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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

: Statements

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:

  • 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.

11 November 2022

: Statements

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’.

27 September 2022

: International, Statements

AD Comment on Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Appointment as Secretary of State for BEIS

The Architects' Journal recently approached Architects Declare for a comment on the choice of Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in the new government. The AD Steering Group agreed the following text:

"To appoint Jacob Rees-Mogg, a climate sceptic, to head up the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Department at this time of increasing planetary emergency, is ‘dangerous, radical’ madness. He has voted 16 times out of 16 times against climate bills, talks of squeezing ‘every last cubic inch of gas’ from the North Sea despite advice that it will do nothing to ease prices for consumers and has spoken against the net zero targets.

"We have to agree with Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General, when he said recently: ‘Climate activists are sometimes called dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of Fossil Fuels’.

"Is the UK about to become a ‘dangerous radical’?

"We can only hope that Alok Sharma’s continued role as COP26 president, Graham Start’s appointment as Minister for Climate Change, Chris Skidmore, Zac Goldsmith and other ‘turquoise Tories’ can counter the worst of Rees-Mogg’s influence.

"He needs to wake up to the fact that over 80% of Tory voters support renewables, solar, offshore and on-shore wind."

The AJ published their piece on 12th September.

13 September 2022

: Government

Architects Declare statement on Ukraine

The Steering Group of Architects Declare in the UK this morning agreed the following statement, which has been drafted with representatives of Architects Declare in other countries:

"As Architects Declare, we declare our solidarity with the people of Ukraine and our unreserved condemnation for those involved in waging war against the country, the people, cultural artifacts and the natural environment. We also condemn the racist treatment of refugees and call for fair treatment of all those attempting to flee war zones.

"We call on all our signatory members to cease work on any major projects in Russia until such time as the country is willing to respect International Law.

"Furthermore, we pledge our willingness to help defuse one of the biggest threats to global peace since the Second World War. Putin’s war machine is very substantially funded by sales of gas to other countries. We therefore call on our respective Governments to implement an emergency level of mobilization in shifting our economies away from fossil fuels and towards a safer, renewably powered future. We as an industry will assist in implementing these measures and as Architects Declare we are committed to shaping a positive future for all.”

This joint statement has been supported already by Architects Declare groups in the following countries, and more will be added as their national committees are able to discuss:

Aotearoa New Zealand / Australia / Belgium / Canada / Denmark / Finland / France / Germany / Hungary / Iceland / Ireland / Italy / Kenya / Latvia / Norway / Singapore / Slovenia / Sweden / Switzerland / Taiwan / UK / USA

UPDATE:

If your practice is looking for ways to support Ukrainian architects seeking to move to the UK, the UK Architects for Ukraine form has been created by UK architects and landscape architects to match Ukrainian nationals displaced by the war with sponsors and in-person work at UK architecture practices.

There is also the Opportunities for Architects and Creators from Ukraine site and the wider Hire for Ukraine platform. We hope that these can help AD signatories take practical measures to assist Ukrainian architects and other professionals seeking refuge and employment in the UK.

4 March 2022

: Statements

Supporting the new Ten Minute Rule Bill on Embodied Carbon in Buildings

It is excellent news that on 2nd February Duncan Baker MP will bring a Ten-Minute Rule Bill before parliament that will ask for the whole-life carbon emissions of buildings to be reported, and for the first time require the construction sector to set a limit for embodied carbon! You can read about his Carbon Emissions (Buildings) Bill on his blog.

If supported, this Bill could be a hugely significant step for our industry. However, Baker’s Bill requires the support of his fellow MPs immediately after the reading if it is to have a chance of proceeding to the next stage and gain a Second Reading on its route to becoming law.

It’s therefore imperative that we raise awareness of this important Bill among as many MPs as possible, and encourage them to attend its presentation. We urge all Architects Declare signatories and supporters to write to your local MP today and encourage them to support Duncan Baker’s massively important De-carbonising Bill on 2nd February. You can find your MP here.

25 January 2022

: Government

Architects Declare is recruiting new Steering Group members

We have vacancies on our Steering Group and are keen to recruit new members reflecting the diversity of signatory practices as we develop AD’s programme.

New members will contribute to the full range of the Steering Group’s discussions and decisions, and will also bring specific areas of expertise. We are seeking individuals with expertise in any of the following: financial management, fundraising, or communications and social media.

Please click here for the role description and details of how to apply.

20 December 2021

: Announcements

Built Environment Declares survey report: “Businesses declare sweeping support for tighter regulation and planning systems to achieve net zero goals”

With the crucial COP26 UN Climate Change Summit taking place in Glasgow, leading architectural, engineering, planning and construction companies are demanding the government introduce a carbon tax/law on ecocide to tackle the climate crisis and say VAT should also be reformed to promote refurbishment over new-build projects. Uniting as the umbrella group Built Environment Declares - in which Architects Declare is a partner - they say these changes are needed to meet the UK’s net zero carbon targets and the wider response to the climate crisis.

