News from the front desk, Issue 508: You just know when a piece of news is going to have a big impact.
Last week it was that two global giants of the architectural world had resigned from Architects Declare in the UK.
The reason? That both, Foster + Partners and Zaha Hadid Architects, work on airports. This, despite strong commitments to sustainability from both firms – evidenced by their status as founding signatories to this growing movement. And in the case of Foster + Partners, a long standing commitment going back to the 60s.
According to the critics though, a track record is not enough. Signatories to the movement need to change their practices or get out.
This is not the opinion of AD by the way, either in the UK or Australia.
The pressure had come from a more radical subset of this group, Architects Climate Action Network.
Trial by headline, imputations and cancel culture, some might say.
True. But, also incredibly effective at shining a light on the issue and forcing discussion out from polite boardrooms or committee rooms and into the cut and thrust of public discourse.
Suddenly the Declare movement that’s been underway since just May 2019 (not yet one year) and has embraced engineers and other design professionals, has been swept up in the tailwinds of the powerful #MeToo movement and all it’s spawned, forcing issues once sidelined or ignored straight to the top of the most urgent list.
Should sustainable architects work on airports to make them as carbon efficient as can be or should that work be left to those who don’t care? Same for coal mines. Or freeways. Same for engineers or other design professionals or consultants.
The reverberations during the week were seismic… on the record comments difficult to come by.
In a great sense of timing global engineering giant Aurecon happened to choose the same day as the original story broke to make its own powerful announcement: it would achieve net zero emissions by 2025 as part of the transition it feels it needs to make in “anticipation of a 100 percent net zero emissions future”.
Its chief executive officer William Cox said this was “the largest all-industry task in history”. But worth it. With huge business opportunities on offer.
“At some point in the future, the world will be 100 percent net zero emissions, and the challenge is to map the fastest viable transition path,” he said. “This is the opportunity we should all plan for.”
How will they do it?
“Through risk-based decisions, balancing investment in emissions reduction measures versus offsets” and the need for offsets expected to reduce over time.
“We are embarking on the largest all-industry task in history and we are fortunate to have the energy and resources to impact climate change and mitigate against its effects in the future as we propel towards carbon neutrality.”
Interestingly, Aurecon is not a member of Engineers Declare.
It’s an interesting contrast in approaches: one company withdraws from the spotlight of public commitment but maintains it is as sustainable as it ever was as a pioneer back in the 60s (Foster + Partners). Another commits to ambitious targets but keeps out of the glare of a public commitment.
According to Lizzie Webb a member of the co-ordination team for Engineers Declare this is not an unusual approach. The movement has big support from a range of companies and some are adhering to ever improving commitments on climate but they’re not necessarily joining ED nor proclaiming their commitment in any public forum.
Webb says the momentum for change has been strong over the past 12 months, and six months in particular.
The global pandemic might have something to do with it: “a commitment to taking very seriously” how to re-orientate around the climate agenda and look for ways to “positively disrupt current systems”, and it’s at the forefront of strategic thinking,” she says.
The Aurecon statement is a case in point.
Officially she says there are 174 member organisations at present, alongside nearly 2000 individuals.
Like the UK AD movement her members won’t engage in public naming and shaming.
Key is to be supportive to members and to be inclusive as possible.
There are 12 commitments that firms or individuals make in signing up to the movement. It’s up to them how they manage these and how they want their stakeholders to view their responses.
These are around evaluating all new projects to see how the signatory can help mitigate the effect of climate change, the engineering role in question, and what role the business is playing in that and how they can influence outcomes, and what are the implications of that project.
Already there’s at least one smaller company that has used its commitment to Engineers Declare to decline work on an airport because it did not align with its values and commitments.
And while the work for this smaller company might not have had a high dollar value the financial impact on a small company is likely to be significant Webb points out.
“That’s the declaration in action. It’s not something that we’re enforcing; we’re encouraging leadership.
“In this case it was about holding themselves to account.
“As a co-ordinating group we’re not passing judgement on signatories, but we encourage them to keep their commitments in mind every time they undertake projects.
