London, United Kingdom
Masdar City, Abu Dhabi
Auckland, New Zealand
New York, New York
By Debby Ray
The climate emergency isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. That is to say, it is the lens through which everything is, or should be, seen.
Amidst elements of chaos in all reaches of society from the effects of the climate emergency, we begin a new decade of bewildering change and unprecedented challenges. Scarcely a year after the watershed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report: Global Warming of 1.50 C was unleashed in October 2018, we saw 12.6 million hectares ravaged by Australian bushfires, air pollution continuing to kill an estimated seven million people worldwide (source: World Health Organisation) and Indonesia officially announce Jakarta will no longer be its capital (it’s sinking).
Just the risk to our cities from inundation – think sea level rise combined with extreme weather flood risk – is beyond staggering. Check out your city at the climatecentral.org page ‘Surging Seas Mapping Choices’, but don’t expect to get much sleep after that. The sixth mass extinction has seen off more than half the world’s wildlife since 1970 and as of 6 April 2020, the earth’s atmospheric CO2 measures 414 parts per million, with a current acceleration rate of 2.40 ppm per year (source: NOAA ERSL). The highest level seen in the previous 800,000 years was 300 ppm (the safe upper limit is 350 in case you were wondering). As I sit impatiently in COVID-19 lockdown, I reflect on the obvious – what is stopping us from treating the climate emergency with the same fervour and gravity as COVID-19?
The scale of implications on our approaches to design and delivery are enormous and the speed of impending change required is sobering. Our business will ultimately be obsolete unless we transform.
The climate emergency now has a lot more airtime, more conferences and webinars, tools and methodologies. Most people get it finally, but at the coal face it’s hard to tell the difference yet. Making and retrofitting buildings is a complicated business, so a very high degree of focus is required. Woods Bagot is a ‘People Architecture’ business and to address the climate emergency the practice of the future will need to be full of people who exhibit these five behaviours, nesting the change:
One of my mentors and dear friend Frances Bronet, now the President of Pratt Institute, New York, taught us at university with a passion for collaborative, multi-disciplinary design that included engineering, science, technology and society. There is much work to be done, but it cannot be done in silos. In my role as one of the editors of LETI’s Climate Emergency Design Guide (see leti.london) I was floored by the humility and generosity of my built environment colleagues and the power of what we achieved together. Collaborate with your clients on a pilot project, get active with government consultations, join cross-sector councils and initiatives and share your thoughts and research with other disciplines. This must be our baseline modus operandi.
Yes, I’m talking to you! Grey hair and a masters degree in sustainability are not prerequisites. Just be willing to stick your neck out, ask questions and walk the walk. Let us reclaim our role as visionaries and keepers of hope in a nod to the early days of modernism. We are among the key drivers of the fourth industrial revolution and must use our sphere of influence accordingly. Exemplars abound in Greta Thunberg, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40.org) and the tiny island states that drove the IPCC report (https://time.com/longform/sinking-islands-climate-change/). Show clients the value of a climate driven approach, don’t wait to be asked. Stand as firm on this as you do on matters of design integrity, demonstrating to the next generation that it’s a vital endeavour – showing they can join the party too.
We can respond in the best way we know how, with design, technology or both. Each of us ought to have nimble use and deep knowledge of at least one impactful (measurable) and deliverable (funded) thing. Maybe it’s big data, NetZero, Passive House, biodiversity, regenerative or biomimetic design. Upskill and move beyond certifications (e.g. BREEAM, LEED etc), get a genuine understanding of tools – embodied carbon and passive design performance modelling is a great place to start. The LETI CEDG gives clear metric targets for many of these, UK specific but regionally adaptable. Pose questions and push boundaries. We are an imaginative bunch and there are amazing solutions to be found if you embed them in your creative process.
Corporate Social Environmental Responsibility (CSER) cannot be left behind. Developing countries pay an unholy burden for our first world environmental evils and we should pay reparation in kind. Most of the UN Sustainable Development Goals are well within our remit. Kate Raworth’s excellent Doughnut Economics talks about having enough resources to satisfy our social foundation without exceeding the ecological ceiling of the 9 planetary boundaries. How do we meaningfully support these social foundations inside and beyond our borders? Use these to find out what each of your projects’ measurable impact is on the community and track the data. Data speaks volumes.
The pandemic has shocked us into realising the need for a new normal now. We need business models, buildings and cities that safeguard against future shocks. COVID-19 is precipitating a wave of bankruptcies for U.S. oil and gas companies for instance, but the tectonic plates of society were already shifting. Coal is divested, effectively dead and trillion-dollar investment funds are now demanding companies perform against ESG metrics. Now is the time to connect with ESG aware clients, understand their businesses and, coupled with regional environmental awareness, formulate financially viable resiliency models for the built environment. Imagine how your business fits into local and regional resiliency plans and have a crack at aligning with the ground-breaking recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures.
As a result of the pandemic we have learned not to fly, not to print and how to not be in an office in persona. Woods Bagot is rebooting sustainability with its Global Impact Group, mobilising deeper, more targeted strategies to create measurable impact in our work. We are committed to creating a zero carbon, socially conscious, resilient legacy for future generations. Five years ago, we completed an operational net-zero carbon office building at Irena HQ Masdar and right now we are delivering CLT structure projects including Melbourne Connect, University of Melbourne Business School, St. Mary’s STEM. We have beta-launched our Environmental Performance Toolkit and soon our Global Impact Assessment Tool, both utilised to engage current clients in large scale net-zero commercial office pilots and we’re well on our way to becoming a climate neutral business.
Our incredibly dedicated and enthusiastic global team is embedding these core principles and as we progress, each and every building will struggle and strive to get it right with grace and beauty, and we’ll learn and improve like our life depends on it, because it does.
We communicate through design, so it seems apt to leave you with a quote from pioneering philosopher Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, an interpreter of Indian culture to the west whose most important contribution was his profound understanding of how people communicated in early times and how their ideas were transmitted and preserved in the absence of writing.
“The image is of one Awakened: and for our awakening, who are still asleep. The objective methods of “science” will not suffice; there can be no understanding without assimilation; to understand is to have been born again.”
As for me, digging deep on lockdown day #63, I’m doubling down on my consumer habits, collaborating with LETI colleagues on the Climate Emergency Design Guide: Retrofits and teaming up with engineer colleagues and university clients to get under the skin of NetZero Campuses. We have 10 years left to turn the tide. What will you be doing? Find your sphere of influence, be a climate communicator, make an impact.