Caroline Pidcock, architects declare
Caroline Pidcock

Hundreds of architects have joined a new movement to declare that we have a climate emergency. But what does the declaration mean? Will they turn away work that damages the environment? Will they try to change the views of their clients? We ask some of Australia’s leading architects including, Caroline Pidcock, Kerry Clare, Ken Maher, Helen Lochhead, James Grose, Ray Brown, Ed Lippmann and John Andreas.

Emergency is a strong word. It is stronger than heating, change, warming and crisis, which sound like euphemisms in comparison. 

Australian architects are the latest to join the global movement to declare a climate emergency, with last month’s launch of Architects Declare Australia (ADA). A profession that often seems more concerned with aesthetics and individual fame, and whose members sometimes have to accommodate the overblown wishes of wealthy clients and developers, has declared “climate and biodiversity emergencies” and a need for urgent collaboration, in a move endorsed by the Australian Institute of Architects. 

The role of buildings and construction in our energy and resource consumption, environmental depletion and waste, can’t be ignored, says Australian Institute of Architects president, Professor Helen Lochhead. She says they account for nearly 40 per cent of greenhouse gas (CO2) emissions.

Helen Lochhead

“We know that as architects we can do something about this through the decisions we make on a daily basis,” Lochhead says. “Together with our clients, we can develop and design buildings, cities and infrastructure that reset the paradigm …

Importantly, as architects, we have a duty of care to the entire community, acknowledged in our code of conduct.” 

The new Australian organisation is based on a similar group, Architects Declare, launched in the UK in May by a group of  winners of the UK’s top architecture award, the Stirling Prize. Norwegian architects soon followed suit.

In Australia, many of the nation’s top architects and large corporate architecture practices are among the 450 plus signatories. But what will they be doing, and where will they draw the line? Will they refuse work from clients wanting grandiose, over-sized homes or developers who aren’t interested in sustainable design?

And what about their livelihoods? Are they going to tell potential clients to scale back their development plans?

ADA’s spokesperson Caroline Pidcock says it’s very early stages for the small organisation but ADA is nimble and agile and can gather resources and share research, raise awareness and show the way to “regenerative” design that goes way beyond not causing damage, to repairing damage to the environment.

This will involve a transformation in architectural education. Architects will need to convince clients and their supply chains to re-consider the way they build and, among other things, re-use buildings and materials instead of demolishing and discarding them. At every level, architects, engineers and contractors need to collaborate to reduce construction waste. 

Things have to change “big time.”

WMK Architecture re-purposed existing materials for fitout of Urbis’ new Sydney office

 “We shouldn’t be knocking down 30-year old stadiums, but renovating [them]…  We are really beholden to everyone to recognise this emergency,” she says, citing architects BVN which, when approached by developers who bought the Sirius social housing building in Sydney’s Rocks area some years ago, said it wouldn’t be involved unless the iconic building was retained.

Pidcock has just completed a regenerative practitioners’ course “about how to make good things happen, and make money in a way that is good for our environmental future and creative energies”. 

“The whole industry will have to move and it will, as quickly as we can.”

Could this involve rejecting some clients’ work? That’s possible Pidcock says, but what’s more important is to turn a possible no, into a yes, so working on better solutions “for a thriving, regenerative future”. 

“Rather than talking people down, it will be about talking them up to more rewarding and enriching lives that don’t involve so much consumerism.” 

Signatory Kerry Clare of Clare Design, who teaches at Newcastle and Bond universities and works with her partner and

Kerry Clare, Clare Design

husband Lindsay, says that while they often collaborate with big practices, the pair are happy to be “small again”, running their own show, which is possible because their children are grown up and no longer dependent.

While younger people in the “struggle period” of their lives may need to do what it takes and depend on governments to set the pace environmentally, Clare Design is able to turn away projects to which it is ethically opposed. “In the long term, there is no economy if there is no environment,” she says.

Architects are in a hard place, without many champions, she says. Developers would rather just use them to tender. Then, once the project manager has the set of drawings, they do whatever they want.

“Many architects don’t have the knowledge and that’s the sad thing. It has to come from the unis. Newcastle and Bond are very on board with environmental issues.”

Buildings must be multi-use, Clare maintains. And residentially, more high density. She’s fascinated by the statistics showing that if everyone lived at a density like Sydney’s Roseville, three earths would be needed, but if all the people in the world lived as they do next to the River Seine in Paris (which has a maximum of six storeys), the whole population of the world, all 7.7 billion, could fit in into an area from say, Brisbane to Rockhampton.

The former chairman of the 900-strong global practice Hassell and these days a consultant at the firm, Ken Maher, has nailed the environmental conundrum: “How do you turn optimism into effective action, or how do you take pessimism and not let it become paralysing? The extreme in either of those conditions doesn’t lead to action.

“If you choose only to work with people interested in making a difference, then you work with the converted. There are a whole lot of moral dimensions as to who effective people in the design world can be.”

Maher, who says he these days “can’t be speaking for Hassell”, says there are limits to what architects can achieve, and there needs to be a strong focus on government action and policy. Politics don’t generally change without some form of compulsion.

“There is a bit of conflict sometimes with clients. Individuals like me can be freer about that, I’m not at a point where I’d ruin my career.

“It’s a dilemma. The very act of building has an impact… If you are very pessimistic, the act of developing and building has unacceptable consequences. The bigger issue we have to face is to do work that’s regenerative rather than holding the fort – adding or having positive impacts for other negatives, so your building is contributing to wellbeing, healing and greater production of oxygen. People are talking about zero carbon, but regeneration is carbon positive. It is all depressing, it’s a fine line, but I’m optimistic.”