“It’s a kind of behaviour modelling and a result of the stakeholders watching what the decisions will be.” Including staff of course.
So, what’s the sentiment from her members in general about working on airports or coal mines or freeways for that matter? And how do they balance the opportunity to make those facilities more sustainable than if they didn’t work on them?
Where does anyone draw the line?
“The sentiment is we need to transition to infrastructure products and services that are supportive of the future we want to live in.”
Other observers say it’s interesting to note the Declare movement is in its early stages and still evolving. The professional bodies who are doing best are probably those who have incorporated the movement into their mainstream activities.
What was noteworthy was that with any movement there was a spectrum of ambitions from the very pointy end to the pragmatic. And all of it necessary and part of the changing landscape.
What was pretty much undeniable said the source, is the shifting target date from 2050 to 2030 as the urgency of action becomes increasingly clear.
Executive director of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council Suzanne Toumbourou thinks it’s doable.
“We can build to net zero right now,” she says. “We have the technical know how and in many jurisdictions, we have the political will; we’re focused on that. We’re able to do it. But when we get to the bigger question of what we build and who for it’s a bigger dialogue than we are equipped to deal with right now.”
The Declare movement, she says, is the Greenpeace of change.
Another supporter of the movement is the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, which is internalising the Declare ambitions through a committee.
According to Ben Stockwin, who took over the reins as chief executive officer in April, the sentiment from his members is overwhelmingly positive to ramping up commitment to climate positive design goals.
There’s even an expectation that the climate ambitions may well be strengthened but Stockwin declined to comment, saying policy was still being finalised on this score.
If members decided to work on facilities such as airports, Stockwin says, their approach might be to focus on the appropriate offsets needed.
Alexander Stathakis who runs Conversio, which among other things is an approved airport carbon accreditor, says airports are complex beasts that involve sometimes thousands of people, often invisible to the travelling public. It’s logical they want to reduce emissions and improve efficiency, albeit with targets driven by cost savings as well as environmental profile, he says.
Airports such as Brisbane’s was doing great work to reduce its emissions and improve efficiency. It was taking “taking sustainability very seriously,” he says.
But can an airport be truly sustainable, though, given it’s about transporting millions of people using climate destroying energy?
It comes down to doing your best, Stathakis says.
“The perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good.” It’s about improving systems and processes and also a question of alternatives.
And let’s give the final word to Australia’s Architects Declare spokesperson Caroline Pidcock who released an official comment after the UK fallout. In part it said:
“Australian Architects Declare’s role is to empower architects to make a paradigm shift in behaviour and take responsibility for action in their own lives and practices,” the statement said.
“This year alone, over 200 practices throughout Australia pledged to go carbon neutral. Normalise.it launched in Melbourne, proposing 15 projects that will absolutely transform our cities. Both the NSW and Victorian governments have announced significant investments in energy efficiency, biodiversity, arts, and public transport. New Zealand, Japan and the Philippines have all declared a climate emergency this fortnight, while President-Elect Joe Biden is building a climate-centric government.
“Action is happening, conversations are changing, and our movement has helped shape these.
“We acknowledge that this is difficult. There is much change needed in the industry – more movement required, and faster, than we have seen to date.
“But we are stronger together. Architects Declare as a movement makes a space for people to come together on these critical issues. We have each other, and we’ll need each other, on the difficult road ahead.
“As the steering group of Australian Architects Declare, we don’t believe it’s our role to take a stand on issues on behalf of our signatories. That’s not what this movement is about. We’re not spokespeople for a passive group of professionals, we’re enablers – facilitating, building bridges, fostering a community of action – for tens of thousands of architects.
“From the largest practices in our country, to tiny practices in regional areas, every one of us signed because we want to take action and we want to do it together.
“So, we say to each of our signatories: Foster + Partners and Zaha Hadid Architects have left the movement. Let’s make this an opportunity for reflection, discussion and action, which is exactly what our movement is about.
“Where do you want to take your practice and your profession? Where does your practice stand on divesting from harm? What jobs will you do, and with whom? How far can you go, and how fast?”