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’.
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
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
Architects Declare & ACAN support Insulate Britain campaign
The UK’s housing stock is not fit for the climate emergency we are in, to meet the government’s own legal obligation of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 we must undertake a massive and holistic retrofit of UK homes. This has been advised in numerous reports to the Government and the UK will not meet our climate obligations without updating our buildings. It is with this understanding of the scale and severity of the problem that Architects Declare and the Architects Climate Action Network support the aims of the Insulate Britain Campaign.
According to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), emissions from buildings in the UK have fallen by less than 1% per year since 2009. Recent extreme weather events in Britain and all over the world indicate that the long-predicted Climate Emergency is now upon us. Without rapid and far-reaching action to reduce CO2 emissions, there will be even more irreversible damage to the natural world and our ability to live within it. According to the UN Secretary-General, the IPCC’s Working Group 1 Report of August 2021 is ‘a code red for humanity’: "If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe. But, there is no time for delay and no room for excuses."
Heating our homes currently accounts for 15% of UK CO2 emissions, the vast majority of these homes will still be standing in 2050. To ensure our homes are capable of providing comfortable, affordable and low-carbon dwellings, whole house retrofit including insulation, ventilation and more efficient heating systems must be undertaken. This means that we need to retrofit a million homes a year for the next 29 years – this is possible, but we need to act now.
Upgrading the thermal performance of the UK’s draughty and inefficient homes is an essential part of a wider strategy to decarbonise the UK. This vital work will create tens of thousands of skilled jobs, release hundreds of thousands of people from fuel poverty and protect them from excessive heat as temperatures increase.
We need a national, government-funded programme, led by the built environment industry supporting workers and starting with the most vulnerable in our society. It must have clear objectives, appropriate methodologies and consumer guarantees. This has been necessary for decades and is only getting more urgent. The government’s own Climate Change Committee has stated that this should be “supported by the Treasury as a national infrastructure priority”.
Construction industry professionals have the knowledge, experience, skills and motivation to help make this happen today, but we need our government to support this essential work. They must ensure it is properly funded, effectively administered and that households are supported through the costs and disruption. Decades of inadequate response and botched programmes have led us to the point where we have a daunting task ahead of us but it is not too late to fix our homes and ensure they are the healthy, climate-resilient buildings we need. Insulate Britain are demanding that this low carbon retrofitting programme is rolled out immediately and completed by 2030. We realise that it would take a huge and coordinated commitment of finances and resources from our government to do this; much like (although a lot less expensive than) their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Insulate Britain campaign is highlighting one aspect of the housing crisis in this country, the warnings have been given and the science is clear, we must act now, any more delay is simply irresponsible. The industry is ready, people are in need and the government must show the leadership necessary in this emergency.
The Architects Declare Steering Group
The Architects Climate Action Network Steering Group
 - Insulate Britain
 - BEIS (2021) 2020 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions Provisional Figures quoted in The Climate Change Committee's 2021 Progress Report to Parliament
"Today’s IPCC Working Group 1 Report is a code red for humanity," said UN Secretary-General, António Guterres. "If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe. But, as today’s report makes clear, there is no time for delay and no room for excuses. I count on government leaders and all stakeholders to ensure COP26 is a success."
 - DECC. Emissions from Heat: Statistical Summary. 1–12 (2012).
13 September 2021
Architects Declare responds to the IPCC Science Report issued today
9 August 2021
Statement on signatory withdrawals
Over the past 18 months, UK Architects Declare has grown into a collaborative force of more than 1000 architectural practices in the UK working towards transformative change, but last week saw the departure of two of our founding signatories, Foster + Partners and ZHA. We are saddened and disappointed that two such globally influential practices have found it necessary to withdraw.
It continues to be our goal to work collectively to bring about change while recognising that this is a journey and not a simple linear process. Different collaborative groups are needed to bring different perspectives. For example, AD’s role with practice signatories, is different to ACAN’s with individual members, and from the outset it has been AD’s policy not to publicly “call out” our signatory colleagues’ work. We recognise that practices have varying approaches to meeting the goals of the declaration. What unites us is a shared vision of a built environment that addresses the climate and biodiversity crises.
