The Architects' Role in Addressing the Climate Emergency

The construction industry in the UK has undergone significant changes over the last 30 years. In the past 15 years, there has been a shift towards digital technologies that enable analysis and optimisation. However, the industry is now facing another transformation as it seeks to address the climate crisis. 

In the past there was little consideration given to the production of greenhouse gases in the design, construction, and operation of buildings. Waste and inefficiency were not considered, and there needed to be more integration between design and construction. Facilities management was given little thought, and stage L of the RIBA Plan of Work was typically ignored.

Still, there is now a need to consider new buildings' environmental impact and assess whether existing buildings can be reused to reduce embodied carbon emissions. The operational costs of new buildings should also be considered, including the carbon emissions associated with their operation.

The building and construction sector accounted for over 34% of global energy demand and around 37% of energy and process-related CO2 emissions in 2021.

The import value of raw building materials into the UK increased by 57 million pounds in 2019, with China being the main trade partner for construction material imports. In 2020, the UK produced approximately 8.05 million metric tons of cement, a significant contributor to carbon dioxide emissions.

Between 2015 and 2021, the global gross floor area of buildings increased by 24,000 square kilometres, whilst the sector's operational energy-related CO2 emissions reached ten gigatonnes of CO2 in 2021, an increase of 5% over 2020 levels.

Despite a 16% increase in investments in building energy efficiency to $237 billion in 2021, the sector's CO2 emissions and energy demand continue to rise, widening the gap between the sector's climate performance and the 2050 decarbonisation pathway.

The sector's emissions intensity (measured in kilograms of CO2 per square meter) decreased only slightly from 43 in 2015 to 40 in 2021, and energy intensity (measured in kilowatts per hour per square meter) declined from 153 in 2015 to 152 in 2021. 

Whilst progress is being made in Europe in new low-energy technologies, the new floor space is increasing faster. Therefore, we need to reduce the number of new buildings we construct and utilise the space we already have.

To achieve this, the architect is responsible for challenging all new construction and asking two critical questions; is the building required, and if so, how can the amount of space be minimised? 

Architects must use their creativity to consider how existing buildings can be reused. For example, how can underused office buildings be re-purposed following the pandemic? Or how can the retail space now underused due to changing shopping habits be brought back to life?

Every decision made when specifying materials needs to be carefully considered. Unfortunately, few manufacturers have Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) certification.

Architects are experts in the design and delivery of buildings; however, typically, little consideration is given to their operation. Typically, commissioning clients focus on capital with little understanding of operational cost. In the years ahead, architects must help clients to make lifecycle decisions, not only related to cost but also to social and environmental impact.

The construction sector has made good progress in environmental design in recent years. It can share this good practice with other countries at the beginning of their decarbonisation strategies after this is a global emergency, not isolated to our own countries.

Our challenge is to maintain global warming below 1.5 degrees in the years ahead, and clearly, the construction and property sectors have a long way to go, but we should be encouraged by some of the positive progress made in the UK.