Q&A: Michael Pawlyn of Exploration Architecture on averting climate breakdown

Words:
Isabelle Priest

Following the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, Michael Pawlyn, author of Biomimicry in Architecture, talks about how architecture must change

What should architects learn from the IPCC report?

The key point is that we are far off track to reaching a target of no more than 1.5ºC global rise in temperature and we have only 12 years to achieve the reductions needed to avoid climate breakdown. As Phin Harper has pointed out in Dezeen, even the ‘most sustainable office in the world’ (Foster’s Bloomberg HQ) is based on keeping within a 3ºC rise. It shows we need a huge rethink.

How much of the report is about architecture?

Roughly 50% of CO2 emissions are associated with buildings, which architects can affect in influencing clients, designs and products used. A further 25% comes from transport – again architects can influence how cities are planned. Of course, clients have the final say but we should not accept a master and servant relationship.

What’s wrong with the current paradigm and what would work?

There is excellent work in sustainability, but too often it is about mitigating negatives. We need a regenerative model. Cities/buildings/our relationship to nature must shift from a linear model of resource-use to cyclical flows based on ecosystems – for example, harvesting rainwater to cool facades. Similarly, if we compare how humans manufacture materials, biology achieves the same using far less energy. Sea glass sponges make high quality glass at ambient temperature and pressure, while corals create mineral structures that remove atmospheric carbon. The nearest human equivalent, concrete, emits copious greenhouse gas.

How does this affect an architect on a daily basis?

We must plan for a ‘big here and long now’. It’s inevitable that we do less new build and more radical refurb. There is a case for new build in developing countries, but this should aim for the most stretching targets because, once built, it locks people into a certain level of emissions. Kate Raworth’s book ‘Doughnut Economics’ is an essential read on the economics of it for architects. 

What can architects do to help right now and from now on?

Rather than fixate on growth at all costs, if larger practices were content to stay at a steady size they could be discerning about only taking on sustainable projects and stop proposing climate damaging ones. Unless they and the avant-garde show leadership, we’re sunk. 

Anything else?

When I was young, architects were held in low public esteem because of the failures of modernism. Now they are celebrated, but if we keep on this way there’s a risk we’ll be seen as accomplices on the road to ecological ruin.

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