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13 Feb 2020

Architects need to walk the talk after declaring a climate emergency

Architects need to walk the talk after declaring a climate emergency
Australian Architects declare a climate & biodiversity emergency

Every Australian and many other people in the world are now feeling the fear that Greta Thunberg enunciated just one year ago in her speech at Davos. Much to the surprise of the hopeful, hope has not delivered so let’s assume we need to actually do something now. After all, if not now, then when will change ultimately come? Now? Or Never? We live in a lazy, technology and industrially driven society. 

"The Architects Declare Movement" has been underway for a few months. Over 800 firms have signed up and meetings have been held, yet for many, the question remains: “What next? What do I do? and Will it make a difference?" 

Architects are creative thinkers; they think of themselves as problem solvers, they continually argue for design as the solution in almost every situation. So why dont they design the solution for the current climate crisis?. The methodologies and technologies that are needed all exist, they just need to be used in the right ways.

Walk the talk. It’s difficult and embarrassing to ask company clients to do more – build better and prepare for the future – if the companies aren’t doing it too. If architects want to be taken seriously, they need credible actions to show the leadership that has, so far, been lacking.

One approach would be to go carbon neutral as soon as possible, by buying only 100% certified Green Power. Offset all flights or simply just fly less, or ultimately get a carbon audit and offset remaining carbon emissions by walking to work or using the path of least resistance.

An architects’ biggest influence is through their projects. The need for collectivity can lift the performance of one company which occasionally starts at the bottom, not just at the top tier. 

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has produced a 2030 Challenge: a series of rigorous, peer-reviewed, science-based targets for building performance. It’s no small coincidence they happen to be very similar to those in the innovative British Columbian Energy Step Code. 

Science is science, energy is energy and everyone is, most definitely, in this together.

Do not waste time debating the finer details. People just have to agree that, broadly speaking this is how good buildings need to be and leave it at that. The government and general populous do not have time to argue with Australia’s special snowflake status and the uniquely benign climate that supposedly transcends the laws of physics.

The RIBA residential targets are in the tables below:

From RIBA’s 2030 Challenge.

From RIBA’s 2030 Challenge.


In a heating and carbon-constrained world, it is negligent to deliver a 50-plus year asset that won’t be code-compliant in a decade. It may be great for businesses specializing in remedial and retrofit work, but it’s unethical, financially irresponsible and lazy.

It is essential to measure the future performance of every project against the RIBA targets. Some suggestions that can be thrown out is that it all has to start with operational energy and water. The other targets are incredibly important but the industry needs to walk before it can run, start slow and build for the future. That's how franchises are born in many different businesses. 

 The RIBA targets are predicated on getting projected performance data from either the CIBSE TM54 which is based on evaluating the operational energy performance of buildings during and after the design stage as well as making use of the "Passive House Planning Package" (PHPP). As RIBA note, PHPP has a number of benefits over TM54 including “the success of Passivhaus in consistently delivering a step-change in energy reduction”. NatHERS systems also cross-check many theories with one another. 

Most in the industry understand the flaws of the NatHERS system; a lack of verification, some overly optimistic behavior assumptions, wildly varying targets depending on climate along with with silly flaws such as gaming the system by varying room names to change the predicted energy use.

This means comparing NatHERS to PHPP is a complex yet pointless task, but it often leaves people with little choice have, so, you have to work with it essentially.

The UK CarbonBuzz project has shown that on average, buildings consume between 1.5 and 2.5 times predicted values; the Performance Gap. The tool allows companies to adjust this gap to see its impact on real world performance; compared and contrasted with actual performance to get a real-time result of where it is ultimately succeeding and/or failing. 

From RIBA’s 2030 Challenge.

However, not every architect is motivated by building physics, energy performance and sustainability. Equally, many are not inspired or motivated by structural engineering, yet they seem to be very good at delivering buildings that don’t fall down.

Renewable energy is a topic that has not been talked about enough within the industry which begs the fascinating question… is their no replacement for quality, efficient, healthy buildings?. A tin shed with a huge PV array may have a net cost $0 in the long term but it is not an appropriate response to proposed climate change efforts. Society is often embodied with energy, power outages, occupant health, and material scarcity all of which play a pivotal role in defining our nature and ultimate survival of this planet. 

Sustainability and climate change are a real threat if the points above haven't convinced you (the reader) enough then perhaps this little nugget and food for thought will change your perspective. Last week it was reported on various news outlets around the world such as BBC and Sky News that the Polar Ice Caps have been melting rapidly, the highest temperature recorded ever last week was 18.3C which is currently hotter than 45% of the world right now. That truly is insane. Water levels are rising. If something isn't done soon, it will ultimately be the end of humanity in the long run. As a once great superhero once said: "Don't forget to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, the power is yours".