Architects Can

Adaptions beyond mere survival

By Sam Turner, Architects Climate Action Network

We acknowledge the scientific consensus, the complexity of the climate emergency and the significant part our built environment plays in the problem.

— Sam Turner

Sam Turner is an architect based in London working for Webb Yates Engineers and with a strong belief in trans-disciplinary practice. He has worked on projects of various scales and styles with his attention now focused towards helping other design teams calculate and reduce the embodied carbon of their projects. In ACAN, Sam coordinates the Carbon Literacy working group and has roles in numerous other groups.

At the 2020 Creative Exchange, Sam Turner of the Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN) presented a newly-formed initiative that facilitates direct action by architects and others in the building industry to combat the climate emergency. ACAN is not just a pressure group, its aim is to facilitate change by providing practical support and advice to individuals and organisations looking to clean up their act in an industry that is one of the world’s worst polluters.

Construction is responsible for 39 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions globally.1 The average UK citizen’s carbon footprint is 8.3 tonnes of CO2e per year,2 while the average new home in the UK has an embodied carbon measurement of around 54 tonnes CO2e – before it is even occupied.3 Around the world, numbers differ but the challenge is the same: architects and other built environment professionals have far greater responsibility and agency than most to make a difference to the destruction we are causing to our biosphere.

There is now a growing global movement calling on our leaders to act upon the overwhelming scientific evidence. The Architects Climate Action Network was founded to give a voice to architectural workers and redress the way our built environment is made, operated and renewed as a matter of urgency. Starting in London, but now spreading globally, our organisation is a place for everyone who cares about the crisis to come together and work on a solution; no matter their experience, qualifications or background. We acknowledge the scientific consensus, the complexity of the climate emergency and the significant part our built environment plays in the problem. As a voluntary network of individuals, we channel personal energy, expertise and singular efforts towards a common goal.

ACAN operates without commercial affiliations or support, allowing us to act at pace and with autonomy. As an open, supportive and inclusive organisation, ACAN empowers its members to proactively create changes they deem necessary. We seek to redefine the culture and values of our profession and embed regenerative thinking in our practice through a platform built on collaboration and knowledge sharing.

We have three overarching aims that drive everything we do:

  1. Rapid Decarbonisation
    We seek to radically transform the regulatory, economic and cultural system in which our built environment is constructed and operated in order to facilitate lower carbon emissions starting with immediate effect.
  2. Ecological Regeneration
    We demand the immediate adoption of regenerative and ecological principles in order to green the built environment: prioritising communities and ecosystems at risk and promoting the recovery and restoration of natural ecosystems.
  3. Cultural Transformation
    We call for a complete remodelling of our professional culture. We must challenge and redefine the value systems at the heart of our industry and education system. We seek to create an open network to share resources and knowledge to aid in this transition.

As we seek wide-ranging cultural transformation, we practice honesty, transparency, equality and empathy in all that we do.
At our regular, open meetings everyone’s voice can be heard, we offer practical and emotional support and resources at no cost. We recognise that everyone has a part to play and allow people to find a role no matter their circumstances, standing in the industry or previous experience.

Architects Can

Open Meeting. Image: Keith Van Loen

By creating a far-reaching network of engaged and active practitioners we aim to generate ideas and action with a broad variety of people and tactics. The problems we identify in the construction industry are wide-ranging and complex but generally comprise an overly intensive use of fossil fuel energy, lack of regard for the impact on the environment or future generations and dis-empowerment of those outside the murky depths of the procurement system. We see radical change as coming from the root of the issue and requiring an understanding of the entire system, therefore our areas of work are wide-ranging but targeted for maximum impact. Campaign groups have formed to tackle issues including, but not limited to: conservation area planning reform; changing VAT rates to incentivise refurbishment (currently rated at 20 percent in the UK) over new buildings (currently rated at 0 percent in the UK); encouraging retrofit over demolition; promoting circular economy principles; embedding carbon limits into building regulations; protecting and promoting the use of natural materials; building better literacy with respect to climate science in the industry and more.