The reason we felt compelled to respond to Patrik Schumacher’s recent statements was because they appeared to represent a shift away from this shared vision and thereby undermine the principles of the declaration. Having read ZHA’s withdrawal statement, we regret not having sought further dialogue with ZHA before suggesting that they withdraw from the declaration. We would like to encourage both Foster + Partners and ZHA to consider signing the declaration again soon in order to be part of this growing collaborative network.
We believe that high ambitions for change will benefit from unity and the coming together of all architecture practices, large and small, and that this collective, practice-level action is central to the strength of Architects Declare.
8 December 2020
Statement on Foster + Partners withdrawal from Architects Declare
We are disappointed that Foster + Partners has chosen to withdraw from the declarations and we would welcome a conversation with them on the points raised.
We recognise that addressing the climate and biodiversity emergencies challenges current practice and business models for us all, not least around the expansion of aviation. We believe that what is needed is system change and that can only come about through collective action. Architects Declare is not a ‘protest’ movement but a collaborative support network to innovate positive transformation. Our movement is global. As of today there are 1037 UK practices committed to the declaration and over 6000 companies signed up in 26 countries under the broader banner of Construction Declares.
The debate, and indeed the very definition of sustainability, has evolved considerably as the depth of the crisis we face has become ever clearer. Our declaration represents a positive vision of how our profession can respond to the planetary emergencies. This involves embracing new approaches and being realistic about what can be solved with technology in the next crucial decade.
We’re looking forward to working with our signatories to raise the level of ambition in preparation for the critical COP26 climate negotiations next year.
2 December 2020
Statement on ZHA climate comments
Last week The Architects’ Journal reported that Patrik Schumacher of ZHA (a signature practice to Architects Declare) had asserted that ‘we need to allow prosperity and progress to continue and that will also bring the resources to overcome [the climate crisis] through investment in science and new technologies. That must be built on continuous growth’. He also warned against ‘those voices who are too quick to demand radical changes’.
We believe these statements are fundamentally in conflict with the Architects Declare commitment to ‘advocate for faster change in our industry towards regenerative practices’. We also believe these statements are scientifically flawed and decades out of date in terms of informed intellectual thought. We would like to explain why.
For decades, the global economy has grown exponentially and so too have greenhouse gas emissions, material extraction, energy consumption and a whole host of environmental damage indicators. Meanwhile, social, economic, and health inequalities have widened and improvements in life satisfaction and genuine progress indicators have plateaued.
The too-commonly held belief that the pursuit of economic growth brings prosperity for all has proven mistaken. The ideas that our economy is dematerialising, or that we will eventually become rich enough to reverse the harm we have caused, are not only wrong, but extremely dangerous – now more than ever.
It is now 56 years since Ronald Reagan kickstarted the era of neo-liberalism with his notorious speech A Time for Choosing. His argument was deeply rooted in the ideas of Milton Friedman and others who argued for unfettered market forces.
Since then we have extinguished two thirds of non-human animal life on the planet and have breached a range of planetary boundaries in the pursuit of ever-increasing economic growth. What conventional economists regard as a ‘healthy’ level of 3 per cent annual growth will result in a doubling in the size of the economy every 23.5 years and bring along with it a doubling in the environmental damage required to power that growth over the same period.
The obsession with growth goes even further back to an economist called Simon Kuznets, who formulated the idea of Gross National Product (GNP) in the 1930s at the request of the US Department of Commerce. He observed at the time that it would be a big mistake to make this the primary measure of the economy but his warning went unheeded and maximisation of GNP increasingly became an obsession for governments around the world.
Robert Kennedy’s famous speech in 1968 listed a range of things that GNP excludes – the health of our children, the beauty of our arts, the integrity of our officials, the intelligence of our debate – and concludes that GNP ‘measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile’. The economist Kenneth Boulding observed in 1973 that ‘anyone who thinks you can have infinite growth on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist’.
