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Cop this, kids

Jane Duncan

We are among the custodians of the planet: what we leave must make our children proud

I am already proud of the achievements of my kids, but I am starting to consider whether they will be proud of me.

My generation has a lot to answer for: consumerism, overuse of finite resources, galloping technological advancements, instant global access, growing urbanism, and medical advancements that keep us alive for longer.

We are also the generation that has the greatest opportunity to make the decisions which will affect the lives of our children, and theirs in turn. All children have the right to access basic services and resources, such as safe water, sanitation, adequate nutrition, good health, quality education, clean air and energy, but millions of children around the world are denied this right every day. Conflicts, disasters, increasing population, ­urbanisation, over-consumerism and climate change threaten access to these basic services.

COP21 in Paris last December was a critical turning point – a fundamental ­pivot toward a zero-carbon and climate-resilient world which took 20 years to achieve. It moved 195 countries towards understanding the collective responsibility for the future of our planet. Determining exactly how they will decarbonise is the next step, and with the impacts of climate change already upon us, speed is essential.

Sustainable development requires our concerted efforts towards building an inclusive, resilient future. To achieve sustainable development, it is crucial to harmonise three core elements: economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection. These are interconnected and all are vital for the well-being of individuals and societies.

Are we getting results? Do our buildings and interventions do what they promise?

Architects have a critical role.  Many of us already embrace the principles of sustainable development in our designs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help communities adapt to the effects of climate change – like droughts and flooding.

But we are not seeing the speed of change, nor the scale of innovation that is required. Existing UK building stock is fuel hungry and, with one in 10 households in fuel poverty, incremental progress in tackling sustainability threats is simply not enough. It’s absurd that it takes roughly three times the energy to keep a house in the UK warm and dry as it does for an equivalent property in Sweden.

Investment in truly sustainable programmes creates business challenges for both government and clients that will require collaboration, innovation and transformation across the industry. As architects we need to examine our own progress and identify where we stand on the path to sustainability and resilience.

Are we getting results? Do our buildings and interventions do what they promise?

We must urgently set carbon budgets and establish whether we meet them (a requirement of the UK Climate Change Act) but those budgets are obviously meaningless if they don’t factor in the performance gap. Recently launched data from the government’s Building Performance Evaluation projects found strong evidence that carbon emissions from new homes are two or three times higher than design estimates; on non-domestic buildings they are on average 3.8 times higher. We have an urgent need to drive up real performance disclosure on buildings through better prediction tools, energy literacy, and regulatory compliance change.

As a profession we pride ourselves on our growing inclusiveness, social purpose, ­environmental awareness and place making skills, but we need to do better on sustainability. We must drive these matters up the government’s agenda, take leadership and push from a truly collaborative industry ­approach. If not now, then when?  

Surely we should aim to create beautiful places with social, economic and environmental performance and net positive impacts. Then our kids might look back and be proud of us too.


Extra column
Senior members of the RIBA are invited to attend the Doric Club lunch this summer. The lunch provides an opportunity to keep in contact with the Institute and come together in the Florence Hall among friends, former colleagues and contemporaries to celebrate the past, present and future of architecture while supporting architecture students facing financial hardship. Find out more at