UK Architects Declare & Architecture Today launch Regenerative Architecture Index
With Architecture Today, we are launching the world’s first Regenerative Architecture Index (RAI) as a means of benchmarking architects on regenerative projects, policies, working practices and actions.
The Index rejects the notion of ranking practices by profitability and size, instead benchmarking participating practices on their regenerative policies, actions and working practices. Its aim is to share best practice, celebrate success, and communicate this work to the wider construction industry to raise awareness and act as a catalyst for regenerative practice across the industry.
The RAI 2024 will launch with a call for entries in January 2024. Participating practices will be invited to answer questions both on the practice itself and on the projects it delivers, under three broad headings:
Part 1: Being a good ancestor, will look at evidence of long-term thinking and a concern for the well-being of future generations.
Part 2: Co-evolving with nature, will look at measures to support a mutually enriching coexistence with the natural world.
Part 3: Creating a just space for people, will look at issues around inclusivity, diversity, equality and engagement.
The results will be published in September 2024 on the Architecture Today website and in a special issue of Architecture Today. Graphs and tables indicating practices’ progress in specific areas will accompanied by case studies, commentary and analysis designed to produce a comprehensive compendium of best practice in the transition to regenerative architecture. Just as importantly, the RAI will also identify obstacles to progress, encouraging peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and advice, but also identifying any tools, methods or policy interventions required to support the transition to a low-carbon, high well-being and resilient future.
The Index is not a conventional awards programme – the focus is educational rather than competitive, with an evolving series of activities based on benchmarking, sharing experience and acknowledging challenges and mistakes. That said, a practice, or practices, that have performed particularly well will be rewarded with a bespoke retreat at Schumacher College in Devon, as an opportunity to recharge and establish a roadmap to regeneration for the year ahead.
We're looking forward to sharing more details very soon. For further information, in the first instance contact [email protected]
21 November 2023
Architects Declare releases draft 'Building Blocks to Transform the Built Environment'
It is clear that 30 years of sustainable design has not got us where we need to be. The United Nations concluded in 2022 that current policies and pledges do not create a credible pathway to achieving the Paris goals and limiting temperature increases to 1.5°C. The best science tells us we are heading for horrific climate impacts globally, particularly in some of the poorest parts of the world. Even before the UK Government's recent retrograde policy shifts on Net Zero, the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero's revamped strategy itself admitted its policies will achieve only 92% of the cuts required - which many experts said could be a generous estimate.
We are in a period of inaction on the climate and ecological crises. Since the formation of Architects Declare in 2019, the construction industry has offered many practical solutions to these crises, to create a regenerative and just built environment – but these have not been incorporated into national policy. We now require true climate leadership by a goverment that embraces far-reaching system changes and implements them at a national scale.
Our mission is to turn a climate catastrophe into a climate opportunity. The Architects Declare Building Blocks aims to create a regenerative built environment that enables society and nature to thrive – creating jobs, improving health, and restoring the natural world. The Building Blocks, underpinned by a foundation of systemic change, offers a practical, impactful and implementable set of policies to transform the built environment.
We have worked with industry partners to develop the Architects Declare Building Blocks draft and are now sharing it publicly. We welcome your feedback at our online event on 19th October, and at an industry in-person event in November (date to be announced very soon). If you have specific experience in influencing policy or connections with policy-makers or politicians, please do get in touch via [email protected]. We will be revising the document over the coming months, ahead of a final launch early next year.
17 October 2023
UK Architects Declare is hiring: Communications Position (part-time)
UK Architects Declare is hiring for a flexible, part-time position to support our social media engagement - either freelance or secondment.
We promote AD through Twitter, LinkedIn & Instagram, our
website and newsletters. Our communications priorities are: Make the urgency of AD’s
mission relevant; Be strong on AD’s achievements so far; Be positive, practical and focused in face of the Climate & Biodiversity Emergency.
Deadline: 12th October 2023.
