#DearArchitect chapter 2: MY (RE)ACTION
#DearArchitect is an open-letter from Talina Edwards to the architecture/built-environment profession, in response to the #ArchitectsDeclare movement. What started as a call-to-action, ended up being more of a mini-manifesto, so is now presented as four easily digestible chapters. Written during the intense summer bushfire season of 2020, one year later the message is the same (if not more) important than ever before….
chapter 2 MY (RE)ACTION
(*Engineer/Building-Designer/Draftsperson/Builder/Interior-Designer/Student/Educator contributor to our built-environment – this is a letter to all of you)
WHAT is my vision?
I’d like to believe the year 2020 will be the year of perfect vision – as corny as it sounds, why not?!
I believe there is already an awakening of sorts, and there will be a shift in global consciousness, as together we make more of the right decisions.
I want to help create a living future where we live in harmony with nature and each other, with fresh air to breathe, unpolluted water, healthy food, a high level of wellbeing, a safe and caring community, comfortable and resilient homes, and where we feel inspired and connected every day…
Yes there’s a possibility that things could get a lot worse before they get better, but I’m optimistic we already have all the tools and solutions we need to make change, it is simply a matter of sharing that knowledge with the people who are best able to implement change.
Caroline Pidcock drafted a vision for the Architects Declare movement, and it sounds like the kind of world I’d like to live in too:
WHY do we need to act?
As a reminder of the context we’re talking about, this is the opening statement for Architects Declare:
“The twin crises of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss are the most serious issue of our time. Globally, buildings and construction play a major part, accounting for nearly 40% of energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions whilst also having a significant impact on our natural habitats.
For everyone working in the construction industry, meeting the needs of our society without breaching the earth’s ecological boundaries will demand a paradigm shift in our behaviour. Together with our clients, we will need to commission and design buildings, cities and infrastructures as indivisible components of a larger, constantly regenerating and self-sustaining system.”
I believe we are in a privileged position to make a big positive impact by drastically reducing the carbon-dioxide emissions of our industry. Like the Hippocratic oath where doctors swear to ‘do no harm’, as architects, I think we have an ethical and moral responsibility beyond our clients, to the wider community and the planet to stop doing harm, and start caring more about the health of our world and all living things. We are not separate from our environment; we are intimately connected. What if we consider that the earth is exhibiting symptoms of a planetary disease (or dis-ease) and that we not only have the answers for treating the symptoms, but we also have the understanding of the cause and how to prevent this illness…
WHEN do we need to act?
Action has begun.
However, I don’t like the sense of urgency that words like ‘crisis’ or ‘emergency’ evokes. This causes stress, and an inability to have clarity about where we are headed…and panic can lead to the wrong decisions being made in a rush.
However there is a rising swell of voices who are keen to make a difference so now is a good time while everyone is feeling motivated!
We need to focus on what is possible in a calm and considered approach. We have the knowledge, we have the resources, we have the solutions, we have the connections, all we need is the courage and mindset to do this, together.
The grassroots groundswell is gaining big momentum…it’s already commenced, we just need the ripple-effect to continue.
Will you join us?
HOW can architects act?
We need to avoid further disaster by stop earth’s rising temperatures. So, how does that relate to the Architecture/Construction Industry and the change required? What action can we take starting TODAY that will have tangible outcomes? Here’s a simple step-by-step guide outlined below that I think is a smart approach. I’m sure not everyone will agree and that’s ok. I’m always willing to listen and learn and see how this approach can improved… this is my professional opinion based on my experience and the feedback I’ve received and conversations I’ve had to arrive at this point.
Acknowledge the problem.
Sign the declaration! Then once you’ve pledged to do better, decide to act. Share your pledge to encourage others to do the same.
Keep existing carbon in the ground (commit to 100% renewable power now). Jeremy’s initiative on this for our industry (& beyond!) is a smart first step as we are showing leadership, taking responsibility for our actions, and encouraging others to follow in our example. Join the revolution. Understand your carbon-emissions and environmental footprint, and make behaviour changes to improve. At home, at work, in your communities. Change your bank and your super if they’re not aligned with clean-money ethos too. #architectsDECARBONIZE #architectsDIVEST https://www.breathe.com.au/carbonneutral
Stop carbon dioxide emissions due to the operational energy used in our buildings. Understand the actual as-built building performance (not just predicted) and understand how buildings can be carbon-neutral/net-zero now (and the design decisions that can impact this). We can’t afford to wait and do this in ten years time. This is easy to implement immediately.
Stop carbon dioxide emissions due to the up-front carbon (embodied-carbon or embodied-energy) of the materials used in our buildings and do life cycle analysis assessments to understand impacts.
Go beyond a ’sustainable’ approach to a ‘regenerative’ design approach that not only does ‘less harm’ but does ‘more good’. An integral design approach could incorporate living building challenge principles, urban ecology, bio-diversity regeneration, indigenous knowledge, social-sustainability, walkability, food and waste, biomimicry, permaculture, etc. All of these are the visionary ideals I’d like to see implemented today by everyone… but first we really need to decarbonise and halt the effects of climate change before it is too late.
When implementing change, we need make a conscious decision to take one step at a time in the intended direction. Just put one foot in front of the other and keep going! Easy, right!
You may already be well on your way, so your knowledge and experience will be very beneficial to others. The steps/stages here are ideal to do in this order, as they gain complexity as you go. If you’re a super-human who wants to do all at once and take a huge leap, that’s fine too! But you might be making things more difficult for yourself and you end up back where you started without any progress.
WHAT strategies should architects implement to take these steps and achieve our vision?
As mentioned above, Step 1 is being covered by Jeremy McLeod of Breathe Architecture with the support of Architects Declare, so I’ll focus mainly on Step 2 for now (building-performance and operational-energy) and a plan of action to achieve this.
