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Catherine Zielonko-Jung on the role of architects in creating climate sustainable architecture

18 of July '22

Article fromA&B 06 | 2022 issue

Virtually every area of human life today requires an environmental reevaluation. The principle of the circular economy wants us to look at every item produced and service offered differently than before. How much do we burden the environment by producing a product, using it and disposing of it? What benefits does the existence of this product provide?

Buildings and urban infrastructure are among the most problematic products in terms of adapting to the ideas of circularity and sustainability. They are large-dimensional products, energy-intensive at every stage of existence, technologically complex, and heavily interfere with the land and local microclimatic conditions. In addition, they have been in existence long enough that what goes beyond the next several years seems vague and uncertain. Contributing architects and urban planners have a very important role to play in the effort to lower their environmental footprint. Especially since the doctrine of industrial civilization has moved architecture very far away from models that recognize nature, including the local climate, as an obvious factor influencing design decisions.

However, it is worth realizing that buildings, estates or neighborhoods, when viewed broadly over the cycle of their existence, are co-created by many professional groups in addition to architects - by business people, civil and other engineers, local government activists, administrative staff, managers, and finally the users themselves. So it is important to define the role of the architect against this broad background. What responsibility does he have and what is the importance of his competence in the whole process? Although there is still a conviction among architects that when designing a building he becomes "the boss of everything," this myth is slowly becoming a thing of the past and is no longer compatible with the realities of the modern construction market. The peculiarity of the architect's role is that he creates one coherent spatial vision of a building subject to many different criteria. The criteria that the architect is directly familiar with and can control are the functionality of the building and its aesthetic expression. All the rest of the criteria, and the deeper we understand the environmental objectives, the more of this rest there are, fall under the competence of other specialists.

Thus, the role of the architect can be viewed in two ways - as a sector specialist in the field of architecture, and as a person who can coordinate the many different threads that make up the final product, which is a building, neighborhood or district.

As an industry specialist in the field of architecture, an architect should be able to take advantage of all possibilities within the scope of his or her competence to ensure that the buildings he or she designs have the least possible harmful impact on the environment. There is a rich palette of architectural and urban planning solutions that have a real, estimable impact on reducing the environmental footprint of buildings. These relate, for example, to the formation of the body of the building and its interior spaces, its positioning in relation to its surroundings, the layout of functions, façade solutions and materials. These are so-called passive solutions, which generally do not increase the cost of the building. Architects still reach for them astonishingly rarely, believing that it is the increasingly sophisticated installations and additional centimeters of insulation, something they are only indirectly responsible for, that are supposed to prevent an environmental disaster. This is a convenient assumption, but unfortunately wrong. It is the decisions made at the very early stage of design concepts that matter most for the environmental footprint, and all subsequent decisions can only make the situation better or worse. Architects should therefore be open to continuous education in this area, to new tools to support their architectural craft, and to interdisciplinary cooperation from the earliest stages of a project. Unfortunately, the situation of the architectural profession in Poland is not conducive to these requirements. Study and conceptual projects are treated as a low-value product, needed right now, for which the architect can be paid with a vague promise of an order for further stages of the project in the future. Changing this situation should be a priority challenge for the Chamber of Architects, unfortunately this is not the case.

The architect, as the person who coordinates many threads beyond the one he or she knows best, has another important role in implementing the idea of balancing. The uniqueness of the architectural profession is related to the broad spectrum of issues to which it must be sensitive and in which it must be well versed. It is one of the few professions that combines strands of the humanities, social sciences, sciences, economics and strands of art. This is a very good basis for attempting to comprehend the complex interrelationships between the various issues affecting the environmental footprint of buildings. The role of the architect is to combine them, analyze them, critically discuss them, reliably compare solutions and various possible scenarios. This requires drawing on the knowledge of many different specialists and treating it as equally valid as his own.

Katarzyna Zielonko-Jung

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