24 August 2023
An open letter to the UK design media - from UK Architects Declare, Design Declares and UK Interior Design Declares
‘Are we on track to prevent widespread collapse?’ is a question that increasingly feels like the elephant in the room in many gatherings and as an undercurrent in much journalism. Unlike many questions that the media might explore with a degree of detachment, this one is more troubling because the ‘we’ in this case involves not just designers but also the media. We need to collaborate if we are to stand a realistic chance of addressing the planetary emergency and, across the UK, Architects Declare, Design Declares and Interior Design Declares would like to initiate a constructive discussion about what this might mean. Our children’s generation are likely to view climate change as the most serious crime ever committed against poorer nations and future generations. We should therefore be prepared for the question that will surely come: “What did you do when you knew?” Their judgement is likely to be harsh if the best answer that can be given is “We ran regular pieces on zero carbon buildings and the circular economy and introduced some sustainability criteria to our awards categories.” We would like to address some gaps in the debate about the role of the design media in the unfolding metacrisis.
An oft-quoted phrase about journalism is that when one person says it’s raining and another says it’s dry, the job of the journalist is not to give them equal coverage but to look out the window and see who’s telling the truth. That perhaps applies mainly to the national news media but there are countless examples in which the design media celebrates new technologies without establishing whether they will help or hinder the transition to a safer future.
There are a lot of powerful players in business who would like us to believe that nothing radical needs to change about our societies or economies and that technology has all the answers. This is the pathway that humanity is currently on and it’s a profoundly dangerous one. We need the media to ask more searching questions about new technologies because the outcome is heavily dependent on the dominant mindset. For example, within a paradigm of conventional sustainability, 3D-Printing could easily result in us drowning in tonnes of consumerist crap whereas, within a regenerative mindset, it could be transformative: allowing us to use the right materials and assemble them in ways that facilitate perfect circularity.
Of course, the relationship between designers and the press is interdependent but there’s no doubt that the media drive design behavior to a large extent. For many architects, having a project featured in one of the respected magazines is what they crave and this influences how they design. If the media celebrates mainly flashy, resource-intensive projects then designers are more likely to produce work in that category. If as a magazine you only feature ideas or projects if there are strong images, then it’s worth asking yourself the following question: If the apocalypse photographs better than the rescue mission, which one will you focus on?
The same applies to awards. The organisers need to ask themselves challenging questions: do the awards perpetuate problematic aspects of the status quo (like the pursuit of growth or profitability as ends in themselves)? Or do they make a meaningful contribution to addressing the planetary emergency? Some awards have already been substantially transformed: The Pritzker Prize, for instance, has shifted from a focus on largely white men from rich countries to a more diverse range of designers. Many other awards systems remain largely unreformed and, where planetary issues are considered, they are firmly within a frame of conventional ‘less bad’ sustainability.
A useful question to ask in a whole range of contexts is ‘What’s missing?’ and currently there is a galaxy of important thinkers that barely get any mention in the design press: Bill Reed, Daniel Christian Wahl, Daniel Schmachtenberger, Fritjof Capra, Freya Mathews, Janine Benyus, Joanna Macey, Johan Rockstrom, Jeremy Lent, Pamela Mang, Polly Higgins, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Kate Raworth and Tyson Yunkaporta to name just a few.
At the risk of sounding nostalgic, there was a time when the design media embraced ideas from other fields such as anthropology, biomimetics, neuroscience or psychology. Since Peter Buchanan’s ‘Big Rethink’ essays were published in 2011, it is hard to think of any magazine articles in the UK design media that have come near to that level of erudition.
Daniel Schmachtenberger is one of the clearest thinkers on existential questions such as ‘Will our civilisation survive?’ and, while it is hard to convey the persuasiveness of his thesis in short form, he makes the case that any civilization that combines exponential technology (such as nuclear weapons and AI) with rivalrous dynamics (forms of human interaction that are divisive) will be self-terminating. He goes on to argue that, since we can’t uninvent technology, our only hope is to transform the way we relate to each other in addressing contemporary challenges. Social media companies that profit from making us addicted, polarised and angry, clearly exacerbate this problem. Magazines that build readership numbers by engaging in polarising commentary fit into the same category. We can hear the objections: “You don’t understand the commercial realities of publishing – we have to maximise our readership to be commercially viable”. There are equivalent, agency-minimising excuses in just about every field and, as Ichioka and Pawlyn have stated in their book Flourish “this defence does not represent leadership; to coin a phrase, it’s trailership - trailing edge thinking that makes our current situation worse”.
