As the climate crisis intensifies, the world needs to change – and our industry has a responsibility to lead the way. I am confident that we can do so, says Sadie Morgan
The past year has been a transitional one. After the shock of the pandemic, in 2021 we have moved into a hybrid way of living and working. We have realised that we still want to travel, eat out, hug each other and have face-to-face discussions, all in the knowledge that we have the faculty to separate if we need to.
This new condition has had a bearing on how lightly or heavily we tread on the planet. Everything we do has impact – including our move towards a new normality.
In November the BBC reported that, due to 2020’s lockdowns, the amount of planet-heating gas released fell by 5.4%. In the same breath, the Global Carbon Project predicted that the rise of CO2 emissions in 2021 will reach 4.9%.
2022 should be a year when the most powerful leaders of our world transition humanity from a default position of intense carbon reliance to one of carbon resilience
This should raise alarm bells. It should remind us that, aside from a transition back to a life of balance and wellbeing, 2022 should also be a year when the most powerful leaders of our world transition humanity from a default position of intense carbon reliance to one of carbon resilience.
The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, intended to serve as the catalyst for this move. Much has been written about its agenda and envisioned outcomes, and only time will spell out the conference’s true impact.
But what it has done, through widespread media attention and by popular osmosis, is further entrench climate action as the most urgent priority on humanity’s agenda.
It has also given our industry a nudge to identify our own need for transition. Being responsible for 40% of carbon emissions in the UK alone, architecture and construction must accelerate its shift towards net zero carbon building. My three takeaways from COP26 – and from 2021 in general – that can help us to do this are:
Take collaborative action, don’t just talk about it
When introducing the RIBA’s Built for the Environment report this year in the RIBA Journal, Phoebe MacDonald highlighted the industry’s need to amplify “sharing information, breaking down silos, adapting behaviours and changing our approach to designing and building”.
Interdisciplinary communication and expertise are things I have advocated for many years, demonstrating their importance through cross-disciplinary, design-focused advisory groups at infrastructure level. This now needs to become the rule not the exception.
It works at every scale. Within our practice at dRMM, when our designers worked directly and collaboratively with engineers and suppliers, we were able to bring a new material to the cross-laminated timber market. Tulipwood CLT was first used in our London Design Festival project, Endless Stair. It later became the dominant material in our design for Maggie’s Oldham, making the centre the first permanent building to be made from sustainable hardwood CLT. This could not have happened if we had not committed to working collaboratively.
Make focused change
The scale of the climate crisis often seems insurmountable, with efforts to do better feeling like a mere drop in the ocean of what needs to change. To help keep focused, it is important for industry professionals to identify what they can do “best” to combat the problem. For dRMM, that focus has always been about using more timber in construction.
Over the past two decades, we have steadily researched, built with and advocated for timber. Using and promoting timber in building is certainly not all we are doing, but it is an area we have worked on with huge determination, beginning construction in engineered timber long before it became a mainstream material.
It is now finally becoming known as a vital ingredient to building more sustainably. That is a huge win for the industry and a demonstration of how persistence can convert into measurable change. In the words of the RIBA’s new president Simon Allford, as he reported from the COP26 events, “now we all need to return to practice and get very specific”.
Change what ‘normal’ means
We have seen that adapting is something we know how to do. Climate adaptation will be our biggest challenge over the coming decades.
At the current level of warming, melting ice caps will see sea levels rise by almost half a metre. It is expected that weather will become more extreme; there will be more droughts, more heatwaves, wildfires will become fiercer, and so on.
We cannot go on living, working, and even designing, for the climate we know now. We must adapt to an altered scenario.
And we can. Initiatives, pledges and declarations go a long way to help us build a picture of what the future needs to look like. Aside from all the knowledge and awareness groups that exist to help practitioners make the way they design and build more sustainable, there are also initiatives that can guide on how to operate as a business using less carbon.
I am optimistic about what we can achieve and see strength in the changes we have already made
This year, dRMM signed up to the SME Race to Net Zero challenge, committing to three key objectives. These are to halve our own greenhouse gas emissions before 2030; to achieve net zero emissions before 2050; and to disclose our progress on an annual basis. This is just one way that practices across the board could begin adapting to a new set of circumstances.
In his powerful speech at the COP26 summit, Sir David Attenborough reminded us of our position as “the greatest problem solvers to have ever existed on Earth”. I share this belief and outlook. I am optimistic about what we can achieve and see strength in the changes we have already made. This year was one of transition, the next must be one of direct, amplified and empowered action.
Sadie Morgan is a co-founding director of dRMM, chair of the Quality of Life Foundation and a design advocate for the GLA