Tackling climate change means listening to younger voices - 18-02-2020


The new decade has begun with a collective awakening to a serious problem. 863 UK architects have signed up to Architects Declare, demonstrating consensus that tackling climate change should be the focus of our profession. Yet as we face the perfect storm: climate emergency, biodiversity erosion, and social divide, it is clear that radical change in the way we design and make buildings is needed.

In our studio, we are grappling daily with the challenges presented by the climate emergency. dRMM is a steady ambassador for sustainable design and construction, but we’ve recently turned up the volume dramatically, contributed to the debate and changed our design process in order to learn more – and do more – about the crises at hand.

Despite real headway being made, the concept of progress in our industry still reminds me of the German car industry’s approach to innovation: sticking to a redundant century-old model and dragging it into the future via new designs, materials, and manufacturing.

The same attitude rings true during discussions on climate action. Focus predominantly lies with grafting solutions onto systems we are not ready to change. The discussion on swapping out concrete for more sustainable materials illustrates this attitude perfectly. It is certainly a positive and legitimate argument – one that dRMM has been making for twenty years – but it comes a little too late, representing a clear-cut case of missing the wood for the trees.

The problem is bigger. It requires radical change and questioning of old habits, design favourites and default processes. As an industry, we can no longer rely on legislative change to trickle down and eventually reduce the impact of our industry. We need to let go of the construction paradigm we have come to depend on and acknowledge its growing irrelevance.

Our industry contributes 40% of the UK’s CO2, much of it through embodied carbon, and therefore through our designs and the way we make buildings. The current reality was created by us. Constraining positive change through arguments of commercial necessity is no longer an acceptable exercise. Change has to be more than incremental.

Luckily, these challenges coincide with the rise of a new generation of talent – one that is nimble, non-dogmatic, and inclined to seize opportunities that come with change. If the global climate effort has shown us anything, it’s that youth and young adults are completely ready to abandon the status quo. They are not bound to it, because they had little to do with creating it. Their generation is enormously adaptable to change, and they have rightfully asserted themselves as leaders against this environmental catastrophe.

dRMM’s studio has always encouraged young talent to impact design, influence debate, and challenge pre-conceptions. We provide a space for collaboration and problem-solving, void of taboos and embracing of debate as fertile ground for innovation. In this same spirit, we have fostered a studio environment that doubles as a platform for climate advocacy.

Our team includes active members of some of the industry’s most significant climate lobby groups. Representatives from ACAN (Architects Climate Action Network) and LETI (London Energy Transformation Initiative) within our team have been given both license and encouragement to bring their knowledge and activism into the studio, helping to meaningfully integrate it into our practice. Some of our youngest team members have been crucially involved in the creation of the Climate Emergency Design Guide and Embodied Carbon Primer documents; both recently launched and well received by the industry. We have team members attending the Committee for Climate Change, and representation within Architects Declare Steering group. Our young members of staff are charged with planning our environmentally focused events diary and CPDs. They also champion our studio’s in-house climate action efforts, coordinating a carbon audit to review our carbon footprint.

As a founding signatory for Architects Declare, we’ve made it our aim to liberate ourselves from a system that no longer works and replace it with realistic problem-solving. The younger generation represent all the tools we need to actively change our situation – collaboration, openness, resourcefulness, and a touch of irreverence. We need to embrace the help of our younger colleagues by leaving our pride at the door, accepting culpability, and listening. Only then can we tackle the challenge of climate emergency, biodiversity erosion and social division.