Architects Declare Conference 2019

What next for architects declare?

Instigated by 17 Stirling Prize winning practices in May 2019, the Architects Declare Conference 2019 is in response to the, dare I call it, ‘movement’ that has grown to include over 800 UK architects practices and spawned international affiliated groups in another 14 countries and similar organisations in allied professions. 

Surviving beyond 2050

 The 10 principles to which signatories agree to commit  are direct responses to the current climate emergency and all challenge the existing system of commissioning, designing, building and occupying buildings.  All are vital to shift the way in which the design and build sector operates if we are to have a chance of achieving the objective of modern society surviving beyond 2050 – yes really!

Architects unite

Designscape signed up to Architects Declare in June and on 27th November we attended the inaugral Architects Declare Conference, held at Haworth Tomkins’ recently restored Battersea Arts Centre. Organised by a steering committee including Julia Barfield, Peter Clegg and Steve Tompkins, it was attended by many of architecture’s  leading figures with representatives from Grimshaw, Foster and Partners, Hopkins, Thistleton Waugh, Mikhail Riches and Cullinan Studio amongst others. If anyone was expecting something of a ‘How to solve the climate emergency with a new sustainability tool kit’ event, they might have been a bit surprised. This was anything other than some kind of earnest, specialist knowledge exchange – although that might come later. Neither was it all doom and gloom, in fact far from it. 

Architects solve problems

Whilst the challenges are enormous and as one delegate put it ‘feel like standing in a swollen river trying to make it flow the other way’, there was an enormous element of positivity as to how this might be done. As another said, ‘It’s a big problem, but that’s what we architects do – solve problems!’. Not that it is a problem for architects alone to solve – many of the attendees came from other allied disciplines such as civil, structural and mechanical engineering and there was a consistent theme that this can only be done by collaboration and  cooperation.

How did we get here?

First, before the ‘How are we going to solve it?’ discussions, there was some scene setting and inspiration from the guest speakers. First up Jeremy Lent, author of ‘The Patterning Instinct’ which considers how culture shapes values, values shape history and the patterns of thought that have led civilization to its current sustainability crisis. This is Big Picture stuff.

The ugly facts of overconsumption

How have we ended up in the situation where man, or more specifically western civilisation, has in the last 500 years consumed wildly more than its fair share of resources and put us on a crash course for mass extinction? Ugly facts include half of marine life lost in the last 40 years and a 60% reduction in animal life since 1970!  You can read more about Lent’s insight into how the West’s attitude has given rise to the current climate crisis here

The ecological ceiling

The next speaker, economist Kate Raworth, offered another viewpoint on how western values are causing us to live beyond our ecological means. Raworth’s book ‘Doughnut Economics’ challenges the conventional model which places Supply and Demand at the centre of our values. What about everything else – quality of life, relationships, freedom, health? She sought to present a more holistic value model represented by concentric rings – the doughnut. The outer ring is defined by the sustainable limits of the planet (our Ecological Ceiling), the inner, the human rights and qualities to which all aspire (Social Foundation). In essence, the trick is to fill the middle ring, without expanding beyond the outer. For the West to make this happen, we need move towards a regenerative cycle which regards everything as a potential resource.

Biomimicry

While we are all becoming more familiar with the ideas of sustainability, the challenge here is to go one step further – a regenerative system in which the design and construction industry improves on buildings that do NO HARM to buildings that make a POSITIVE CONTRIBUTION. Raworth points towards the concept of biomimicry where coral and trees sequester carbon and the idea that CO2 is not intrinsically bad, it is simply a resource in the wrong place. There are businesses that  have made the transition from degenerative to regenerative – it is possible.

These insights strike at the very heart of what we do as architects; who we work for, by what methods and to what ends. Fundamentally, how do we responsibly manage sustainable growth and is it even possible?

What next for architects declare?

From this high level primer, the Architects Declare Conference moved onto considering what delegates and signatories wanted from the Architects Declare platform and how we might meet the challenging commitments of the declaration. Joining a discussion considering how to share knowledge and research on an open source basis we shared our experiences and what individual architects practices are doing to get to grips with the issue.

