It’s time for the Australian Institute of Architects to declare a climate emergency

Architects, together with engineers and other building professionals, are uniquely placed to make a difference in the fight to save the planet. That’s why it’s important for them to step up and declare a climate emergency.

At its national convention, the American Institute of Architects declared a climate emergency in a motion passed by an overwhelming majority of 4860 to 312.

It’s now time for the Australian Institute of Architects, as well as the other institutes of building professionals such as engineers, to follow and put a similar motion to their membership.

“Addressing climate change” was one of the six policy platforms the AIA took to the last federal election.

This policy acknowledged that “a sustainable built environment that fosters connectivity and integrates essential resources and functions to mitigate against adverse impacts from climate change.”

While this is certainly a step in the right direction, it’s only aspirational and does not convey the appropriate sense of urgency we need in light of current climate science.

As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently warned world leaders, the planet is facing a “grave climate emergency” and urged immediate action to avoid a “catastrophe”.

Unfortunately we have all become desensitised to headlines – like frogs in a vat of warming water – but when the United Nations explicitly warns us that “climate change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a defining moment”, we really should start listening!

The Architecture Australia magazine recently acknowledged that 25 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the construction, operation and maintenance of buildings.

This is a very big number and highlights the responsibility architects have to mitigate harm. Architects, together with engineers and other building professionals, are uniquely placed to make a difference in the fight to save the planet our children will inherit from impending catastrophe.

What is needed now is a clarion call to all Australian architects to exercise their design skills and their knowledge of the built environment to make carbon a central consideration of their practices, and to minimise the carbon footprint of all new buildings they design.

Professional bodies need to step up

It is all too convenient for professional bodies such as the AIA to call for government to lead the setting of new climate-related design standards.

We also know from recent examples all over the world that national governments are far too conflicted to respond effectively to the urgent need for climate action. There are simply too many competing interest groups that apply pressure to the various branches of government.

Our political system is rightly designed to allow all of them to have their say and exert influence.

I am now convinced that climate change action must be pushed from organisational levels below government. An ideal example is an organisation of government-regulated professionals, such as the AIA. It is a membership-based group that maintains values that stress community wellbeing and whose influential constituents can affect grassroots change by virtue of their professional activities.

With a national membership base, the AIA are ideally placed to issue a call to arms – in the way that the American association has done.

Architects have lots of opportunities to create a greener world

The profession has a variety of tools at its disposal to make a significant impact, at least on new buildings.

This includes the choice of building materials (carbon-embodied timber rather than greenhouse-producing concrete and steel), creating effectively shaded buildings (rather than skyscraper greenhouses of glass curtain walls that exacerbate internal heat gain and the consequential need for airconditioning) and effectively sealing buildings (to further minimise “leaks” and achieve passive house standards). These are all powerful ways to achieve better environmental performance outcomes.

The time for business as usual design, where client whims can dictate environmental performance, has now truly passed. Buildings last for decades or centuries.

Minimising carbon use and achieving sustainable performance of building should now part of architect’s obligations – as much as is safety or catering for the disabled. Sustainable performance is not just a nice to have.

The AIA must now follow its US counterpart and provide the leadership for its members to act in our collective best interests. Architects are arguably the professionals amongst the most aware of climate issues. However it is the professional body that must be the standard bearer.

The resolution passed by the association in America calls for the association to “adopt and implement the recommendations of their Blue Ribbon Panel on Codes and Standards and the Sustainability Leadership Group.”

These recommendations include:

  • encourage members to adopt the Top Ten Measures from the Committee on the Environment
  • establish high-performance codes as standard practice
  • develop a more holistic definition of health, safety, and welfare to include sustainability and resilience
  • commit to responsibility for existing building stock
  • transition to outcomes-based building codes and standards.

I would also argue that the AIA should require appropriate awareness of climate issues through ongoing professional development requirements and to lead and reward its members for raising their level of sustainable practice.

It should also highlight the sense of urgency and responsibility that architects carry as climate influencers.

Jack Haber has been a registered architect since 1990. His practice focuses on development and project management.

Spinifex is an opinion column open to all, so called because it’s at the “spiky” end of sustainability. If you would like to contribute, we require 700+ words. For a more detailed brief and style guide please email

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  1. I agree with Jack.
    It’s time, if not architects (and many others) then who?
    It’s a great opportunity for leadership from an organisation who have had a challenging few years and could do with increasing their impact and profile.

  2. This is why I call on the professional body to take a lead, rather than individual practices. As with the AIA (USA), the professional body has a responsibility to set a standard and set an aspirational agenda for the profession.

  3. Architects are beholden to patrons with profit interests at one end of the spectrum and minimum compliance focused certifiers at the other. The pincer movement thereby limits the scope to be influencers.
    The majority of members of the profession have nil sustainability skills, where design spans the range from functional outcomes to populist form making. The rigour to work through a building performance focus sits outside that realm. The next emergent sector of buildings with disaster resilience inherent is a step even further away.
    A different source as the basis for advocacy may need to be found.