Architecture In Transition: Royal Institute Of British Architects Declares Climate Emergency

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The Royal Institute of British Architects has declared a state of climate emergency. A recent report from think tank Chatham House revealed that 8% of the world’s carbon emissions comes from cement, the main ingredient in concrete.

Image: Pexels

“The climate emergency is the biggest challenge facing our planet and our profession,” says RIBA president Ben Derbyshire, according to a report by Dezeen. “But to have a significant impact we need to do more than make symbolic statements — we need to turn warm words into impactful actions. We architects need to transform the way we practice and along with our fellow professionals around the world, make changes that will impact at a global level.”

Those impactful actions are part of a five year plan agreed to at a meeting of its governing council. The plan supports making sustainable business practices a central focus of the group’s business activities. Part of that involves encouraging clients to include reduced carbon building strategies in their projects.

The RIBA will also step up its lobbying of the UK government to improve policies and standards for the construction industry and seek ways to reduce its own carbon footprint. The group has also issued a declaration of support for the government’s proposal to make the country carbon neutral by 2050.

Architects Declare

A host of leading architectural firms with a global clientele have created their own pathway forward called Architects Declare, a program that begins with this statement:

“The twin crises of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss are the most serious issue of our time. Buildings and construction play a major part, accounting for nearly 40% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions whilst also having a significant impact on our natural habitats.

“For everyone working in the construction industry, meeting the needs of our society without breaching the earth’s ecological boundaries will demand a paradigm shift in our behaviour. Together with our clients, we will need to commission and design buildings, cities and infrastructures as indivisible components of a larger, constantly regenerating and self-sustaining system.”

Bold words. But how to get there in practice? The architects have an 11 step plan. The group says it will seek to:

  • Raise awareness of the climate and biodiversity emergencies and the urgent need for action amongst our clients and supply chains.
  • Advocate for faster change in our industry towards regenerative design practices and a higher Governmental funding priority to support this.
  • Establish climate and biodiversity mitigation principles as the key measure of our industry’s success: demonstrated through awards, prizes and listings.
  • Share knowledge and research to that end on an open source basis.
  • Evaluate all new projects against the aspiration to contribute positively to mitigating climate breakdown, and encourage our clients to adopt this approach.
  • 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.
  • Adopt more regenerative design principles in our studios, with the aim of designing architecture and urbanism that goes beyond the standard of net zero carbon in use.
  • Collaborate with engineers, contractors and clients to further reduce construction waste.
    Accelerate the shift to low embodied carbon materials in all our work.
  • Minimise wasteful use of resources in architecture and urban planning, both in quantum and in detail.

Chatham House Report

In its report, Chatham House says just reducing the amount of fossil fuels used in cement production is not enough.  The problem is in the process of making cement itself. “More than 50 per cent of cement sector emissions are intrinsically linked to the process for producing clinker, one of the main ingredients in cement. As the by-product of a chemical reaction, such emissions cannot be reduced simply by changing fuel sources or increasing the efficiency of cement plants.”

It advocates for blending clinker with alternative materials and using what it calls “novel cements” — some of which can lower carbon emissions by up to 90%. With 40% of global emissions attributable to the built environment — constructing homes and commercial buildings, then heating and cooling them throughout their useful lives — reducing carbon emissions associated with that sector is a hugely important task.

Why don’t we just do it? Chatham House has an answer. “In the absence of a strong carbon-pricing signal, there is little short-term economic incentive to make changes.” Humanity has accepted the notion that there should be no economic cost associated with adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.  That self-destructive behavior needs to change immediately, while there is still time.

The argument against doing so comes down to a plaint that it is just too expensive to add the cost of carbon into human transactions? Really? And what is the cost of a dead planet?

It may not seem that innovation is a big part of the cement industry but Chatham House found thousands of patent filings relating to cement in countries around the world.

“China has emerged as a key innovation hub; it has invested more than any other country in cement research and development. It dominates our patent analysis, both in terms of patent filings and assignees.

“This is encouraging from a decarbonization perspective, as China is projected to continue to account for a major share of global cement production.11 However, given the growth in markets in India and other Asia-Pacific countries, R&D capacity and deployment in those regions will also be key.”

Carbon emissions from cement will play a huge role in nudging the world toward a sustainable environment. “Global cement production is set to increase to over 5 billion tonnes a year over the next 30 years,” says Chatham House.

“Rapid urbanization and economic development in regions such as Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will increase demand for new buildings, and thus for concrete and cement. With as many as 3 billion people potentially living in slums by 2050, new rapidly deployable housing solutions are urgently needed.

“Moreover, the infrastructure demands of development and urbanization are not limited to housing. Providing clean water, sanitation and energy services typically relies on concrete, whether for transport infrastructure, wind farms or hydro-electric dams. In this context, continuing efforts to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals are expected to result in $60 trillion being invested in such infrastructure in developing countries by 2030.” (emphasis added).

A Radical Re-imagining Of Architecture

Phineas Harper is chief curator of the Oslo Triennale and deputy director of the Architecture Foundation. Writing in Dezeen, he advocates for a radical rethinking of architecture. He says today most architects and builders believe that while the carbon emissions associated with the buildings they create may be high to begin with, they are actually low when averaged over the lifetime of those buildings.

Harper dismisses that notion, saying the climate emergency makes such long term calculations irrelevant. Instead, he advocates for less carbon intensive techniques that may require more frequent refurbishment and repair.

“As has become clear in the IPCC’s recent report, hitting an ecological tipping point in the next 12 years could trigger a series of multiplier effects meaning the absolute priority for emissions-heavy economies has to be curbing greenhouse gas emissions now,” he says. “We can no longer think of gases emitted during construction as spread over a building’s use life — there just enough isn’t enough time.”

“The aesthetic and material possibilities of a new ecological architecture could be exceptionally rich, driving an international artistic and political renaissance no less profound than the advent of modernism,” he adds.

“Durable walls can no longer come at the cost of high embodied carbon no matter how resilient they are. Longevity, hardwearingness, solidity — the seductive values we’ve traditionally invoked with so many material strategies, may need to be abandoned as we explore a radically different tactic of far less durable buildings that require far more repair. This would require a seismic cultural shift in the commissioning of buildings.

“Making modest efficiency gains alone will not be enough. A merely more optimised, less reckless version of late capitalist modernity still overshoots planetary limits and squanders the opportunity to discover architectural languages that nourish the planet and enrich our experience of it.

“Challenging contemporary material culture and our compulsion for durability is one avenue to explore. An architecture of repair could not just reduce emissions but facilitate a culturally infused urbanism of constant process, even civic festivity.”

Harper sums up his vision with this powerful statement. “To repair the biosphere, we may need to rethink the repair of architecture first.”

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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