(Footnote: Thanks to Andy Marlow of Envirotecture/Australian Passive House Association for our robust discussions about this approach and provision of an online calculator to help understand how measured operational energy compares to RIBA 2030).
Is there an ESD tick-box checklist to net-zero nirvana? Not exactly.
Is there one answer. No. But you need to make an informed decision, so I’m sharing this knowledge to assist you, and I encourage to continue to learn more!
The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) have released their 2030 Climate Challenge for all architects, in conjunction with their Sustainable Outcomes Guide.
This document outlines simply that our current “business as usual” approach is not good enough. Our Australian building code is the “worst standard of building you can legally build”, and it is approximately 30 years behind the USA and Europe, and we should be aiming for world’s best practice if we want to reach these targets.
The buildings we’re designing now need to be suitable for 50+ years in the future, and we also need to consider the retro-fitting of our existing building stock. The RIBA 2030 challenge has rigorous targets for building performance based on science. It clearly outlines the targets we need to achieve by 2030 – if not before.
We don’t have time to waste on re-inventing the wheel, or arguing about details….it would be a smart strategy to adopt this standard here and now. It is a possibility there will soon come a time where we could be considered negligent (or be penalised) for not taking these actions…so why wouldn’t we do better now?
The four key areas outlines in RIBA 2030 are:
- Operational Energy
- Embodied Carbon
- Potable Water Use
- Health and Wellbeing
FABRIC FIRST, THEN EFFICIENT SERVICES, LOW-CARBON HEATING/COOLING/MAXIMISE ONSITE RENEWABLE POWER
- Start with this first as it is the ‘lowest hanging fruit’ – the easiest to achieve to make the most positive impact.
- Start with a high-performance fabric-first approach which can reduce operational energy by up to 90%. There are many rating tools to measure designed-performance of a building-envelope (however some of these are hit and miss in terms of as-built performance, so it is time to start measuring this.)
In my practice, I have chosen to implement the voluntary international Certified Passive House (Passivhaus) standard which focuses on a rigorous application of building-physics to achieve a pre-determined outcome. We found it was increasingly difficult to predict performance (and heating/cooling requirements) based on having faith solely on solar-passive design principles and the NATHERS star-rating system…which often resulted in unpredictable levels of comfort. Our clients love that their designs are modelled in the PHPP (Passive House Planning Package) which provides a high level of quality-assurance and predictability before construction commences.
- ‘Electrification’ of our buildings which sounds frightening, but basically means to stop using gas as it is a non-renewable resource. All-electric, efficient services/appliances. Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery (MVHR), efficient reverse-cycle heat-pump air-conditioners for small amounts of supplementary heating/cooling, air-sourced heat-pump for hot water, induction cooktop and electric oven. (Find out more at https://www.facebook.com/groups/MyEfficientElectricHome/
- On-site Power Harvesting: Add Solar PV on-site to meet net-zero targets or create surplus energy to feed back to grid.
- A conventional building’s operational energy accounts for approximately 80% of its lifetime energy use, with embodied carbon from the materials used to construct it only accounting for about 20% over the life of the building, here in Australia. https://www.yourhome.gov.au/materials/embodied-energy
- This should be a secondary consideration once you have taken the first step. There’s a lot of information out there about choosing better materials, but to really measure the impact you need to look into doing Life Cycle Analysis Assessments.
Potable Water Use
- I would hope that this is fairly well-known and reasonable straight-forward. On-site Water Harvesting: add more Rainwater Collection Tanks. Install greywater system, low-flow fixtures, water-efficient appliances, be smart with water-use, drought-tolerant gardens, etc.
‘Health and Wellbeing’
- This perhaps should be the first step, but health impacts of our buildings were rarely discussed in the past in Australia – this has become more topical however due to outdoor air pollution and bushfire smoke. As our planet’s health and our health are inter-connected, we have to look after both.
- We spend 90% of our time indoors, often our indoor air quality is worse than outside. Asthma and respiratory illnesses are the highest they’ve ever been, and we’re exposed to high toxins and VOCs, high Co2 levels, high levels of particulate matter, mould and other chemicals every day.
- We are responsible for creating healthy and comfortable indoor environments, yet this is being ignored. There are a number of ways to achieve “net-zero” buildings, but only the Certified Passive House Standard regulates the provision of controlled filtered fresh air at all times for a healthy indoor environment, and a constant comfortable temperature which is optimal for human health. Rating systems like NatHers and others can crunch some numbers for potential operational energy, but it unfortunately doesn’t account for as-built comfort or for health.
I believe the way to achieve these goals is simple (but that doesn’t mean it is easy.) The Passive House is a tool to achieve this goal.
Health, comfort, durability and energy-efficiency should be fundamental first principles of all our designs, and as the Passive House standard achieves this, it is a common-sense approach to take. It also has predictable performance for quality assurance. In our experience, once people learn about the benefits of a Certified Passive House, they all want one!
Once you know Passive House, you can’t unknow it! You start to look at buildings in a new way. There is huge growth in the uptake of this standard across the world, as once you understand why it works, it is hard to go back to anything else. It is also applicable to retrofit/renovation projects “Enerphit” standard too. I’d recommend all architects to learn more.
The only real resistance to uptake to date has been the perceived higher up-front costs…but that’s already changing as the early adopters have shown what’s possible (including the lessons learnt with one of our projects). With low operational costs over the lifetime of the building, plus more suitable passive house components and materials coming onto the market, and new green home loans (link: https://www.bankaust.com.au/personal/borrow/home-loans/clean-energy-home-loan/ ), means the economics of Passive House are now looking a lot better!
Read more: #DearArchitect