Jeremy McLeod, Breath Architecture

Jeremy McLeod was a key signatory to the influential Architects Declare movement. He says sustainability might be seen as complex by some people but there are simple ways “that everyone could win”.

Partnered content for Beyond Zero Emissions

At the beginning of this year, Australia’s leading architects called on the wider industry to make a 2020 commitment to address the climate emergency.

More than 100 practices signed to Architects Declare, a worldwide declaration of climate and biodiversity emergency, had met in Melbourne to discuss a way forward.

They wanted to find simple, actionable steps that would set them on a positive path and decided going carbon neutral would have the biggest impact.

Jeremy McLeod, director of Breathe Architecture, one of the founding signatories of the Architects Declare movement, says there was an “incredible sense of urgency” within the industry to address the climate crisis.

The resources and tools were readily available and had been widely absorbed, he said, but more was needed to see tangible results.

“I think the problem with sustainability in the last 20 years, perhaps, has been perfecting sustainability and so it can be very complex when you do everything simultaneously.

“And what we wanted to do was find some simple steps that everyone could win on, importantly that the planet could win on and other species could win on.”

The Guide to Going Carbon Neutral was developed outlining three steps and three deadlines:

  1. Switch to 100 per cent accredited GreenPower by January 30 2020
  2. Complete a carbon audit by June 30 2020
  3. Go carbon neutral by December 30 2020

A call to action was posted to hundreds of social media accounts in January.

What resulted was a whirlwind response that rippled as far as the hospitality industry, and saw some of Australia’s largest generators of carbon committing to the pledge.   

The plan that sparked a movement

From 2010 to 2013, more than 200 built environment professionals collaborated on a plan to retrofit every building in Australia as part of Beyond Zero Emission’s Zero Carbon Australia Buildings Plan.

The construction, operation and maintenance of buildings accounts for almost a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia, and people in the sector were realising immediate action was critical.

Sustainably built buildings produce 55 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions, use an average of 66 per cent less electricity and 51 per cent less water.

The plan challenged architects to surpass carbon neutrality and design buildings that  produced more energy than they consume.

Since the launch of BZE’s Buildings Plan, Architects Declare has been the largest spontaneous movement of professionals focused on building improvements.

Architect and Beyond Zero Emission’s Million Jobs Plan lead, Heidi Lee, says in-house steps will only reinforce the importance of sustainable buildings.

“Larger wins can be found by architects designing buildings that perform above minimum code compliance – the stamp of architects on the built environment is huge in the commercial and public buildings sectors,” she said.

“Firms taking these steps towards minimising their operational carbon footprint are heading in the right direction, and moving in this direction at home can help reinforce to all staff working in architect offices that they need to take serious measures to improve energy performance on every project that the office delivers for clients.”

How to go Carbon Neutral

When Architects Declare held their Melbourne meeting, carbon was on everyone’s mind.

“We decided the single most important thing that we had to talk about was carbon, and if we had any chance at all of being net zero by 2030 as a profession then we needed to start on that journey immediately,” McLeod said.

“We broke it down into three easy steps and then we gave three simple deadlines to be able to achieve those things.”

The first was to switch to 100 per cent accredited GreenPower, a move McLeod says is the “single most important thing” the architecture industry can do.

“Generally, in an [architectural] office the single biggest portion of your carbon emissions is your power, so if you’re buying 100 per cent GreenPower with no carbon associated with it then you’ve already massively reduced your carbon footprint,” he said.

“And by doing step one towards your carbon neutral plan you’re actually making step two easier.”

Major emphasis is placed on certified GreenPower that is independently audited.

Not only does ditching fossil-fuel based electricity help drive investment in Australia’s renewable energy sector, but certified GreenPower is produced with little-to-no environmental impact and does not dispense greenhouse gases into the air contributing to global warming.

GreenPower suppliers Enova Energy and PowerShop are highlighted in the guide and McLeod cautions against suppliers like AGL or Energy Australia, “two of the country’s biggest polluters.”

“The next big thing is embarking on a carbon audit to understand your carbon position – without understanding how much carbon you are putting into the environment how do you know how to fix that,” McLeod said.

“When you have a carbon audit done you can then adjust your actions so you can reduce your own carbon footprint.”

Breathe Architecture engaged the Carbon Reduction Institute to measure the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted by their office over the year.

They were asked simple questions about where their energy comes from, how they travel to work, how often they fly, or if they separate their waste to ensure organics are kept from landfill.

“The great thing about a carbon audit is you don’t have to be an expert in any of those things, an auditor does the audit and gives you a set of recommendations about how to reduce your carbon footprint, tells you what your carbon position is and then helps you broker a deal to buy the right carbon offsets for your business,” McLeod said.

“And so the last step is buying the carbon offsets. December 30 is the last deadline, so that by the end of 2020 we’re carbon neutral – incredibly simple.”

Inspiring change

The guide also details actionable steps that can be taken immediately such as updating appliances, changing light bulbs and cycling to work.

Within the first week following the first mass call to arms on social media, more than 800 practices publicly committed to going carbon neutral in 2020, including John Wardle Architects and ARM Architecture.

Then construction companies, art galleries, cafes, and town planners jumped on board.

More than 90 building practices have signed onto a new Builders Declare movement – a monumental step forward in the fight against climate change, with the sector now accounting for nearly 40 per cent of emissions globally.

Despite the guide being actionable across a myriad of sectors and offices, McLeod still sees challenges ahead as people strive for perfect, immediate solutions to a complex crisis.

“We’re seeing all these allied industries saying ‘well if architects can do it, why can’t we?’” McLeod said. “It’s absolutely adaptable to any industry.”

“But what I expect is that some people will say well we shouldn’t just be talking about carbon, we should be talking about regenerative design, we should be talking more about bio-diversity or being carbon positive.

“It is easy to say what we are not doing rather than saying what we are doing, I think it is important we all see this as a step towards the perfect end rather than an imperfect solution.

“It’s not the solution, it is a step on the journey.”

Roxanne Fitzgerald contributed this article on behalf of Beyond Zero Emissions.

Breathe Architecture has offered to sponsor carbon offsets to enable The Fifth Estate to become carbon neutral.

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  1. The problem with this is that it completely ignores embodied carbon in buildings which, by a number of estimates, makes up perhaps 50% of the entire carbon budget of a building. Without considering the climate impact of the materials — from extraction to construction-site waste — that went into a building, it can never be considered carbon neutral.

  2. Good article, and important leadership. But what’s wrong with AGL and Energy Australia? They both have carbon neutral certified supply options, so shouldn’t we be rewarding rather than punishing them for taking a step in the right direction? If their efforts are ignored, then doesn’t that reinforce the perception that people don’t really care about this when it comes to the bottom dollar? Energy Australia does it for no additional cost, AGL’s is an extra dollar a week. I’m not affiliated with either. Everyone needs to be brought along this journey, particularly the very big industry players.