Relearning is now vital for the built environment industry

Sam Wood
Why is relearning vital now - in time for COP26?

Now COP26 has arrived, Professor Henrik Schoenefeldt of the Kent School of Architecture and Planning, reflects on the challenges for the build environment and explains why relearning will be essential for the future of architecture globally. He said:

‘As world leaders meet for COP26, the endeavour to keep global warming two-degrees below pre-industrial levels shows that decarbonisation of the built environment is critical. The industry must reduce emissions resulting from construction and operation of buildings, and challenge vehicle-dominance in urban design.

‘To achieve these goals, current practices in architecture must be fundamentally transformed. Current approaches are strongly influenced by the 20th Century, and changes cannot be confined to minor tweaks. The necessary changes will not only affect the physical form of buildings and cities but also the way we approach the design, construction and operation of buildings.

‘The overarching challenge for the industry is therefore to engage in relearning. The climate emergency requires architects and other built environment professionals to redirect their creativity towards achieving resource-efficient solutions.

‘In the UK’s larger cities, a regular approach is to demolish existing buildings rather than extending or adapting them. The common argument that older buildings are less energy efficient overlooks the fact that the construction of new buildings can emit large quantities of carbon. The production of steel, brick and concrete can be highly carbon intensive.

‘We also need a different approach for decarbonising historic buildings. Coverage on historic buildings emphasises their energy inefficiency but this imposes modern expectations on buildings designed to follow different principles.

‘Historic buildings require an approach to environmental design grounded in an understanding of how buildings in the past were designed and operated; working with historic principles.

‘Designers and developers are keen to announce the environmental credential of new projects, but buildings rarely perform as intended. Only a small proportion of new buildings undergo performance evaluations, resulting in few architects knowing how their designs are performing. They do not have data about the quantities of carbon emissions their projects are producing or if new, supposedly low-carbon buildings, are meeting the target designers and clients had set.

‘This knowledge gap is a major barrier to an evidence-based design of the built environment. Intimately intertwined with this issue of evidence-based practice is also the need to establish a new culture of cross-industry learning. Architects cannot establish this culture change alone. It can only be achieved through a closer and more long-term partnership between those who design, operate and use buildings.

‘The climate crisis is fundamentally an educational crisis, which applies to architects and all professions involved in the creation and maintenance of the built environment.’

Henrik Schoenefeldt, Professor of Sustainable Architecture,

Henrik Schoenefeldt is a Professor of Sustainable Architecture and AHRC Leadership Fellow at the Kent School of Architecture and Planning. He is currently leading a large AHRC funded project investigating the Houses of Parliament’s historic ventilation system.  The project, entitled ‘Between Heritage and Sustainability – Restoring the Palace of Westminster’s nineteenth-century ventilation system’, feeds into the Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal Programme.