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What role do architects and urban planners have to play in creating low-carbon and climate-sustainable architecture?

15 of July '22

Article fromA&B 06 | 2022 issue

What role do architects and urban planners have to play in creating low-carbon and climate-sustainable architecture?

In answering, I would first like to quote Jacques Herzog's statement to a rather similar question posed to him by David Chipperfield:

"Dear David, You ask me what we architects should do about the unmistakably impending environmental catastrophe. About social inequality. About poverty. About the degradation of this planet "s resources. About the pandemic, which has placed us in an almost surreal mode that begs description. All of which is being managed by political leaders, whose cynicism and absurd actions put the Marx Brothers to shame.
Dear David, the answer is: nothing.ˮ
("Domus," 13.10.202)

And indeed, it seems that our role is marginal. Sure, we can boast of one or two aesthetically pleasing low-carbon projects, but their real impact on the overall issue is probably close to zero, and on principle they can be lumped into the category of "good practices" and boosting our own egos with a few architectural awards. But the rest of the projects, there's no getting around it, business as usual.

And if you look at what industry we're in, the field is excellent. The construction industry accounts for 39 percent of total CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, and building materials alone account for almost 11 percent! According to the IPCC's 2021 report, at this point we have a 50 percent chance of meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, i.e. minimizing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And it should be emphasized that we are fighting against time. For example, Denmark, which wants to be carbon-neutral by 2050, will use up its CO2 limit as early as 2036. And at this point, it's worth citing Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who heavily promotes the use of organic construction materials, as he notes that buildings can't just minimize impact or be only carbon neutral - they must be non-positive or, as he writes, regenerative. We must completely change our design dogmas.

Nor can we act as individuals. In Denmark, social and environmental pressure has led to a new building law that sets very ambitious targets for the carbon footprint of buildings. And this is a law that everyone has to deal with, not only architects, but also investors.

Looking from the perspective of a large Scandinavian practice, the role of the architect is also changing. We are increasingly being put in the role of facilitator. We don't know the answers to all questions, but we know how to ask the right ones. Solving climate problems at the scale of urban planning or architecture quite often requires specialized knowledge. We also have to remember to be responsible, it's very easy to drive a green narrative that, when analyzed more deeply, is nothing but greenwashing. That's why we work in increasingly interdisciplinary teams. In our office we say that wedesign with knowledge (design with knowledge).

Looking at the trends of the last few years, we see that the effects of climate change can no longer be solved at the level of architecture alone, it starts at the level of urban planning and good urban planning, working diligently with local governments and investors. It requires daily education of ourselves and others. Constant experimentation, making mistakes and learning lessons. We are turning in a new matter, in a new reality.


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