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Bring green design into the classroom and studio

Fionn Stevenson

The urgency of the need to decarbonize the built environment must begin with education, yet too many architecture schools are unskilled in climate literacy. Here's how to change that, and quickly

How can we bring urgent sustainability issues into architectural education? Seen here is Grafton Architects imagined Liverpool University’s School of Architecture.
How can we bring urgent sustainability issues into architectural education? Seen here is Grafton Architects imagined Liverpool University’s School of Architecture. Credit: Grafton Architects

The stark warning in the 2018 IPCC report is that we have now just 10 years left to significantly reduce our carbon emissions or face a truly catastrophic future. It is worth repeating that the built environment produces an estimated 40% of carbon emissions globally – and architects play a key role in mitigating this in terms of designing both retrofit projects and newbuilds.

What are we doing about that in education? There are 108 RIBA validated architecture programmes in the world, with about half of those in the UK – all operating under validation criteria with no reference to climate literacy standards. Consequently most graduates and staff lack the necessary skills to meet the climate emergency. While the RIBA Sustainable Outcomes Guide sets out clear targets for practices to meet,  the RIBA ‘The Way Ahead’ educational framework for Part 1 and Part 2 merely ‘places attention upon those curricular areas which contribute to the RIBA’s concept of Mandatory Competences for addressing climate change’ (note my added emphases). However, today’s students clearly must be able to design to zero carbon standards when they graduate from these programmes.

How can education and training be rapidly changed to ensure the creation of zero-carbon built environments? A special issue of Buildings Cities, Education and Training: Mainstreaming Zero Carbon, studies existing examples and models of relevant teaching that could be drawn upon or adapted by architecture schools, and looks at the role practitioners can play, as ways to implement such a transition successfully.

Positive action

In Iowa State University in the US, Ulrike Passe offers an intensive postgraduate studio ‘workflow’ which integrates and predicts the dynamic performances of light, sun, heat and air movement within a holistic understanding of architectural design. This enables graduates to have a conversation with engineers, with a crucial understanding of metrics and data. This method can be used in all programmes, providing design tutors have the capability to deliver it.

Malini Srivastava uses a teaching structure in the University of Minnesota, US that shifts learning away from an individual focus by introducing an iterative and rotating co-operative work structure for students to test and learn through. Ownership of work is grouped together through iterative group discussions in the design studio, rather than resting with any one individual. This provides a powerful way to question design assumptions and mental models and can rapidly generate new knowledge. This is often done in practice, but rarely in schools of architecture.

Iowa State University offers an intensive postgraduate studio ‘workflow’ which integrates and predicts the dynamic performances of light, sun, heat and air movement within a holistic understanding of architectural design

Another two of our contributions (see Clarke et all and Killip) argue that competence depends on the combination of knowledge, skill and personal character with a value-based attitude or a moral dimension. Developing ethical attitudes in relation to given standards is a powerful means of creating a zero-carbon pedagogy that is more than skin deep. Clarke et al. show that construction training is ahead of architecture in this respect.

Meanwhile the amazing Anthropocence Architecture School training initiative from RIBA Journal Rising Star Scott McAuley has hundreds of students attending from 47 programmes but not many design tutors – why? While Covid-19 has clearly played havoc with all our work, part-time design tutors and full-time academics are given virtually no CPD training time in their workplan by their institutional employers. The real challenge now is how to rapidly upskill educators in climate literacy as well as their students. An honest audit of programmes is urgently needed to map out available academic climate literacy skills among staff and identify the gaps for each year of the programme.

A role for practitioners

This is where practitioners who are capable of designing to nearly zero carbon (for example Passivhaus) or zero carbon standards can give back to their former educational establishments as alumni, or to their local education establishments. Practices should be encouraged to go into our universities to help fill the skills gap in climate literacy and help educate the educators themselves, through partnership arrangements such as visiting practice professorships and alumni practice collaboration agreements. There is a golden opportunity here for real-world project learning and design with educators working alongside embedded practitioners to carry out zero carbon project exercises with students to embed joint learning all round, as a win-win. This can be done online and at scale now, with support from educators who have rapidly upskilled themselves to deliver online learning that is versatile and re-locatable.

Kate Simpson and her collaborators have explained how architects are important ‘middle actors’ within a community of practice that can either enable or inhibit the transition to zero-carbon buildings, as they influence downstream to customers and clients, sideways to other middle actors,  and even upstream to policy-makers. A collaboration between academia and architecture practices can share training routes, knowledge-support systems and professional networks to facilitate change to zero carbon design and education as the new normal. 

Finally, carbon literacy goes nowhere without adequate feedback. Practices can work with Part 2 students to develop simple post-occupancy evaluation case studies of their project work either through dissertations or technical studies as described in my recent book Housing Fit for Purpose: performance, feedback and learning.

Read more at Building Cities: Education and Training: Mainstreaming Zero Carbon

Hear more at the free Edge Debate, Zero carbon: Can UK built environment education deliver? Monday 1 February 2021, 17.00 – 18.30. Register here


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