Architecture and the Environment

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Sinead Keating investigates the role of architecture in addressing the climate crisis

Scientists began observing and understanding the
global climate in the early twentieth century. By the 1970s
scientists were raising concern over global warming and
climate change. There was an awareness that human
activity was causing these changes, with scientists
pinpointing the early 19th century as the beginning of
damaging amounts of greenhouse gas emissions by
human activities. Buildings and the construction industry
account for nearly 40% of carbon dioxide emissions.
The embodied carbon of a building is carbon dioxide
generated in the production of materials, their
transportation to site and their assembly. This can be
offset by using less carbon to run the building during its
lifetime. For example, a building can be highly insulated
so as to require less heating by non-renewable natural
resources and use solar panels to generate electricity.
A building is expected to have a lifetime of 120 years,
so decisions made during the design and construction
of a building can have a huge environmental impact
over the building’s lifetime. It sounds like a simple
thing to do - just design more environmentally friendly
buildings. However, the process relies on multiple
people making a lot of decisions, which often aren’t
the most straight-forward, which result in a finished
building. Implementing environmental consciousness at
every stage of a project is a difficult yet essential move.
There are resources to help with this process, with Irish
Architects Declare Climate and Biodiversity Emergency
being the largest group for architects in Ireland.
Architects Declare was conceived in the UK by architects
Steve Tompkins and Michael Pawlyn and launched with
seventeen others on 30th May 2019. They were quickly
joined by hundreds of architectural practices around the
UK. Climate change and the effects of the construction
industry is no secret to those in the industry, but to see
such strong initial support highlighted the time-sensitive
nature of the cause. There needs to be more action

now to generate real change. Irish Architects Declare
was the second branch set up. Other disciplines in the
built environment have joined the movement across
20 countries under the umbrella of Construction
Declares - such as Landscape Architects Declare.
The future is in the hands of young people and education
is arguably the most powerful resource to instil a need
for change and to combat climate change scepticism.
Architecture students are taught about the issues and
the solutions as observers, with a learned understanding
that the power to enact these necessary changes lies
solely with those working in the industry. While there is
truth to this, students possess the power to mobilise, raise
awareness, pressure those in power to change legislation,
and pressure practices to address the climate emergency.
Architecture Education Declares is the student branch
with a manifesto that addresses curriculum change.
Signed by over 2400 students worldwide, the manifesto is
designed as a letter to be given to the heads of schools to
illustrate the concerns of students about the climate and
biodiversity emergency, and that these concerns reflect
opinions in wider society. It begins “we are concerned that
at present our education does not give sufficient weight to
the inherently ecological and political basis of architecture,
nor to our responsibility to meet our uncertain future with
socially and environmentally informed practice.” Six steps
to making a tangible difference in architectural education
are outlined in the letter to bring the movement beyond

just words. The closing statement rings true, “immediate
efforts toward these commitments will not alone be
sufficient, but that they are necessary is unambiguous.”
A key part of architecture practices is the sharing of
expertise. Every project is a learning process, and while
capitalism discourages sharing valuable information with
competitors, in the interest of the environment, there
is more to gain by sharing knowledge. Researching
and adapting to innovations in materials and building
methods is hugely time-consuming and it benefits the
industry as a whole to share findings. An environmentally
superior material cannot be considered by an architect if
the architect does not know of its existence or application.
Doing what you know well is good business practice, but
when it comes to the climate crisis, current building methods
must be weighed up against their environmental impact.
Architects Declare encourages the sharing of expertise
through events, a climate change toolkit for practices.
This allows for a trickle-down system of information in
universities too. Experts deliver lectures on sustainability
separate from the main design module which is run by
practising architects. As these tutors become more aware
and informed, they are in a better position to pass that
information on to students through design modules.
Being as environmentally conscious as possible with new
construction is a large step in the right direction, but it
is the older building stock that bleed natural resources,

through heating, water usage, and waste management.
There is some irony in designing highly sealed and
insulated buildings in the architectural studios on the
UCD campus in a beautiful yet draughty old building
that bleeds heat. Retrofit 2050 is an initiative planning
sustainable transitions for urban areas to undergo in
the next thirty years. By modelling the city the aim is to
unite teams that currently work separately. For example,
when digging up the road surface to build cycle lanes,
coordination within departments ensures that other
services like water pipes can be repaired or upgraded to
perform more sustainably. Making changes area by area
rather than service by service saves time and resources.
The Deep Energy Renovation of Traditional Buildings is a
resource circulated by Architects Declare to address the
knowledge and skills gaps when it comes to upgrading
older buildings. Again, sharing information is key.
There is an Architecture Education Declares summit on
the 10th of April for those interested in learning more.
Children have been educated about climate change in
schools since the 1990s and many scientists warn that the
time for complete damage reversal has passed so it is
pertinent that efforts are increased. Ultimately, Architects
Declare has a positive future outlook. There is strength
in numbers, and with an approach of encouragement,
self-government and no public blame-and-shame it
has never been easier nor more important to join an
organisation to make a real difference to our shared future.