So what would constructive public dialogue look like? It would mean structuring our debates so that they define points of agreement that can carry us forward, rather than points of division that hold us back. This might involve each party in stating at the beginning what it would take to change their mind (if they are unwilling to do this, it suggests that the discussion will be of limited use). The standard form of debate involving ‘for’ and ‘against’ parties contributes to polarisation and prioritises ‘winning’ over the pursuit of truth. Across society we now need to nurture more constructive ways of discussing contemporary challenges. This means that, when engaging with people who we may disagree with, we should ask ourselves “Am I expressing myself in a way that this person could conceivably be persuaded to change their mind?” The media should feel free to critique efforts to address the planetary emergency but the criticism needs to make a meaningful contribution to the debate, otherwise it is likely to spread cynicism and demotivation in an area that is crucial to charting a safer future.
Considerable progress has been made in shaping a new approach to journalism, initially by organisations such as The Constructive Journalism Project and subsequently by Solutions Journalism and The Constructive Institute - all have useful resources to help those in the media who want to demonstrate leadership.
Image credit: https://constructiveinstitute.org/
Similarly to other sectors, a good place to start the journey towards regenerative practice is to establish the extent of any negative impacts. One straightforward way to do this is for a magazine to allocate a score to each of its most recent 100 features as follows: +1 for any article that describes a project / technology / idea that is demonstrably net positive/ regenerative, 0 for something that is neutral / all negative impacts fully mitigated (or “100% less bad” to use Bill McDonough’s term), a -1 for something that involves partially mitigated negative impacts (this includes the vast majority of what has been conventionally described as ‘sustainable’), and -2 for an article that gives uncritical coverage to something that is clearly unsustainable. We did this assessment for an online magazine recently that considers itself progressive and the score was minus 85. This gives an indication of the scale of the challenge that is ahead of us. Having established a baseline, a magazine can then strive to improve on that by actively seeking out net positive work to feature and ramping up the criticism of ‘business as usual’ or clearly unsustainable projects.
Our firm belief is that architects and designers can play a major role in addressing the planetary emergency. We need the media to be on-board with this and we recognise this is going to be disruptive to established ways of doing things. As Naomi Klein observed about the planetary emergency, “This changes everything” and the real struggle over the next ten years will not be for notoriety or wealth but for something much more precious: whether we will maintain the respect of our children.
12 June 2023
UK AD responds to a recent opinion published in Dezeen
We sent the following response to Dezeen on 9th May. It was published by Dezeen today 22nd May, in an article that also contained editorial commentary from them; our response appeared at the end of that, so we wanted to share it in full here.
We would like to respond to the recent article that made a number of assertions about Architects Declare. Its numerous flaws could have been addressed had the author contacted us to shape a constructive piece on how architects can offer their skills, experience and commitment to tackle the Climate and Biodiversity Emergency. Nevertheless, we are keen to clarify where we agree or disagree with the piece, and correct the record.
Firstly we should point out that Architects Declare (AD) is an international movement with active groups in 28 countries and is part of the wider Built Environment Declares. The article focused on us in the UK without making that distinction - presumably, the author’s experience is with UK practices - and we hope that readers outside the UK will not feel the criticism aimed at us (incorrectly, as we show) was an attack on them also. We are responding as the Steering Group for UK Architects Declare.
We welcome reasoned discussion. Indeed, effective dialogue has been one of AD’s aims from the start. AD has a well-developed theory of change, drawing on solid research in systems thinking and how best to move the current system – in this case, away from a failing assumption that improved sustainability will solve the emergency over time to one of regenerative design that addresses the emergency head on. We say more on that below, but it’s important to recognise that the original article spoke from within the current sustainability paradigm.
We address the article’s key assertions, which were:
1. That we should set “realistic, achievable and accountable” targets and have a means by which these are enforced
As a theory of change, this is almost identical to what’s been advocated for the last 30 years as Sustainability and has not got us anywhere near to where we need to be. The latest IPCC report, AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023, is a stark reminder of the urgent need for action. Global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase and we need to be doing much more, much faster, or we risk not being able to limit warming to 2°C let alone 1.5°C. This is why AD’s theory of change builds on Donella Meadows’ system thinking, which asserts that the most influential way to change a system is by intervening at the level of the paradigm or mindset that determines how it behaves. The second most effective leverage point is to change the goals of the system. The transition we need is far more than some simple industrial shift focused almost exclusively on carbon. What’s required is a broader cultural shift that extends perspectives beyond carbon to much wider issues, including the whole web of life, and beyond a limited ambition of mitigating negatives towards optimising positives.