They are also pressing for changes to building regulations and planning systems such that:

  • embodied carbon calculations and targets are mandatory at planning stage and planning authorities should have embodied carbon quotas
  • embodied carbon regulated through building regulations
  • post occupancy evaluation should be mandatory
  • building regulations should regulate performance in-use and health and wellbeing metrics

“We are strongly committed to making changes in our own practices, but changes in regulation, taxation and legislation are essential to achieve the rapid and profound reduction in carbon emissions legislated by the UK Parliament.”

In the lead up to COP26, a survey of attitudes across UK built environment professional firms has measured the level of their concern and commitment to change. This survey was returned by over 200 UK businesses, including architects, contractors, building services, civil, and structural engineers, interior designers, landscape architects and project managers strive to “...meet the needs of our society without breaching the earth’s ecological boundaries will demand a paradigm shift in our behaviour”.

The survey took the form of a questionnaire to discover the level of a signatory’s commitment to specific changes in their own practice, in regulation and in legislation. The short report and results are available here.

8 November 2021

: Announcements

Architects Declare launches Practice Guide at Built Environment Summit

Architects Declare today published its Practice Guide, which we have developed to help signatory architectural practices convert their declaration of a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency into meaningful action and build momentum within their practice. Co-written by members of the Architects Declare Steering Group and many Architects Declare volunteers, and reviewed by leading industry experts, it features over 60 exemplar projects from a range of practices in the UK and abroad. We would like to thank all those involved for their dedication in producing this piece of guidance.

A live, working document, the Practice Guide helps fulfil the fourth point in Architects Declare’s 12-point declaration by encouraging the sharing of knowledge and research on an open-source basis. Part 1 of the guide is a Practice Roadmap which provides 5 simple steps to transform your business. Part 2 is a Project Design Guide focused on the fundamentals of truly sustainable design and demonstrated through exemplars. The AD Practice Guide will evolve and be refined in future iterations as our understanding of the climate and biodiversity crises develops, and as our industry innovates to find new solutions to these challenges. We will seek the support of our signatory architectural practices and others in ensuring future versions of the guide remain useful.

We launched the Guide today at the Built Environment Summit, organised by the Royal Institute of British Architects in association with Architects Declare. Announcing the Practice Guide at the Summit, Tara Gbolade of Gbolade Design Studio and a member of the Architects Declare Steering Group, said:

"Last year our signatories told us they wanted Architects Declare to be more than a moment of declaration. They wanted a supportive network that addressed the lack of knowledge and direction on this journey. We want to say ‘Thank you’ to all who contributed to it, the countless volunteers, and those who have endorsed the Guide"

The Guide is available now from the Resources page, along with a short form for signatories' feedback and for anyone who would like to help develop further versions of the document to register their interest.

Endorsing the Guide, Ben Derbyshire, a past president of the RIBA, said:

"Most architecture practices are small businesses for whom creating a route map to zero carbon operation and monitoring progress is a serious challenge on top of the day to day pre-occupation with project delivery. Equally well guiding our clients towards the right carbon-cutting decisions in the cost conscious and risk averse world of development is a tough ask. So the practical guidance from the Architects Declare Guide as a growing knowledge platform is a real boon for those of us wrestling with the issues."

And Jess Hrivnak, Sustainable Development Adviser with the RIBA, said:

“The Architects Declare Practice Guide is a compendium of advice for everyone, no matter the size or scale of business, on how to implement and realise the AD Declaration Points."

29 October 2021

: Launches

Architects Declare supports new LETI Climate Emergency Retrofit Guide

Architects Declare fully support the LETI Climate Emergency Retrofit Guide and applaud the hugely talented team behind this well-timed publication. We acknowledge the importance of prioritising the retrofitting and re-use of the existing built environment over demolition and new build if we are to have any hope of meeting Net Zero Carbon targets for 2050. Whilst we appreciate the challenges that successful low carbon retrofit presents the architecture profession, like LETI, we believe that our industry has the collective knowledge and expertise to step up and meet this head-on.

With careful reasoning, backed up with meticulous research and (as with previous LETI publications) exemplary infographics, LETI provide us with the tools to deliver on ambitious Net Zero carbon targets which will not be met without carbon emissions from the UK’s 28 million homes being reduced by over 70%. LETI present us with clear working methods and explanations for ‘Why retrofit’, ‘What is Retrofit’, and ‘How we do it”, supported by accessible case studies and the brilliant “Home Retrofit Specification” for different house types. The guide makes the case for the social, health & well-being benefits of retrofit, whilst arguing the case for the huge opportunities a national retrofit programme will present the whole of the UK in the form of 100,000’s of new jobs and “a £309bn boost to the economy”.

The issue of retrofitting our homes has never been so high-profile, and recently, so controversial. Recent developments have not detracted from the fact that decarbonising our housing stock is a huge priority if we are to meet Net Zero Carbon targets and try to slow down the Climate and Ecological Emergency, whilst creating climate-resilient, healthy and affordable homes for everybody. This guide makes the case, and crucially, provides clear deliverable working methodologies that can be understood by clients, tenants and the whole design team.

The LETI Climate Emergency Retrofit Guide was launched on 21st October 2021 is available to download here.

21 October 2021

: Announcements

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