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Are we architects making ourselves guilty?

Are we architects making ourselves guilty?

Markus Appenzeller

According to a felt 99% of all scientists the impact of humans on the global climate is a fact. An inconvenient truth that is responsible for the climate change we are seeing already, and that we will keep seeing to a much bigger extent in the decades and centuries to come. The CO2 that we have released by burning fossil fuels is in the atmosphere and so far we have not seen large scale attempts to get the genie back into the bottle. Permanent carbon storage is a long way off, and it remains to be seen if that is a feasible technology. We anyway have been quite indifferent in the face of the biggest and most impacting challenge we are experiencing in our lifetime – a challenge that will persist for future generations to come. With ‘we’, I mean architects– the very profession I am part of myself. For a long time, we just did nothing. We kept designing buildings that were more material hungry, and we designed pieces of city where the car has priority and not the environment. In the face of growing criticism and pushed by leaders with foresight we have started moving. At least that is how it looks if I trust the claims on architect’s websites and if I trust the declarations of climate emergency that every other office is signing these days. If I look at the work many of these practices are doing, then I do not see many of the bold claims embodied in their work. Speaking to them, I hear a lot of frustration that their good intentions are constantly sabotaged by developers who do not want to pay for it, construction companies who do not have the expertise of public administrations who are so hung up with their own internal processes that any change is impossible. And I completely understand these complaints and I sincerely believe that a large part of my profession wants to change things for the better.

The International Energy Agency estimates the global human induced CO2 emissions are related to construction industry to be 39% – not just buildings, also infrastructure. But even if we leave the latter out of consideration, we still account for more than ten times the carbon emissions than for example the airline industry. We are part of this ‘carbon monster’. In a Mafia clan there might be good guys with good intentions who want to turn their criminal organization into a law-abiding social enterprise, but their membership still makes them criminals. I know this comparison is flawed since our profession is following legal regulations – but we cannot escape the responsibility by pointing at other parties involved. Our profession is weak when it comes to exercising pressure on others. We are not united, and everyone is afraid that a colleague will then take the job oneself has turned down out of environmental considerations. That furthers the image of us being indifferent to climate change.

Of course, we could all wait until legislators will force us to by introducing a carbon emission tax that – like vehicle taxes in many countries is a charge for the CO2 emissions. But given the climate clock gives us 20 years at max to meet the 1.5-degree limits on carbon that might come too late. Luckily, some started to really take a stand – not by fighting the system, but by making their own market. The advantage is, that in a new market you have more influence. SLA, a Dutch practice has been very successful in delivering fully circular buildings – buildings where no nails and screws were used and where facades are made from recused plastic. Now, not everyone needs to take the same, radical approach but we all can contribute when designing and delivering more standard buildings. Replacing construction elements by options with a higher share of recycled materials, or exchanging concrete elements with wooden ones, using wood-based insulation instead of plastic foams or choosing for more compact floor plan layouts with a lower perimeter to surface ratio – these are all small steps but together they help saving CO2. There is another positive side effect: If these materials are used more commonly then all parties involved in the process are getting used to them – developers, engineers, construction companies, suppliers and – most importantly: the home buyers. Imagine a new project being delivered with the selling slogan “living in your dream house – but with 20% less carbon” and depicting a building that is looking like the highly popular 20s style mansions (I am not judging taste here:). I can imagine that that would be a success. And it is possible – without higher costs, just with a more considered choice of materials.

I think that should be the starting point and a way to clearly show that we are not indifferent. Are we?

by Markus Appenzeller

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