Architecture education must respond to the climate crisis

A person holding a sign up with the words 'There is No Planet B' at a rally.
Published: 11/03/2020

We are publishing a series of blogs on designing for a changing climate. Here the co-ordinator of the Anthropocene Architecture School Scott McAulay writes about the urgent need for architecture education to respond to the climate emergency.

We have dangerously warmed our world already, and there was a time when many had the right to claim ignorance. For the past three decades, since the IPCC was created and climate negotiations began, this refusal to lower emissions has been accompanied with full awareness of the dangers.

Naomi Klein, On Fire (2019)

The climate crisis did not creep up on us. It did not just manifest with the publication of the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5°C in 2018 or at the beginning of Greta Thunberg’s school strike for climate.

Climate negotiations have been rolling for over 30 years. These have happened alongside repeated warnings of the existential threat posed by climate change (Carson, 1962; Commoner, 1971; United Nations, 1987). The nonresponse is damning.

If we seriously intend to design places and spaces appropriate for a changing climate then education must begin taking the climate emergency seriously. Because despite overwhelming evidence, it simply is not doing so.

This cannot take the placebo-form of a declaration or written policy. It must manifest as emergency responses that demonstrate science is being listened to and acted upon accordingly.

Design education

First, what is taught must be challenged and then readjusted appropriately. Design education pre-crisis may have been subjective, but the grief-inducing reality of the impacts of climate change are not.

Crucially, curriculums delivered today do not prepare students to work in the context of climate breakdown. There is a knowledge gap in environmental literacy and knowledge of retrofit in Scottish architecture schools (McAulay, 2019). And though many solutions have existed for half a century, they are not taught.

In response to the 1970s oil crisis, the New Alchemists devised the Ark in Prince Edward Island: entirely off-grid, self-sustaining housing that outperformed building codes of today (Mannell, 2018).

Yet precedents passed on to students today are typically of the modernist or starchitecture variety, perpetuating modern failings and their environmental shortfalls.

We must implement and then surpass an evidence-based education: bringing in conservation, ecology, landscape, post-occupancy evaluation, retrofit and zero carbon design skills, creating a holistic, intersectional, solution-based paradigm.

Zero carbon design skills

At the same time, we must re-educate and upskill those who do educate. Those teaching are not guaranteed to be environmentally literate or in the possession of zero carbon design skills. Many dangerously lack both.

Taking the climate crisis seriously means making this a mandatory requirement of all educational roles and providing the necessary CPD (continuing professional development)for those in academic institutions immediately.

At the same time, climate emergency-compliant education must be legislated. It must become illegal for any institution to provide an education that does not adequately prepare students to practice in a way that contributes towards a carbon-neutral society.

It has gone far past tinkering at the edges of business-as-usual. It is time we begin to act like the planetary house that sustains us is on fire.

Personal small-scale changes may be well-intentioned but are a convenient (or inconvenient) distraction. The changes required to tackle the climate emergency are cultural, political and systemic. Just 100 companies were responsible for 70% of global emissions since the 1980s (Griffin, 2017) after all.

As Marcus Ford succinctly puts in Rethinking the Modern University: “So long as we educate young people into modern ways of thinking, we will continue to perpetuate the very civilization that is destroying the planet.”


Header image credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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