We believe a ‘target-setting and compliance’ approach would be mistaken for AD. The system change required is difficult to achieve simply working at that level, even at scale. And to monitor 1,200+ signatories would mean AD charging significant subscriptions and taking on a ‘policing’ role. This would undoubtedly put off large numbers of would-be signatories which, in turn, would reduce our influence when making the case to government on the role that it needs to play.
2.That a number of the practices are not implementing AD’s declaration points
On this point we partly agree. We haven’t seen the level of change necessary to match what the science shows is required. We have seen a range of responses among AD signatories.
Some have adopted the spirit of the Declaration, implementing new procedures throughout their companies, including new positions for heads of regenerative design. Some have signed and are now striving to catch up - and we’re working to assist them with a range of resources. Others have signed up and taken little or no action. While the latter category is disappointing, having more signatories signals the required direction of change and makes the collective voice more influential; and we hope that, in time, all signatories will be encouraged and enabled (internally by staff, externally by broader cultural and professional shifts) to engage more meaningfully.
Obviously we would prefer all practices to be in the first category but it’s absurd to suggest that lack of full commitment invalidates the whole initiative.
3. That some of the declaration points are outside an architect’s remit
This statement is surprisingly defeatist. Perceived limits to people’s agency are a major part of why there has been so little progress, and this includes architects as much as other professions and communities. Where we see that urgent change is necessary, but feel this to be outside our control, we need to find ways to extend our agency through broader industry collaboration and through pushing for higher level systems change.
4. That making no commitments on climate is better than making a commitment and failing to meet it
We fundamentally disagree. The changes necessary to address the planetary emergency are currently well beyond even the most progressive practices, and there is no built environment company we’re aware of that could be described as fully regenerative. To suggest that making no commitment is better than failing to meet a stretching one is a counsel of despair. Anyone who advised a business ‘not to bother’ if they couldn’t see a way to make progress would be doing a very poor job.
Many of the practices that signed the Declaration did not at that time know how they would address its challenges, but making a commitment to try is the important first step. As long as the commitment is made in good faith and followed up earnestly, that is admirable in our view. Sharing knowledge of our successes and failures on that journey is part of the process and key to improvement.
In summary, on these key questions, we agree that we need to accelerate the pace of change and that there are too many firms continuing with business as usual or very close to it. Where we disagree is in the implied assertion that the solution is to return to conventional approaches to sustainability. We would welcome an informed critique of our theory of change and can provide the key sources for anyone wishing to do that.
The article also made some confused comments about AD’s interaction with government, which overlook the role governments could and should play in accelerating the shifts we need. Developers operate within an economic system and if that system is leading to collapse then it’s right that governments should be expected to change it. There are inspiring examples like ‘Doughnut economics’ that AD has advocated, and there are examples of governmental bodies are already getting on board with that shift.
Have we achieved what we set out to do? Even a brief account of what AD has done and continues to do (which the article fails to even attempt) will suggest the progress we are making and the direction we are moving in.
Many signatory architects described our first event, at which Kate Raworth and Jeremy Lent spoke, as a turning point in their careers.
And many people - Steering Group members and other volunteers from signatory practices - worked hard to produce AD’s extensive and well-received Practice Guide and a comprehensive series of Practice Action Masterclasses based on that: all specifically structured to help practices progress with their commitment to the Declaration. We are collaborating again to include regenerative design guidance.
One of our Steering Group members has co-authored a book exploring the philosophical shifts and practical steps involved in moving from ‘sustainable’ to ‘regenerative’.
We’ve organised many events with high-profile speakers on topics such as new economics, long-term thinking, company transformation, climate justice and regenerative materials.
We work with others to ensure the best reach of our efforts and expertise - not least with the RIBA to launch our joint Built for the Environment report and summit ahead of the COP26 summit held in the UK.
And we challenge others - not just Government - where they can help change the goals of the system: for example, making the case to the RIBA that the strategic mission of the profession needs to be updated and seeking to engage the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats on a transformative new mission.
There is more work underway, both to help our signatories meet the challenges of the Declaration while improving their businesses, and to make strong calls on those who can do what architects cannot do alone: change the system that perpetuates the planetary emergency to one that addresses it. And we share progress and problems with other declare groups here in the UK and around the world, with regular international gatherings on Zoom.
