and has a long way to go.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D.