17 Stirlings’ declaration is just the start

Words:
Hugh Pearman

The 17 Stirlings’ Architects Declare initiative is gaining ground, but where are the rest of you?

When I wrote in my last editorial column about the environment and climate emergency – officially declared by Parliament on 1 May – I said: ‘If ever there was a time for architects to step forward and change things for the better, permanently, it is now. This is the challenge that the whole profession needs to get behind. Not at some undefined point in the future. Now. But how?’

That went online on 21 May, and events quickly overtook it in the best possible way. At the time of writing I didn’t know that a bunch of very influential architects – all 17 surviving UK Stirling Prize winning practices – were already on the case, had agreed on a joint course of action, and were about to make a decisive move. That move took place on May 29 and is called ‘Architects Declare’.

You will, I hope, know all about it already. We covered it online on the morning of the launch. Fully supported by the RIBA and now shadowed by a student/academic equivalent, its impact was immediate and is growing. The ‘17 Stirlings’ as they are now known, signed a joint declaration saying: ‘The twin crises of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss are the most serious issue of our time. Buildings and construction play a major part, accounting for nearly 40% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions while also having a significant impact on our natural habitats.

‘For everyone working in the construction industry, meeting the needs of our society without breaching the earth’s ecological boundaries will demand a paradigm shift in our behaviour. Together with our clients, we will need to commission and design buildings, cities and infrastructures as indivisible components of a larger, constantly regenerating and self-sustaining system.

Today there are 442 signatures. But there are some 3,760 RIBA chartered practices plus others outside the RIBA. What’s keeping the others?

‘The research and technology exist for us to begin that transformation now, but what has been lacking is collective will. Recognising this, we are committing to strengthen our working practices to create architecture and urbanism that has a more positive impact on the world around us.’

They then outlined 11 action points as means towards this end, and invited every UK practice to join them. You can do this through a dedicated website, architectsdeclare.com. As I write on 18 June, there are 442 signatures including the original 17, some famous names and rising-star firms. That’s good, but bear in mind that there are some 3,760 RIBA chartered practices plus firms of architects outside the RIBA umbrella. You have to wonder: what’s keeping the others?

This caused a big stir on social media, reactions ranging from the inevitable ‘virtue-signalling’ sneers and finger-pointing at signatories with some distinctly unsustainable buildings to their name, to outright congratulations. Overall, there is a sense of relief that something is being done: the challenge now, of course, is to back up the words with the actions outlined. The Stirling Prize is now much more than just an award for excellence. It has become a force for beneficial change. I know of no other award scheme in any field that has taken on a life of its own like this.

Nobody is saying this is going to be easy. Architecture and building have long time­scales, and some signatories have projects in the pipeline dating from years back. These pre-declaration buildings will continue to emerge for some time, some doubtless leading to further finger-pointing. Apart from the obvious need to get clients, contractors and fellow professionals on side – do you reject a commission if they don’t share your approach? – there are also ticklish issues of ‘value engineering’ and architects having to hand their designs to others for the delivery phase. You can be as fervent as you like with sustainable designs, but that avails you nothing if those taking over don’t give a hoot. So we all hope that Architects Declare will be the necessary stimulus to change the weather.