All of this gives us, our partners and our signatories strength in pushing ahead. There is clearly a long way to go in little time, but there is much greater action on regenerative design now than there was four years ago, and a greater understanding of the shortcomings of conventional sustainability. We think it’s fair for AD to be credited with some of that shift - and to be constructively challenged and supported in reaching further.
Importantly, our Declaration draws attention, front and centre, to what is needed across the built environment and its stakeholders. What is needed is not merely a continuation of conventional sustainability but striving to change the mindset and the goals of the system.
From the Steering Group for UK Architects Declare:
Duncan Baker-Brown, Julia Barfield, Alasdair Ben Dixon, Mandy Franz, Tara Gbolade, Tom Greenall, Kevin Logan, Anna Lisa McSweeney, Ken Okonkwo, Anna Pamphilon, Michael Pawlyn, Craig Robertson, Zoe Watson, Andrew Waugh, Anna Woodeson
22 May 2023
Architects Declare statement on IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023
The latest IPCC report ‘AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023’ is a stark reminder of the urgent need for action. Global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase and we need to be doing much more, much faster, or we risk not being able to limit warming to 2°C let alone 1.5°C.
The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has also just this week released their annual assessment of England’s progress in adapting to climate change and this is equally bleak. It sets out the very limited evidence of adaptation at the scale needed to prepare for the climate risks facing the UK. They call upon the government to be much more ambitious and fully embed adaptation across all relevant major policies and strategies.
In addition the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero has just released the UK’s revamped net zero strategy where even the government itself admits its policies will achieve only 92% of cuts and many experts have said this could be generous in its estimate. It sets out half-hearted policies, many based on existing government commitments, which appear to be anything but pioneering and backed up with a complete lack of new funding.
Architects Declare is committed to working with policy makers in 2023 to provide strategies for achieving more regenerative design solutions. Last year, we held a series of successful Practice Action Masterclasses, all of which are available to view in our Resources, and were based upon the AD Practice Guide which seeks to provide practical advice on how to make better, more sustainable choices within both projects and the practice environment.
We all know that the impact of climate change will be felt most acutely by the most vulnerable, those least responsible for causing the problem, and that we are running out of time. Our industry has an extremely important role to play in the current climate crisis, the built environment bears the burden of much responsibility. We must stay focussed and positive; we have the knowledge and skills, we must champion low carbon materials, celebrate retrofit and aim not only for net zero but look forward to more regenerative design solutions. Our industry must call upon the UK and global governments to do more; to be ambitious with their policies and to back them up with appropriate funding. A net zero world with all it has to offer – less pollution, more biodiversity and improved social justice – is one worth fighting for.
1 April 2023
Built Environment Declares 2022 Survey report
Ahead of the COP27 talks in Egypt last November, Built Environment Declares surveyed UK signatories to understand what government support is needed in the form of strategies, regulation, and funding. In the UK, as well as Architects Declare, BED includes the declaration groups for Landscape Architects, Interior Designers, Structural, Civil and Building Services Engineers, Project Managers, and Contractors.
The survey, now in its second year, received responses from more than 150 companies and revealed that signatories to the declarations are calling for:
The survey results show a clear appetite for ambitious co-ordinated climate action from businesses and governments to address the environmental crises.
Smith Mordak, Director of Sustainability and Physics at Buro Happold and Built Environment Declares steering group member said: "I was particularly excited to see such widespread support for reforming the UK's housing strategy and housebuilding targets. To tackle embodied carbon, and the wider ecosystem impacts of the built environment, we need to devise ways of retrofitting and more fairly distributing our existing housing wealth. This means tackling the ways that housebuilding is often used for economic and political ends that often seeps outside of meeting housing need. The results showed that the industry believes that ending homelessness, stabilising house prices, and protecting nature are key goals of a good housing strategy and I believe that achieving this within planetary boundaries requires some innovative thinking in terms of design, planning, and policy-making."
Alasdair Ben Dixon, Architect and Co-founder at Collective Works and Architects Declare Steering group member said: "As a sector we are once again calling for improved regulation and a fundamental rethink of policy to address the planetary emergency. This survey captures the latest thinking on reforms which will help create a healthier, more equitable and truly sustainable built environment. Across the industry organisations large and small have been collectively developing and sharing new knowledge and standards required to guarantee our built environment performs better. These should now be embedded at a national level to ensure we can swiftly and fairly deliver on the UK’s essential net zero target.”
The report, with the full results of the survey, is available here.