Ray Brown, Director of Architectus, says it would have to be a “pretty rotten client” to make an architect walk away from a job. He sees the declaration as an expression of a general frustration about climate change denial and a lack of coherent government environmental policy.

“There’s a certain amount of inertia. Unfortunately, it seems we are destined for this to become an absolute emergency before

Ken Maher

the government acts,” Brown says. “At some point it will change, it will take the collective effort of the Second World War to have an impact and turn it around from the current trajectory. It’s a great shame, we’ve been watching this story unfold for 30 years.” 

Architecture is important but it is “so at the margin”, he says. The big changes must centre on the largest generators of GHG – energy, food production and travel. Of course, cooling a building helps, but even using 100 per cent green power while we continue to burn coal, it doesn’t add up.”  

BVN principal, James Grose, says the question of where to draw the line is “the ultimate conundrum we are all in”.

“We like to believe we operate in the framework, whether moral or ethical, which is evidenced by that declaration … However, hardly any of us practice anything near it in our lives or businesses.”

Being part of the global community is important, Grose says. His firm has small offices in New York and London but the aim is to produce work “without occupation”, working digitally to reduce their environmental footprint. 

International travel worries Grose, too. “We all want to be part of world but being part of it involves environmental expenditure. We are obviously signatory to that declaration but I wouldn’t say we have a carbon neutral position, we don’t,” he explains.

“The conundrum is extraordinary. We are talking on mobile phones, which have a huge environmental footprint in drawing resources out of the ground, [but they] get thrown away in vast quantities.” 

Projects Grose has worked on in the past decade have included sustainable practises and measures. 

“I’m not talking necessarily about the conservation of energy, but [ways] to enrich people’s lives, with natural ventilation in an office building, direct sunlight and the use of natural materials, with the agenda of making buildings about people as opposed to economic outcomes. It’s important to delineate,” he says. 

“We are very regenerative in our practice. Our job as architects is to make buildings designed for not 20 years, but 50 or 100, thought-through buildings. Buildings from the ‘70s and ‘80s are [already] being knocked down … the real estate imperative was

James Grose, BVN

not about longevity of buildings.” 

It will be hard, Grose says, to refuse work at a time when architectural practice is already under a whole range of threats, among them surviving a machine age where it’s possible to derive a purely computational solution to a problem and produce the most efficient algorithms for a site. 

“We, those that have signed up, have to start developing strategies …  use our intelligence, abilities and science to encourage people to do the right thing. There are many issues determining the way architects need to respond … is it feasible to have large practices or a network of small to medium ones? 

“There is the argument that says we don’t need any more buildings, commercial buildings. But they are a large part of nation’s economy, so what happens? 

“The conundrum is the absolute knowledge of that and our absolute part in it. We fly in aeroplanes, consume electricity and drive cars … In the end, the truth will out. And if you are a person that subscribes to authenticity, an authentic method of living, then you need to confront these serious issues of duplicity in your life. We were more easily able to avoid the questions before.”

Architect Ed Lippmann says the word“emergency” refers to the fact that a lot of people don’t believe it’s happening. The science

Ed Lippmann, Lippmann Partnership

isn’t accepted. Five years ago, he delivered a 6-star green building that is still one of a handful in the Sydney CBD. Achieving green star ratings is still seen as a cost rather than a long-term investment, in Sydney especially, where real estate and buildings are treated as merchandise. 

What we build reflects our aspirations as a society, says Lippmann. 

“Wealth is measured in all the wrong ways. Using the word emergency will make people stop and think. GDP is not the marker of success.

“Architects do have a role to play. We should be more forceful about what we do. Too many do what they are told to get the job. It is important to take a stand. 

“It is very, very hard. I haven’t turned work away because clients are not prepared to include [sustainable] initiatives. Instead, we suggest things that improve performance – orientation and materials – and design buildings that will last a long time and can adapt to the future. 

“It’s not just about branding. Large organisations do want to be involved in buildings, which are cutting global emissions, and we have to infiltrate the corporate sector to make a difference. I don’t want to live in a nanny state but there should also be more stringent government controls about buildings performing well.”

Just like share cars, buildings should be shared, Lipmann says. A recent building for  the Emanuel Synagogue in Sydney’s Woollahra is being used for film nights, lectures, music recitals, and by people and groups who aren’t  Jewish.

Architecture Director of WMK, John Andreas, says architects will have to draw “lines in the sand” because of the climate emergency. 

“The first thing we’d ask is ‘Why would you want that? What are you trying to achieve?’, rather than saying ‘Don’t use all that glass’,” he says. 

“We re-use as much as we can … The declaration is about helping channel creative energy to realise a regenerative future; not about clamping down on creativity, just shaping it.”  

As an example, he cites a WMK-designed shopping centre in Burwood in Melbourne, by developer Frasers Property, where its

John Andreas, WMK

rooftop farm will supply produce to the restaurant below, and generate more renewable power than energy used, under a Living Building Challenge standard

Another example is an interior for Urbis in Sydney, in a space that was vacated by a firm of lawyers. 

“It was phenomenal what they left behind Andreas says.

Large chunks of material were re-purposed for the new fitout, and meeting and conference rooms were re-used. “It’s the first

time we’ve re-used bits of an existing fitout and designers, being designers, swallowed their ego a bit and said this is really good.” 

He says WMK has not had a client so outrageous that the firm has had to walk away but sometimes a client walks away from WMK. 

“We always want to push it, but we’re a business and have to put food on table and pay mortgages. It’s not easy for architects to take a stand. Where they sit in the pecking order, they are usurped by project managers and builders. The role we used to have was the broader overseer … we are a sub-consultant to a builder now. 

“Some of the things that are starting to happen are scary. At the end of the day, you have to think there’s going to be a solution. Certainly, when you have three young girls, you see it as a real dilemma.” 

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