What is striking about these examples is how old they are and how little has changed. This is partly a testament to the success of neo-liberal ideas championed by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and the vast system of thought they created – a Pyrrhic victory that has brought us to the brink of catastrophe, according to the world’s top scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The idea that growth can clean up the environment was advanced by free-market ideologues in the 1980s and comprehensively debunked by Mariano Torras and James Boyce in the 1990s. They showed persuasively that what improves air quality, water quality and other environmental issues is people power – not economic growth, but collective action, such as public sanitation or a national health service.
A widespread feature of developed economies was the way they shifted from manufacturing to service industries and, by doing that, shifted the environmental pollution from the goods they consumed to poorer parts of the world. When countries like the UK purport to be reducing their emissions while increasing their GDP, it is because the emissions being counted are only those produced within our borders, not the emissions associated with our ever-increasing consumption of materials and products produced overseas.
We need a more sophisticated discussion about growth and, encouragingly, we have seen much more coherent alternative models – particularly since the financial crash of 2008, which even persuaded economically traditional media such as The Financial Times and The Economist to accept that there may be flaws in neo-liberal dogma.
Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics has shown with great persuasiveness, the urgent need, and clear potential, for a new model that is based on planetary limits and climate justice. Similarly, academics such as Jason Hickel in his book Less is More have set out a compelling critique of indiscriminate growth. In other fields, such as medicine, the Planetary Health Initiative has shown that our current economic system threatens to reverse 50 years of health gains and that our long-term health is dependent on the health of our planetary systems.
What these other disciplines have argued is that we need a much more sophisticated discussion about growth that distinguishes between qualitative and quantitative growth. There are some things we need to grow – such as ecosystems, human health, community cohesion, political unity, the vitality of the commons – and some things we need to urgently shrink, such as hyper-consumption, luxury lifestyles and unconstrained aviation.
Given the richness of debate going on in these other fields, it is troubling to hear leading figures in architecture like Patrik Schumacher talking about the need for continuous growth and progress. As Edward Abbey observed, ‘growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell’ and ‘progress’ in these blinkered terms means progress towards collapse and the most grotesque crime against future generations and developing nations ever committed.
In setting up Architects Declare (AD) – necessarily organised almost exclusively with pro bono input, we had hoped that practices would be self-policing. For AD to do otherwise would be so complicated and resource-intensive that we would need substantial funding and a whole team of full-time staff. This approach has been partly successful and we salute those hundreds of practices in the UK and globally who are energetically seeking to be true to the declaration and make the necessary positive changes.
To date we have avoided calling out individual practices (as explained in our statement in July), recognising that we all struggle sometimes to do what is necessary. However, when statements are made that contradict the fundamentals of the declaration, we have no option but to speak up. Sadly, there remain signatory practices who appear determined to continue with business as usual. This is seriously undermining the effectiveness and credibility of AD, so we call on those practices to either join the wave of positive change or have the integrity to withdraw.
24 November 2020
We know that there have been vociferous debates in the media and between signatories recently concerning projects which may or may not be considered to be in conflict with the declaration. While we recognise that every project has a complex social, economic and ecological context beyond what is immediately evident, we are encouraged that these discussions are opening up the debate as to what is considered in keeping with the declaration and a severe emergency situation.
As we in the steering group have previously stated, we have a principle of not naming and shaming our colleagues in the industry. This is in part because we don’t have the mandate or resources to apply such scrutiny rigorously or fairly, and in part because the steering group sees its role to be acting as custodians of a shared declaration, not a judiciary. However, we believe that it is a success of this movement that the media and signatories are holding each other to account and pushing each other to do better.
The industry and every individual within it must make an enormous shift in order to help bring our society in line with planetary limits. This requires collective action and cross-practice debate. All practices that have signed the declaration have done so as a public statement that inevitably invites critique. We hope that these interactions remain supportive and collaborative as much as possible but we also recognise that the scale and urgency of the challenge will undoubtedly result in difficult conversations and decisions for us all.
We hope that the declaration and the coalition of signatories now totalling over 5000 practices globally provides a force for positive change in this urgent journey towards a regenerative built environment that addresses the climate and biodiversity crises head on.
13 July 2020