12 January 2023
Open Letter to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
In July 2022, Architects Declare approached the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat to stimulate useful debate on the CTBUH's mission and giving them an opportunity to comment on our call for a shift in their mission. Writing to CEO Javier Quintana de Uña, we said "We are committed to working with organisations that accept the reality of the emergency but have not yet publicly proclaimed this and may not yet have a firm view of how to move forward in any detail. In some cases, we challenge organisations to reconcile the nature of the emergency with their historic remits, purposes and activities. We hope that our draft article will be received in the constructive spirit intended and we look forward to your reply." We never received any response to the original email or our followups. Below is the full text we sent.
'Skyscrapers have had a grip on our collective imagination ever since the 19th century. Elisha Otis demonstrated the first safe elevator in 1853 at the New York World Fair by standing on it and having an axeman cut through the only rope supporting it. Little could he have known that his invention, together with advances in metallurgy, would have ushered in a heroic age of increasingly tall buildings. With the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and many others celebrated in popular culture, tall buildings have become icons of architectural and engineering prowess. The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats has done much to celebrate this and, since the 1980s, has maintained the definitive ranking of the tallest buildings in the world.
'Times however have changed, and skyscrapers are no longer what they were. We are now in a planetary emergency and we have very few years left in which to chart a new and safe course for humanity. The evidence now is overwhelming that tall buildings hinder, rather than assist, our efforts to address key challenges of climate breakdown, resource depletion and biodiversity loss.
'Today, UK Architects Declare is therefore calling on CTBUH to transform its register of ‘The World’s Tallest Buildings’ and shift its focus from a fixation on height to the other part of its mission, Urban Habitats, and crucially address critical environmental challenges. This is not exactly a case of saying “The party’s over” - it’s more that the party is now elsewhere and CTBUH is well placed to be actively involved. The register is promoting system behaviour that is totally at odds with addressing the planetary emergency. Arguments put forward for the sustainability of certain practices has often been based on ‘how to make them less bad’ but in a planetary emergency ‘less bad’ is nowhere near good enough. We need to work towards a regenerative paradigm in which everything we do as humans has a net positive impact and we integrate all our activities into the web of life that supports us.
'Is our challenge justified and where is the evidence to back up our assertions? A 2017 study commissioned by CTBUH would appear to challenge these assertions. It demonstrates that ‘downtown high rise’ developments are better across a range of environmental and quality of life indicators than ‘suburban low-rise’. This reinforces an argument frequently put forward for the sustainability of tall buildings which is that they can deliver the density and compactness of layout necessary to optimise sustainable forms of transport like walking, cycling and mass transit. But this is missing some crucial elements of a complex picture and increasingly we need to ask ourselves “What is the right density and urban form to best address contemporary challenges?”
'A research project carried out by a team at University College London (UCL) has shown that office buildings with 20 storeys or higher typically use two and a half times more electricity than buildings with 6 storeys or fewer. The same study also found a linear relationship between increases in height and greenhouse gas emissions in residential buildings. A recent Dutch study (referenced in the UCL report) has shown empirically that high-rise slabs and towers deliver, respectively, half and a third of the density of low-to-medium rise courtyard forms of urban block (similar to much of central Paris and Barcelona).
'The key element missing from the CTBUH study is exactly this compact approach to cities that delivers a whole range of benefits. A further study has shown that Life Cycle GHG Emissions per capita (LCGE) for high-density low rise is less than half that for high-density high rise. The evidence against tall buildings has continued to pile up, with engineer Tim Snelson from the international consultancy firm Arup calculating that a typical skyscraper will have at least double the carbon footprint of a ten-storey building with the same floor area.
'The unavoidable fact is that, in terms of resource efficiency, the embodied carbon in their construction and energy consumption in use, skyscrapers are an absurdity. The amount of steel required to resist high windspeeds, the energy required to pump water hundreds of metres above ground and the amount of floorspace taken up by lifts and services make them one of the most inefficient building types in a modern metropolis. It could also be argued that skyscrapers further detach us from any meaningful relationship with the natural world. Above about ten storeys, balconies don’t work because it is simply too windy, so high-rise apartments are hermetically sealed – as isolated from nature as possible.
