The energy required to construct and run buildings is responsible for nearly 40 per cent of global carbon emissions. Can the green-architecture boom slow the tide?by Andrew Dickson / January 25, 2020 / Leave a comment
In May 2019, many of the UK’s leading architecture practices released a statement declaring that humanity was in the midst of a climate emergency, and that architects urgently needed to address the subject. “The twin crises of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss are the most serious issue of our time,” the statement read, responding to the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which declared that humanity had just 12 years before the situation became irreversible.
The group, calling itself “Architects Declare,” published an 11-point manifesto. Its goals ranged from modest ones (minimising construction waste, monitoring energy use) to loftier ambitions such as adopting “regenerative” design and minimising “life-cycle” footprint—from the amount of CO2 it takes to make concrete or quarry stone to the energy expended by demolition. One suggestion, particularly controversial for an industry used to getting rid of old buildings and starting afresh, was that existing structures should be repurposed and retrofitted rather than knocked down.
Initially, 17 firms signed up, among them “starchitects” such as Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, David Chipperfield and the practice founded by the late Zaha Hadid. Within weeks, nearly 500 firms were on board. The Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) joined, followed by American and Australian firms. In October, the UK’s most prestigious architecture award, the Stirling Prize, went to an unglamorous council house scheme in Norwich built according to a standard known as Passivhaus (literally “Passive House” in German), which encourages ultra-low energy buildings.
One veteran I spoke to couldn’t believe how rapidly things had changed. “For a long time,” she said, “people saw sustainable architecture as bird-watching sanctuaries in Norfolk. Now everyone’s talking about it.”
No one doubts that architects and the construction industry have a lot to answer for. According to the World Green Building Council, the energy required to construct buildings and run them is responsible for nearly 40 per cent of global carbon emissions—far more than all the world’s cars, planes and other vehicles. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of CO2 after China and the United States. Concrete, the most widely used human-made material, is astoundingly carbon-intensive—a cubic metre produces enough CO2 to fill a detached house. It is also a so-called “threat multiplier”—worsening flooding, increasing pollution, and smothering biodiversity under a thick…