Interview with Professor Fionn Stevenson

Professor Fionn Stevenson, who is passionate about sustainable architecture, talks about the need for architects to understand the climate, and to design the built environment in a way that reduces the carbon footprint.

Global climate change strike: in the crowd an attendee holds a sign saying "The climate is changing, so should we. Act now".
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

What is Climate Literacy?

Climate literacy is about understanding what climate change and the current climate emergency means for us as architects in terms of our work. We need to learn how to ‘read’ climate change and resource use and respond appropriately as designers. It is a ‘re-framing’ of design theory, which helps us to understand the impact that our designs have on the planet. This can transform our design processes to create regenerative architecture that actually absorbs more carbon than it creates and increases biodiversity in a sensitive way that fits into the ecosystems of the places we design with. At the same time, climate literacy is intersectional and requires an integration of social justice with environmental design, addressing the current injustice that affects dispossessed, oppressed and marginalised people.

Why is this important for architects?

The built environment is currently responsible for about 40% of global carbon emissions. So we have a huge responsibility, as designers who literally ‘shape’ the built environment, to reduce this carbon footprint very rapidly. I’ve recently contributed to evidence and guidance for the UK Parliament on this issue related to housing standards. The latest reports by the International Panel on Climate Change say that we have less than 9 years to radically reduce these carbon emissions, or we face catastrophic changes to our way of life. As a result of human-made carbon emissions the built environment is subject now to extraordinary flooding, storms, drought and heatwaves, causing catastrophic loss of life in many countries. As architects, we must fundamentally change the materials we specify, the amount of virgin material we use, and the buildings we design to be optimised to minimise carbon emissions. We can also inspire others with our work, to do the same. We are also skilled in designing for re-use, but for all these changes many architects need to acquire greater carbon literacy, and new skills to address this challenge. 

Has your work had an impact on the teaching at the University of Sheffield?

I have taught in various Schools of Architecture in the UK and internationally for over 30 years and my teaching has always been informed by my commitment to sustainable design which embraces carbon literacy. In each teaching role I have led on a sustainability agenda. In the Sheffield School of Architecture students have asked for my teaching on low impact materials to be more widely available, and I have built awareness in staff and students through training initiatives and policy developments. 

Why is it important for climate literacy to be part of the RIBA validation criteria?

Climate literacy is not an option - it’s a must - and I am pleased to see that as a result of our lobbying, the RIBA and ARB have now both adopted strong Climate Literacy requirements in the educational curricula of their endorsed programmes. Our Education Special Issue in the research journal Buildings & Cities covered this extensively.  

What was your role in the national survey of all UK Schools of Architecture?

At a national seminar run by the Architects Climate Action Network last Autumn, I proposed a survey for all Schools of Architecture in the UK, to understand the baseline of what knowledge and skills our staff have, in order to to support them to develop any skills missing. The survey was successfully carried out with the vast majority of Schools responding. The results and analysis will be given to all Heads of Schools via the Standing Conference of Heads of Schools of Architecture, as well as the RIBA, for action and support. We were not surprised to see that staff need support in a number of areas such as designing for biodiversity, embodied carbon and more.

As Chair of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland’s Education Committee, and a member of their Climate Literacy working group, what do you think are the challenges for architecture education?

The key challenge for architectural education is to re-educate ourselves as educators at the same time as educating our students in climate literacy - this means building capacity within our learning and teaching staff, and that takes time and money. We need to re-direct financial resources to prioritise this critically important activity just now. The climate literacy learning resources are all there - staff just need time to familiarise themselves with it, and begin to practice it, if they are not already doing so. One major challenge we face is the organised hypocrisy in our government and building industry that is preventing good regulation to ensure architects take responsibility for the performance of their design projects. Schools tend to draw on regulations as the bottom line for compliance, and if the regulation is missing, they don’t do it.

What is the most important thing that Architects can do right now?

Reduce eating meat, travel less and on public transport where possible, and ensure our own homes are low carbon - we need to walk our personal talk first, before we even consider how we design buildings for others. For the profession, we need to commit to making sure all our retrofit projects achieve a Passivhaus Enerphit energy standard where possible, and all our new build projects are genuinely net zero carbon, without the use of offsetting gimmicks.

Professor Fionn Stevenson is an architect, research and Professor of Sustainable Design in the Sheffield School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield. Her work includes the book Housing Fit for Purpose, and contributing to Parliamentary briefings on Environmental Housing Standards

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