'The challenge now is how do we create the best possible quality of urban life within planetary limits? What is the right relationship between building height and compactness? For instance, it is widely known that compact cities like Barcelona and Paris have much lower transport-related energy consumption than more diffuse cities like Atlanta or Houston. At the other end of the scale, very dense conurbations like Hong Kong or Ho Chi Minh City rarely provide enough open space or parks. We need to establish what architect and writer Lloyd Alter refers to as ‘the goldilocks density’ – compact enough to allow transformative approaches like the 15-minute city but not so dense as to reduce green space:
'"At the Goldilocks density, streets are a joy to walk; sun can penetrate to street level and the ground floors are often filled with cafes that spill out onto the street, where one can sit without being blown away, as often happens around towers. Yet the buildings can accommodate a lot of people: traditional Parisian districts house up to 26,000 people per sq km; Barcelona's Eixample district clocks in at an extraordinary 36,000."
'There is still lots to be debated in this field and your organisation could lead on this in recognising and promoting urban buildings that accelerate the essential shift from ‘sustainable’ to ‘regenerative’ design and development.
'This article started with a brief history of how skyscrapers came to be symbols of progress. To growing numbers of people they now represent extravagant status symbols and profligate ways for cities to compete and the super-rich to invest in property. Some will protest these assertions, and it would be correct to say that the CTBUH has promoted a lot of useful research in the area of sustainability and tall buildings. But this is based on an increasingly discredited definition of sustainability – mitigating the negative impacts of something without thinking about whether, as a society, we should be doing it in the first place.
'As Sarah Ichioka and Michael Pawlyn have described in a new book Flourish: Design Paradigms for Our Planetary Emergency, the way we frame subjects and the stories we tell about our societies and economies are going to be critical to whether we can chart a safe course for the future of humanity: "... increasing numbers of us are asking the question "Progress towards what?" For those that might still claim that skyscrapers are symbols of progress, the evidence is clear they now represent progress towards societal collapse.'
20 November 2022
Architects Declare statement on 'demolition vs. retrofit'
The Architects' Journal recently published an article on 'demolition vs. retrofit'. The Architects Declare Steering Group contributed its position on this debate, with the article quoting part of this. We share the full statement here.
If we are to reduce carbon emissions to the extent necessary to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown and biodiversity loss, upgrading existing buildings - as opposed to building new - must now become the default. Prioritising retrofit over new build is going to mean a change in ‘business as usual’ for our industry.
This is not going to be easy. Many refurbishment schemes are unlikely to produce the level of profit that a new-build can offer, jobs may feel at stake in such turbulent economic times, and retrofit is often seen as a less attractive design solution. We acknowledge all of this, but we call upon the industry to stand united in pushing for necessary system change and to celebrate the creativity that can come with retrofit.
There is a big skills gap in the industry and it is important that architects become literate in Whole Life Carbon (WLC) analysis so that they can interpret results and make design decisions based on their environmental impact. However, it must be recognised that WLC Assessments are highly technical, especially with the need to consider building systems as an integrated whole rather than individual parts, and we cannot expect architects or planners to be well-versed enough currently to pick up on errors or greenwash. Accurate, proportionate and non-biased WLC reporting to precisely set standards will be imperative if we are to cut carbon emissions, and legislation will play a key part in ensuring that this happens. Architects Declare will continue to push for this.
We recognise that we need to go further in helping and encouraging our signatories and the industry as a whole in this field and we acknowledge that in rare instances demolition may indeed be justified, but this would need to be verified in an accurate and non-biased WLC analysis. We are currently in discussion with signatories looking for an open conversation on contentious demolition schemes: not looking to name and shame, but to interrogate demolition decisions such as these, educate and push for change.
You can find the Architects' Journal piece online: Whole-life carbon assessments – a whole new type of greenwash?
Within our 12-point Declaration of Climate & Biodiversity Emergency, declaration points 6 & 7 are:
11 November 2022
AD Responds to UN's principles for sustainable and inclusive urban design and architecture
Responding to reports, for example in Dezeen (23/9/92), that the United Nations is to launch a set of principles for sustainable and inclusive urban design and architecture, Architects Declare states that:
We support the work of the UN in shaping a better world. All these points are eminently achievable & necessary. However, AD believes there is an urgent need to bring about a shift in mindset from sustainable to regenerative development.
Our aim is 2-fold: to support signatories in getting our houses in order & to use the collective influence of signatories to bring about systems change. AD would be open to collaborating with the UN to assist in raising the ambition from ‘Sustainable’ to ‘Regenerative Development Goals’.