By dividing into groups we can dedicate the time and energy to a single chunk of the systemic issue undertaking the research and organisation necessary to build an effective campaign in the understanding that there are other people working on the other pressing issues. All are welcome to join, find a topic that they wish to contribute to or build their own campaign. Coordinators from each group come together to ensure a strategic focus is maintained and resources are managed. It is with this non-hierarchical and voluntary system that we adapt, act with speed and channel our energy into the most effective levers for change across such a broad range of issues.

ACAN recognises that there are a multitude of groups working on climate, ecological or equality issues within the industry and we place importance on open communication to ensure that we work together, in our own ways but without too much duplication. We are part of an ecosystem driving for a better future and need to build a system that connects and supports the collective effort. Therefore, we have close ties with other organisations advocating for change, working with individuals and institutions in the construction industry as well as those outside, most notably Extinction Rebellion (XR).

“All are welcome to join, find a topic that they wish to contribute to or build their own campaign.”

One of our first campaigns took us directly to the Architect’s Registration Board (ARB) headquarters. One of our founding members, Tom Bennett, was arrested for peacefully blockading Westminster Bridge as part of the April 2019 XR uprising and later convicted of a public order offence. As a registered architect he was obliged to report this to the ARB. ACAN rallied to support Tom, writing an open letter to the ARB signed by 770 individuals including high profile UK architects.4 Our engagement was well received by the registrar and recommendations taken to the board. This demonstrated early on that organisations are ready to change, those with responsibility understand that the system is not working, and many are ready to make alterations but may need a nudge to get the process rolling.

“Organisations are ready to change, those with responsibility understand that the system is not working, and many are ready to make alterations but may need a nudge to get the process rolling.”

Architects Can

Members of acan hand their open letter to the Ministry of Communities and Local Government responding to the Future Homes consultation. Image: David Morris

In this context, some of the proposals address the “utopian promise to provide every Soviet family with its own apartment” and attempt to imagine futures for the stock of prefabricated house-machines.4 Obviously, we can now have a critical view on the homogenising nature and forms of oppression embedded in these architectures. Yet, where are our current ideas for providing housing for the majority? And for bringing the majority to the table(s)?

Whereas some propose to design alternative tables, such as platforms that steer the conversation between agents in the construction and habitation processes, most architects seem to have ambiguous positions when seated at the table: aiming to be critical while wanting to be part of the same structures and systems they criticise.

“We simply must.”

ACAN has grown rapidly over its first year, with hundreds of people now regularly involved. At the time of writing, ACAN meetings have had attendees from over 15 different countries, with chapters planning to launch in Scandinavia, France, Portugal, Australia and Romania.
The level of engagement illustrates the scale of concern that people have and the understanding that business as usual is simply not good enough. We are an example of the power of connecting people, creating equality and working together to build change. We are moving more rapidly than we imagined possible, reaching people and places we only dreamed of a year ago and are hopefully on our way to transforming the culture and values of our industry. There is a very long and difficult road ahead but one step at a time, together, we have faith that we will reshape the way we build, work and live. We simply must. 

1 “2019 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction”, World Green Building Council, 11th December 2019, online worldgbc.org/news-media/2019-global-status-report-buildings-and-construction (accessed May 10, 2020).
2 “Average Brit will emit more by 12 January than residents of seven African countries do in a year”, Oxfam, 6th January 2020, accessible online oxfamapps.org/media/press_release/average-brit-will-emit-more-by-12-january-than-residents-of-seven-african-countries-do-in-a-year/ (accessed May 10, 2020).
3 Empty Homes Agency, “New Tricks With Old Bricks; How reusing old buildings can cut carbon emissions”, Build Up, 23 April 2012, online world-habitat.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/New-Tricks-with-Old-Bricks1.pdf (accessed May 10, 2020).
4 The open letter to the ARB and signatories can be viewed at architectscan.org/tombennett (accessed August 3, 2020).
5 The ACAN guidance on changes to the UK government building regulations can be found at architectscan.org/part-l (accessed August 3, 2020).

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