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Architects declare Australia: More than just zero emissions

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

By Caroline Pidcock, Director, Pidcock Pty Ltd, with significant input from Verity Campbell and Ran Boydell

How times are a changing. When I undertook my Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship in 2009–2010 on “The Architecture of (Net) Zero Emissions Housing”, there were not that many people in our profession actively pursuing, or interested, in such a topic.

Now, 10 years later, architects have banded together globally to take a leadership position on sustainability. Much more than just zero emissions, Architects Declare is an international call to action to acknowledge the twin crises of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss as the most serious issues of our time. Within one month of launch in Australia, almost 500 architects – including 12 Australian Institute of Architects’ gold medallists, and Australia’s Pritzker Architecture prize winner – had pledged to take action. At the time of writing, this has increased to 666.

These are not just the die-hard environmentalists of our profession, but the widest possible range of architects who all realise they can – and must – be part of the solution of these crises.

The first declaration was made on 30 May 2019 by the 17 Stirling Prize-winning architects in the United Kingdom. A group of Australian architects and associated professionals approached the group to replicate the declaration in Australia, where it was launched on 25 July 2019, the third in the world. The declaration has since expanded to other countries, including Norway, Italy, Iceland, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland and Canada, and similar declarations have now been made by engineers, landscape architects, students, educators and other consultants throughout the world via www.constructiondeclares.com.

For everyone working in the construction industry, meeting the needs of our society without breaching the Earth’s ecological boundaries will demand a paradigm shift in our behaviour. Together with our clients, we will need to commission and design buildings, cities and infrastructures as indivisible components of a larger, constantly regenerating and self-sustaining system.

The research and technology exist for us to begin that transformation now, but what has been lacking is collective will. Architects Declare Australia harnesses, nurtures and builds collective will to advance the demand for knowledge and catalyse action. Architects Declare Australia brings the profession together to find ways to raise awareness, advocate, establish principles and new initiatives, and share knowledge and research.

Each organisation has agreed to consider what this means for its practice, staff and its work in the future, and how it will:

  • raise awareness of the climate and biodiversity emergencies, and the urgent need for action among our clients and supply chains
  • advocate for faster change in our industry towards regenerative design practices and a higher governmental funding priority to support this
  • establish climate and biodiversity mitigation principles as the key measure of our industry’s success, demonstrated through awards, prizes and listings
  • share knowledge and research to that end on an open-source basis
  • evaluate all new projects against the aspiration to contribute positively to mitigating climate breakdown and encourage our clients to adopt this approach
  • upgrade existing buildings for extended use as a more carbon-efficient alternative to demolition and new build, whenever there is a viable choice
  • include life cycle costing, whole-life carbon modelling and post-occupancy evaluation as part of our basic scope of work, to reduce both embodied and operational resource use
  • adopt more regenerative design principles in our studios, with the aim of designing architecture and urbanism that goes beyond the standard of net zero carbon in use
  • collaborate with engineers, contractors and clients to further reduce construction waste
  • accelerate the shift to materials with low embodied carbon in all our work
  • minimise wasteful use of resources in architecture and urban planning.

Importantly, the Australian Declaration introduced a new point to the original and founding declaration from the United Kingdom: we acknowledge that we, as architects, are aware that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have long espoused the cultural, social, economic and environmental benefits embedded in the holistic relationship of Caring for Country.

The movement is spontaneous, de-centralised and non-hierarchical, and is disruptive. Instead of relying on governing bodies or associations to take the lead, it urges each architect to take responsibility for the action in their own lives and practices. Through inverting the traditional method of advocacy and policy deployment, the movement fosters a bottom-up approach to community-led change-making.

As Chair of 1 Million Women, a group that is all about helping women to build a lifestyle revolution to fight the climate crisis through daily actions, I understand how empowering it is to just start and act. As actions succeed, we find it is not so hard and we are energised to do more. Architects will find their own collective power to creatively make architecture that is also better for our clients and the planet.

We are excited about the opportunities that can be realised through a regenerative and collaborative approach to our work, that is deeply based in the Indigenous understanding of a holistic relationship of Caring for Country. We hope that architectural practice, and the ecosystem in which it operates, will be changed forever and moved in the right direction by this highly energised movement, which is right for this time.

This article was originally published in Facility Perspectives Vol 13 No 4.