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What is stopping us from arresting climate change?

Craig Robertson

How can we enlist technical expertise, bring sustainability out of the silo, or make activism bite in the battle to halt climate change? Craig Robertson draws lessons from the authors of the RIBA Horizon 2034 environmental challenge

We need radical change. The question is how to make that happen.
We need radical change. The question is how to make that happen. Credit: Alamy

Watching the BBC’s excellent recent documentary ‘The Space Shuttle that Fell to Earth’, which explores the decisions that led to the catastrophic loss of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003, I was struck by the parallels with our own industry. The three-part programme tells the story of a very complex design and delivery process, during which a potentially fatal problem was identified when a piece of insulating foam struck a wing at launch, possibly damaging the ceramic heat shielding tiles. What followed was a series of decisions driven by an institutional culture that failed the astronauts on board, leading to their deaths on re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere.

The response to the incident included underestimation of the risk and incomplete diagnosis of the damage. Information to properly assess the damage was not available due to deeply entrenched systemic protocols that could not be broken to investigate the problem. Outcomes and responsibilities were siloed so most people were blind to the wider potential problem. Those who were aware were unable to raise the alarm effectively. The narrative of the 16-day mission reads like an allegory of the construction industry’s response to climate change – a collective endeavour to deliver complex systems that have been over-simplified to singular outcomes and responsibilities, to the extent that individual agency over the ultimate outcome is crushed beneath the collective system.

Last year was the first to break the internationally agreed ‘safe upper limit’ of a 1.5º average increase in global temperature. On top of that temperature record, visible signs of climate change have confirmed our failure to adequately address the risk. Since my career began at the start of the 21st century, we have known we are on a pathway to oblivion.

The exasperation of NASA engineers is all too familiar, knowing that they could prevent a catastrophe if only they could bend the system to acknowledge it properly. Now, I find myself asked to write an industry response to the series of RIBA Horizon 2034 foresight pieces on the environmental challenge, that read as tacit acknowledgment that we have failed. We have not engaged with the complexity of climate change, and have not adapted our systems to deliver proper solutions. Those of us working in the field have not been persuasive enough to change the system, break the protocols and prevent catastrophe.

It is difficult not to be frustrated. We have long had the technical expertise to prevent climate change happening

Slow to respond

As all the pieces note, our industry is slow to change. We have taken an evolutionary approach to developing better standards and ‘less bad’ building production and operation. However, this approach has been easily eroded by those interested in maintaining the status quo. Standards, processes and certifications do not often reflect the interconnected nature of a building as a system. We operate as compartmentalised individual consultants working to our own scope of work. And in any case ‘less bad’ is not nearly good enough.

It is difficult not to be frustrated. We have long had the technical expertise to prevent climate change happening. We understand the causes, what we need to stop doing and what we need to develop to ensure a thriving future for Gaia. Decades of inertia, obfuscation, using the wrong performance indicators, vested interests and over-simplification of our systems have got us to this point. The longer a task is left, the more difficult and expensive it can become.

The 2006 Stern review compared the economic implications of tackling climate change immediately with the costs of dealing with the consequences later. As our broken system has become entrenched over the decades, we have increased the cost of unpicking climate change and the immense challenge of changing the culture of our industry. As one of the authors and editor of the environmental challenge horizon, professor of sustainable construction Alice Moncaster says, this has reframed our world view.

Revolutionary change

We have made some progress, in energy efficiency particularly (or theoretical energy efficiency at least) and embodied carbon and the circular economy are now getting proper attention. Anyone in architecture who has an interest in changing how we work is aware of the difficulty in effecting meaningful transformation. Reading these horizon scans, it struck me that never have a set of proposals setting out such obvious necessity for change been so radically at odds with where we are as an industry. That is not a criticism of the proposals. The call for revolutionary change is valid because we have failed. The slow and evolutionary approach to transforming our built environment industry has not kept pace with climate change. We keep seeking the next last chance, but we are surely now at a point where the urgency to act will drive the necessary change.

Our industry has evolved alongside the slow development of mitigatory standards. We have created ‘sustainability professionals’ working within, rather than to change, the status quo. ‘Sustainability’ has become another set of siloed consultant services, hived off and de-risked with separate appointments and scopes of work. Horizon scan authors and strategists for the future, Chris Luebkeman and Jonelle Simunich, write that change to a holistic regenerative design is inevitable. Perhaps, but how that inevitability comes about is in our gift. Does regenerative architecture come to being through post-climate change catastrophe, when it is the only thing we can viably support, or do we take this last opportunity to get on the front foot, make change happen ourselves and benefit from all of the opportunities inherent in a new way of building?

