Stirling Prize winners issue climate emergency plan of action

Words:
Hugh Pearman

Architects lead construction industry with call for co-ordinated challenge to climate change and species extinction

The 2014 Stirling Prize winner by Haworth Tompkins was the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool which made great use of recycled materials and natural ventilation.
The 2014 Stirling Prize winner by Haworth Tompkins was the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool which made great use of recycled materials and natural ventilation. Credit: Philip Vile

In an unprecedented joint initiative, all 17 living UK winners of the RIBA Stirling Prize have declared a climate and biodiversity emergency, formulated a plan of future action and invited all other UK architects to join them via a dedicated website, architectsdeclare.com.

The practices have an international reach and influence across all building types so the impact of the announcement should be widespread.  They state: ‘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.’

Collective will is needed to make this happen, they say, undertaking to work in 11 areas to help achieve it – including collaboration with engineers, contractors and clients. They also undertake to openly share all findings. ‘We are committing to strengthen our working practices to create architecture and urbanism that has a more positive impact on the world around us.’

One of the 11 points echoes a call made by RIBA Royal Gold Medal winner Sir Nicholas Grimshaw in February this year – to demolish existing buildings only as a last resort.  They undertake to ‘Upgrade existing buildings for extended use as a more carbon efficient alternative to demolition and new build whenever there is a viable choice.’

This is now an irrefutable climate crisis. It’s not only people with impeccable sustainable credentials who should sign up

The fact that the run of Stirling winners since Stephen Hodder won the first in 1996 includes such varied projects and types of practice is encouraging. They range from Amanda Levete’s AL_A to Patrik Schumacher’s Zaha Hadid Architects via practices already well used to adaptive re-use, including David Chipperfield Architects, Haworth Tompkins, Caruso St John and Witherford Watson Mann. The winners list also includes firms with expertise in ultra-sustainable design including timber specialists dRMM, Feilden Clegg Bradley and global giant Foster and Partners, which was responsible for the zero-energy design of the new city of Masdar in Abu Dhabi. Veteran architect Michael Wilford, surviving partner of Sir James Stirling after whom the award is named, is among the signatories as is one of the UK’s most successful commercial and cultural project firms, AHMM, and galleries and museums specialist Stanton Williams. Rogers Stirk Harbour and Wilkinson Eyre, along with Foster, bring considerable expertise in transport infrastructure among much else.  

The initiative is strongly endorsed by RIBA president Ben Derbyshire, who says: ‘The climate challenge we face is vast and urgent. The report of the RIBA Ethics and Sustainable Development Commission identified tackling this issue as a top priority for the RIBA, and it will be a focus for the key debate at our Council meeting next month. What is clear is that for our profession to make a significant impact, we need to do more than make symbolic statements, but to galvanise skills, knowledge and connections globally.

‘It is important that any declarations are underpinned with real, meaningful actions. Therefore it is heartening to see detailed commitments from our past RIBA Stirling Prize winners, setting out the changes they will be making to their own working practices.  At a practical level the RIBA is undertaking a range of initiatives, including better embedding Post Occupancy Evaluation into the RIBA Plan of Work and the introduction of enhanced sustainability requirements in our awards criteria, and seeking to influence government policy on whole-life zero carbon regulation.’

The initial stimulus for action came from Steve Tompkins of Haworth Tompkins. It rapidly widened. Tompkins says: ‘Although I convened the first contact, this is very much a collective project from all 17 Stirlings.’

Although starting with UK architects to keep it on a manageable basis, says Tompkins, the hope is that it will spread to other disciplines and other countries who might want link up with similar initiatives. ‘This is now an irrefutable climate crisis,’ he says. ‘It’s not only people with impeccable sustainable credentials who should sign up. None of us has got this all right yet, but you don’t have to be perfect to make a move.’

Alison Brooks says: 'I’m a big proponent of direct action – walking the talk. There was a pretty immediate response from everyone that this was critical and that collective action is needed. It’s rare to get that many practice principals and directors in a room to discuss an issue like this. There is a climate emergency, there is species extinction and everything is taking too long. Architects are stewards of the built environment – we can activate a professional movement that is beneficial to the public to whom we have a duty. We are making a public statement of commitment, now we need to get our clients on board.’ 

Ivan Harbour, senior design partner at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP), adds: 'The government’s declaration of a climate emergency confirms that 30 years of slowly moving towards sustainable construction has not been enough and we now need to go much further, much faster. The work we take on as architects today will endure for the next half century and beyond. To combat this emergency now we must reset the objectives, with our clients and the industry, if we are to help safeguard the future for all.’

Gerard Maccreanor & Richard Lavington of Maccreanor Lavington comment: 'It’s been hard to avoid the environmental implications on our planet with the recent media coverage. However, after actually reading the UN’s biodiversity report it’s a shocking reminder about how complacent we’ve been. We’ve all been taking things for granted and this is a call to everyone to do their bit. Sustainability should be at the core of every architect's work. As a profession we need to be at the forefront of the discussion, keep the pressure on and fight for more sustainable future policies within the built environment.’


Sign up at www.architectsdeclare.com

The statement in full from the 17 Stirling Prize winners:

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 (CO2) emissions whilst 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.

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.

We will seek to:

  • Raise awareness of the climate and biodiversity emergencies and the urgent need for action amongst our clients and supply chains.
  • Advocate for faster change in our industry towards regenerative design practices and a higher governmental funding priority to support this.
  • Establish climate and biodiversity mitigation principles as the key measure of our industry’s success: demonstrated through awards, prizes and listings.
  • Share knowledge and research to that end on an open source basis.
  • Evaluate all new projects against the aspiration to contribute positively to mitigating climate breakdown, and encourage our clients to adopt this approach.
  • Upgrade existing buildings for extended use as a more carbon efficient alternative to demolition and new build whenever there is a viable choice.
  • Include life cycle costing, whole life carbon modelling and post occupancy evaluation as part of our basic scope of work, to reduce both embodied and operational resource use.
  • Adopt more regenerative design principles in our studios, with the aim of designing architecture and urbanism that goes beyond the standard of net zero carbon in use.
  • Collaborate with engineers, contractors and clients to further reduce construction waste.
  • Accelerate the shift to low embodied carbon materials in all our work.
  • Minimise wasteful use of resources in architecture and urban planning, both in quantum and in detail.  

We hope that every UK architectural practice will join us in making this commitment.

To do this, please go to www.architectsdeclare.com #architectsdeclare

Signatories:

AL_A

Alison Brooks Architects

Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Caruso St John Architects

David Chipperfield Architects

dRMM

Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Foster + Partners

Haworth Tompkins

Hodder + Partners

Maccreanor Lavington

Michael Wilford

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

Stanton Williams

WilkinsonEyre

Witherford Watson Mann

Zaha Hadid Architects