 

Embodied carbon

It is clear that to have any hope of reducing the global impact of construction, we need to be equipped with reliable information to inform design and specification decisions. At present, existing design tools and regulations have been focussed on predicting the cost, carbon or energy in use in buildings and in some cases measuring it post occupation. What is more difficult is calculating embodied carbon. Figures exist for the manufacture of most common products. We know that concrete is particularly bad and the relative CO2 emissions for steel and aluminium, but this is not the whole picture. Some particularly bad materials may in fact only represent a relatively small part of a component or construction, factors such as transport, longevity, re-use and recyclability also need to be considered. The need for bench marking projects and setting targets for future buildings in terms of life-time CO2, including embodied carbon, needs to take place. From a client perspective the relative economics will undoubtedly figure – choices and possible compromises will need to be informed by knowledge. The need for an authoritative open platform is clear, suggestions included expanding carbon libraries for BIM entities and hosting information via the designingbuildings wiki site.

Architects sharing intellectual property

A potential point of friction was in the discussion around the sharing of intellectual property amongst architects. Somewhat surprised that this was so close to the surface

‘If I have found a clever way to achieve a low carbon building, do I want to share it with potential competitors?’

and at odds with the collaborative aspirations of the Architects Declare manifesto, surely as creative architects we will demonstrate our talents by integrating this shared knowledge in advancing architecture for the good of all. ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ makes for progress and it would be extremely disappointing if petty professional rivalries obstructed this key objective.

Legislation

There was a general agreement amongst the architects at the conference that there will be a need for top down legislation for lifetime carbon limits. But what level of target would be appropriate? How might this be achieved? How might we view offsetting?

There are clear question for signatories working in the aviation sector. More work is required as well as the commitment for government to implement such legislation and with this, the need for a change in taxation which discourages re-fit in favour of new build. Building Regulations Part L is currently in consultation, there is an opportunity to push for some of these changes now. 

Design Education and climate crisis

Another theme was the need for better education for students and architects in this area to expand the knowledge base within the profession and practices, better that this expertise is in-house rather than solely the realm of external consultants.

The general concensus amongst architects

The organisers sought to ‘map’ opinions at the conference directly with delegates. In response to a series of yes/no questions we located ourselves from left to right across the hall to reflect the spectrum of opinion. People were then encouraged to express why they stood where they did. Questions included:

  • Should Architects Declare lobby for the Green New Deal?

  Yes of course!

  • Should UK VAT rules for new build be reversed in favour of refurbishment?

Mixed response

  • Should signatories refuse to work with clients who did not agree with the climate change agenda?

Ranging from ‘Absolutely no way’ to ‘If we don’t, someone else will’

Certainly a sense to better try and convince a reluctant client from the inside, even if you later decide that your objectives are not sufficiently aligned!

While there was accord on many of the questions, as one might expect, at times there was a spread from hard lined to more nuanced views. However, at least there was one general concensus one one point:

‘We cannot continue with ‘Business as Usual’

We are challenged to define what as architectural practices, we plan to do to meet our declaration commitments.

Architects collaborate

In drawing the conference to a conclusion, the organisers, sought a mandate for what Architects Declare should do next. The motion to continue its campaign by lobbying government and other bodies received a clear yes. Delegates were encouraged to collaborate with their own initiatives through the steering committee and also hold their own responsiblity.  From the floor and coming out of group discussions, there was a clear desire for Architects Declare to be the organisation around which some of the practicalities of achieving a regenerative future should coalesce.  In addition to lobbying, can Arcitects Declare become a central resource for practical advice and the sharing of information? I think this is what many delegates are hoping for.

In conclusion

The issue of Climate Change can at times feel overwhelming and insurmountable. The conference really did challenge this fatalistic position, leaving delegates with a positive sense of how world views can change, how organisations are already making a difference and the power that collective and collaborative action can make for a radical change.

In a short space of time, the efforts of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg have affected the expectations and behaviours of both individuals and organisations. We were reminded that

Architects, both as professionals and human beings, have a greater agency for change than we might imagine and opportunity as well as responsibility to utilise our creative skills to become part of the solution – not the problem.

Project Information.

As part of our commitment to respond to the Climate Change Emergency, Spencer Back of Designscape Architects reports from the first Architects Declare Conference.