14 September 2020

Does architecture play a role in the climate emergency?

Empowering students to become global citizens and inspire new ways of building

Landscape Architecture summer exhibition

When we hear about the climate emergency, either in the news or within our social circles, attention is usually given to the impact of fossil fuels, transportation, single-use plastics and agriculture. But one polluter that’s rarely spoken about publicly is the construction industry, contributing to 39% of emissions (World Green Building Council, Global Status Report 2017.) 

Emissions from the building industry are split into two categories: operational energy, which includes heating, lights and the energy that it takes to make the building work day to day, and the embodied energy: the materials and construction that goes into the production of the building. 

‘So there is a huge output of energy, both in the build and ongoing once the work is complete,’ said Eleanor Derbyshire, an MArch student at the School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield, and a member of the Sheffield School of Architecture (SSoA) Students for Climate Action group. 

‘As architects, we obviously want to build. That’s what we’re training to do, but in our education we have learnt to ask ourselves whether we need to build,’ she said. ‘It’s a two prong approach. We need to use as little energy and carbon as possible to build the buildings, and then as little energy as possible to operate them. Even saying that, we actually need to be questioning whether we need to build at all? While a carbon negative building might be made from timber, taking cO2 from the atmosphere over its lifetime, the greenest building is the one that’s already built.’ 

The SSoA Students for Climate Action group have been working alongside the School of Architecture and RIBA (the Royal Institute of British Architects) to develop a new curriculum that focuses on sustainable design and building in a climate emergency. 

Elin Keyser, another member of the Climate Action Group and MA student said: ‘It’s really important that people are educated about the potential damaging impact of our profession because something as simple and commonplace as a brick takes a lot of energy to produce, and there are alternatives to what we see around us. 

‘We are a big polluter, but it’s not all doom and gloom. The answers are there. The technology is there. We just need to get everyone onboard. Architects in this generation are environmentally conscious and we’re all on board, but we have to get everyone else on board, the clients, government, contractors etc. and get everyone banging to the same drum.

Michael Jenkins, an MA student in the School of Architecture, said: ‘It doesn’t have to be super high tech. We have the solutions, we just need others to buy into it. Building or renovating a building is a massive group effort so it’s an attitude shift. There are a lot of environmentally friendly materials available in the UK but they’re often not used in the mainstream yet. They’re not difficult materials to get hold of or use.’ 

Aidan Hoggard, a University Teacher at the School of Architecture, is leading the project to create a new climate emergency curriculum with RIBA. 

He said: ‘The climate emergency is now the way our students are thinking about the world and a curriculum that focuses on this critical information is essential. We spoke to RIBA and they wanted to get involved, so we started the conversation.’

‘Our hope is that this publication will become a well-used textbook across all schools of architecture in the future. It comes partly in response to things going on in the world and in social media; the popularity of Greta Thunberg’s movement for example. It has changed the way of thinking from what we used to talk about in architecture – good sustainable design – to talk of a climate emergency. What has happened over the last year is that our own students in the School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield have really got onto this and they’re pushing us now to make the necessary changes.’ 

According to Aidan, there are two aspects to the thinking behind the new curriculum. ‘The first one is about empowering students to go out into the world and design really good, climate-appropriate buildings,’ he said. ‘A lot of what we’re doing is the technical side of how we build good buildings and how do you work with clients. But the other side is more about global citizenship and acknowledging that it’s not enough to create people who are good at designing buildings. We want students to go out into the world and make an impact as global citizens in whatever role they do; in how they vote, in how they lobby, in how they teach their kids.’

This is something that the students agree with. Elin said: ‘Our generation is very environmentally aware, so I guess when we think of our roles as architects, we want to do the best we possibly can. But we also have a responsibility to influence the wider industry and lobby government. I guess we see our role as new architects being expanded in that sense.’

Eleanor added: ‘As architects what we need to consider is that every time we build something, it has a global impact. When you build concrete, you need cement, but where is that cement being produced? That causes local air quality issues. You hear stories of sand theft around the world where coastlines are being eroded for concrete produced in the US or the UK.

‘We are extracting materials from around the world and that’s having global impacts. So you always have to have that global citizen mindset. And as young designers our eyes have to be opened to that.’ 

The new climate-focussed curriculum will be ready for Autumn 2021. In the meantime, find out more about the SSoA Students for Climate Action group, or follow Aidan’s progress on Twitter. 

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