Architects, contractors and engineers are declaring a climate emergency. But what should firms – and industry — do now?


I have always been concerned about the effect of my work on resources and I learnt at an early age in BuroHappold that good engineering “touches the earth lightly”. But despite developing a better understanding of the effect our industry has on the planet, we have collectively let things get out of control. 

As individual businesses we must take responsibility for changing our behaviour

So, when I heard that the UK’s architects were declaring a climate emergency, it was clear we engineers had to do the same. During a train journey with Steve Tompkins, director of Haworth Tompkins, on the day he pressed the launch button for, I became focused on driving forward a series of engineering declarations. These record the commitments of firms across structural, building services and civil engineering.

All declarations, UK and international, can now be accessed here..

You might perceive “construction declares” as a step too far. You might even accuse us of jumping on the climate emergency bandwagon. But you need bandwagons to get the wheels of change in motion. In fact, they can be very positive – provided the energy behind them is harnessed to good effect. The challenge now is to turn our collective words of commitment into tangible actions.

But what happens next? While the movement as a whole creates a sense of accountability among signatories, as individual businesses we must take responsibility for changing our behaviour in line with the commitments we have made. 

We need to look at our own ecological impact – we can’t expect the world to change unless we also change ourselves. We each need to review our carbon footprints by looking at how we work, how we use and conserve energy, how we manage our waste, and we need to set our own net zero carbon deadlines. It’s simple stuff that, as responsible businesses, we should be doing anyway, but  it’s an important step.

We also should approach each project we work on with its social and ecological effects at the forefront of our minds. We need to assess a project’s carbon footprint and identify any aspects that can be measured, setting targets for reduction. This means stepping outside the familiar territory of design priorities we are used to. 

Collaboration across disciplines is key. Teams need to share best practice and exchange information far more liberally. We need to raise our game across the whole sector or we will achieve nothing - this is not a time to hide behind ‘competitive edge’. We must help our institutions become centres of knowledge and sharing; help our universities and colleges better prepare young engineers for the job ahead. We all need to know how to engineer for the planet and its inhabitants, as well as for safety, resilience and economy. We already have greater understanding and better tools than ever before, but we have to develop them further and use them without fail on every project.

Finally, we need to change the conversations we have with our clients and have the confidence to move beyond our current field of influence. In an emergency we need to be emboldened. This is an opportunity for experts from across our sector to work with government, be it local or national, to advise, guide and play an integral role in setting targets and identifying how those targets can be met.

These are crucial steps forward we can all take, but to effect real cultural change in our organisations we must encourage a movement for change from within. Everyone needs to believe in the urgent need for change, and they need to sense their own responsibility. Leadership can facilitate, inform and encourage but the belief must be deeper and in everyone. This is a ‘movement’ – we need everyone to move together for it to work.

Mike Cook, partner in BuroHappold Engineering