Shaping Tomorrow Together:
Up-skilling and Net Zero Carbon literacy in the architectural profession and education
Blog by Anna Blamire-Brown, Certified Passive House Designer, Austin-Smith:Lord
There is nothing new about designing buildings with carbon in mind, but for many built environment professionals, it can still seem like unfamiliar ground. The recent RIBA Built Environment Summit, organised to coincide with COP26, was a stark reminder that governments and businesses can no longer delay action on climate change. For our industry this means ensuring that we are equipped with the skills and knowledge to assess and actively reduce embodied and operational carbon throughout the design process.
The built environment currently accounts for 38% of global energy related greenhouse gas emissions – a figure that was mentioned many times during the conference and highlights the pivotal role of the industry in the fight against climate change. A huge proportion of potential carbon expenditure is tied up in early-stage decisions, so it is essential that anyone with a hand in commissioning or designing a project understands the impact that each of their choices can have.
We have made great strides in recent years, with more practitioners than ever taking up training opportunities such as the Certified Passive House Designer qualification, however, it is clear that this up-skilling still needs to be accelerated in response to the climate crisis.
The ‘Shaping Tomorrow Together’ conference session addressed some of the questions around how to ensure sustainable design competence in the profession. In light of the urgency of the situation, it is evident that there needs to be a two-pronged approach to training – it will not be enough to focus solely on university education, as much of responsibility for shaping the built environment in this critical decade will sit with those of us who are already practicing.
In spite of this, equipping students with Net Zero Carbon knowledge is undoubtedly critically important to safeguarding the long-term viability of our planet. While some universities have been ahead of the game in this respect, it’s fair to say that for many years low carbon design has been side-lined within taught courses.
Now, however, it’s apparent that real change is coming. Questions are being asked such as: ‘Should students be allowed to graduate without Passive House knowledge or without being able to calculate the embodied carbon of their material choices?’. ACAN (Architects Climate Action Network) is one of the organisations campaigning for a greater focus on sustainability within education. Their objective is pretty clear: “Calling all architecture students, graduates, professionals. Your education is failing you! Help us change that.” (https://www.architectscan.org/curriculum-campaign).
Another question is whether the culture of architecture schools is too pro-individualism and ‘crits’ somehow instil in us a fear of admitting that we don’t – and can’t – know everything. Real world projects regularly call on the expertise of a wide variety of specialists, but popular culture would often have us believe than each architect is an island. Would some of the time allocated to individual design studio projects be better assigned to modules that build interdisciplinary collaboration skills?
Of course it can be difficult to include this sort of teaching, not least because curriculums are already packed. Heriot-Watt University’s Architectural Engineering course now includes an interdisciplinary module which seems to be very successful at encouraging collaboration. Students taking the module must work together to address competing priorities; an approach that breeds mutual respect between the disciplines, and if transferred into practice could help to combat confrontational tendencies in the industry.
For many years, experts have been saying that we need to break down silos and work together on innovative solutions to the climate crisis – if we are to stand a chance of doing this on real-world projects, we must not ignore it in academia.
As well as collaboration skills, all built environment students and professionals should possess the technical knowledge to assess the impact of certain design approaches and challenge the brief if required. Free resources such as the Climate Framework library (https://www.climateframework.com/library-intro) and the LETI guides (https://www.leti.london/publications) offer a wealth of opportunity for self-guided learning, but the level of Net Zero Carbon design literacy afforded by these initiatives shouldn’t be an optional extra – it should be central to formal architectural education and continuing professional development.
It is clear that retrofit knowledge also needs to be given greater precedence in architectural education. As highlighted by the AJ’s #RetroFirst campaign, the greenest building is one that already exists. Architects entering the profession should possess the practical skills to help clients breathe new life into their existing buildings, as well as the confidence to sell them this approach in the first place. While some retrofit knowledge can be taught in a classroom, it is on site that the best experience is gained – yet another case for a more practical approach to training our future architects.
The standard of student work in competitions such as the Solar Decathlon Build Challenge (https://www.solardecathlon.gov/) is evidence that there really is no better way to learn than through doing. In the past, the only way for an architecture student to get hands-on involvement on a building site would have been to undertake work experience with a contractor or pay to attend a summer school. However, external factors can often mean that these aren’t viable options for many individuals. In light of this, academic institutions should seek to provide equal access to similar opportunities, through making practical learning an essential component of taught courses.
The efficacy of practical experience is yet more proof that practice and academia should go hand-in-hand. Training up the next generation of architects in Net Zero Carbon literacy needs to be done in parallel with those already practicing. We should aim to avoid a situation where assistants and newly-qualified architects are fully clued-up, but decision makers are still lacking in knowledge and confidence.
The ARB’s sustainability guidelines call for architects to be pro-active and take on the responsibility to re-skill ourselves. However, many argue that tougher regulation is the only way to ensure that every professional meets an acceptable level of competence. Following the advocacy of AIA CA, the state of California now requires licensed architects in the state to be educated in how to deliver Net Zero Carbon (https://aiacalifornia.org/net-zero-carbon-continuing-education-signed-into-law/). Is it about time we adopt a similar approach in the UK?