We all need to be activists now! Studio Bark demanding concrete action as part of an ACAN co-ordinated campaign on COP26 Built Environment Day, November 2021.
We all need to be activists now! Studio Bark demanding concrete action as part of an ACAN co-ordinated campaign on COP26 Built Environment Day, November 2021. Credit: Nick Newman

Activism's role

As Moncaster notes, the increasing visibility of climate change is raising awareness of our influence on the environment and in turn is applying pressure on us to act – and to be seen to be taking action. The convention-breaking (as urban engineer Dr Ronita Bardhan mentions) redefinition of good architecture (Luebkeman & Simunich) that incorporates nature-based solutions as standard (Harriet Bulkeley) requires radical change in how we work, design and procure buildings. For Moncaster, the way to deliver this is for professionals to become activists.

In recent years, organisations led by activists have been set up to garner expertise from across industry, to share knowledge and to lobby for change. The Low Energy Transition Initiative (LETI), Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN) and Architects Declare have published guidance in recent years to equip people with the knowledge and tools to effect change. Some have been successful: LETI benchmarks for embodied carbon, for example, have become a standard we aim for and are referenced by local authorities, and Architects Declare is about to launch Building Blocks, a Manifesto to Transform the Built Environment at an event in parliament in an effort to shape future policy.

Nowhere have we seen wholesale change in how our industry is organised or in the mind-set of people working in the sector. I see (and consider myself one of) the ‘passionate persuaders’ that Luebkeman and Simunich refer to, attempting to make things happen in a system that is not set up to listen to them and with collaborators whose roles are narrowly defined.

Fundamental change

All the writers talk about collaboration, partnering, engagement and co-creation. This is not how our industry is set up, but it needs to be. This means fundamentally changing how we judge buildings, what motivates us to build them, how we control uncertainty and risk in the process and how we set up teams to deliver them. If we are to successfully generate a new architecture that works with and for nature (Bulkeley) and uses nature based solutions for climate adapted design (Bardhan), we need the whole of industry to change its mindset, not just a few activists. Activists are important but they need buy-in from everyone working in our industry. Everyone needs to understand the complex political, social and technological challenges (Luebkeman and Simunich). Without a clear and common understanding of these issues, there is little hope of sufficient change to facilitate the extensive collaboration that nature-based solutions require.

If we are serious about a socially just built environment, we need a new set of parameters to measure our output. Empowering people, as Bardham suggests, is key to success. Co-creation, involving communities, needs people's voices to be heard. If we are serious about climate justice, we must properly recognise the impact that our design decisions have on people we may never meet – who might even not yet be born.

Activists are important but they need buy-in from everyone working in our industry

Wider than this industry

Certification systems are broadening our approach to sustainable buildings. NABERS brings energy use intensity as a metric, the WELL standard forces us to think about health and wellbeing and BREEAM – a stalwart of the certification landscape – has nine categories that have evolved to capture changing requirements. However, they are designed to be delivered by our siloed consultant team, are skewed to their (Western) countries of origin and so can sometimes feel as if they are enhancing the status quo. We need systems that reflect and recognise the complex and interconnected nature of our diverse society and deliver a new architecture. An architecture that can encourage co-creation, multi-parameter design outcomes and collaboration. As Bardham suggests, policy must reflect this complexity. I would add that our contract and appointment system also needs to catch up.

The real challenge is beyond our industry – our economic and political system needs the same radical change. Decision makers, designers, economists, influencers, politicians, investors, makers, consultants and doers need the same change of mind-set. Following the Columbia disaster, NASA undertook a wholesale review of culture, technology, process and protocol to ensure the same thing did not happen again. Buildings take a long time to make, there will be projects currently at RIBA stage 1 that will not be complete until the 2030s. We will not get another chance to change how we deliver our built environment.

We have no more time to waste. We all need to be able to look back and say we did all we could. We all need to be activists now.

For foresight on the environmental challenge and other subjects search RIBA Horizon 2034

Craig Robertson, head of sustainability at AHMM, is writing in a personal capacity


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