Today, April 22, 2020, marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. According to the United Nations’ 2019 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction, the building sector accounts for 39% of global emissions contributing to climate change. Building construction and operations account for more than any other industry. With such a responsibility, has the architectural sector been able to meet its promises to eliminate harmful greenhouse gas emissions? Are we designing our way out of the climate crisis or are we stagnating in our traditional ways of thinking?

Similarly, architecture schools and accreditation boards must fully embrace a sustainable and net-zero emissions curriculum. We can no longer settle for the “greenwashing” of the architecture curriculum with environmental design isolated in its silo. Instead, we need a fully integrative curriculum that requires every design class to meet net-zero emissions. Architectural history should include the impacts historical buildings have had on the climate. Perhaps this may make us look at once revered architects in a different light. Materials and methods courses should highlight how bad building-as-usual is for the environment and focus on the embodied energy of a particular material or method of construction. Why aren’t structures classes not only calculating structural loads but also environmental loads? Surely, practice and project management should teach only integrative sustainable practices and procedures and leave the rest for the history books. Net-zero energy and emissions should be the baseline for all designs, not building codes. Every architecture student should be fully aware of the impact their design decisions make on the planet from day one of architecture school. If a design does not meet the criteria that the AIA has signed onto, net-zero emissions, then a student should fail. Unless we fully commit to net-zero energy and emissions, from education through to a finished and operating building, we are not living up to our responsibility nor the AIA’s commitment and declarations.

Pie Graph From UN Report for Greenhouse Gas Emissions From The Building Sector

As architects and architectural companies, we have to be careful that we are not “greenwashing” our commitments and responsibilities to the planet. Joining initiatives such as Architecture 2030, a program for designing buildings that operate as carbon neutral by 2030 and pledging support to similar causes weakens our credibility if such promises only appear in publicity materials, on websites, or in email footers. As an industry, we have to face up to the considerable contribution we have made to the climate crisis. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) partnered with the Architecture 2030 Challenge to create the AIA 2030 Commitment in 2006. Such a big step forward must be congratulated for recognizing a need for such a program together with the AIA’s 2019 ratification of the Resolution for Urgent and Sustained Climate Action. However, if we take a look at the large number of architectural companies that joined the AIA 2030 Commitment, many still have yet to report actual projects that meet the challenge. In addition, many companies that signed onto the Architecture 2030 Challenge over 20 years ago have not completed a project, and large architecture companies only have a handful of projects in relation to the size of their firms. Architecture companies need to step up their game, educate their clients, and push for change. If the entire industry recognizes this, then the path forward will be much easier.

Greenwashing of Architecture

AIA has already pushed the net-zero emission target for the building sector from 2030 to 2050. That’s 30 years from now! And we are still not fully addressing embodied energy – the amount of energy used, and subsequently, carbon produced from the mining, manufacturing and transportation of building materials. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the planet does not have that amount of time! Unfortunately, similar to the exponential increase of coronavirus infections in the United States from 1 to the 827,022 cases and 45,398 deaths in 94 days, the world’s climate pandemic is already underway. The impacts of the climate crisis will scale rapidly and overload our ability to handle the crisis effectively. If we do not commit 100% now, millions of people will die or be displaced. Hundreds, if not thousands of species will become extinct as we head closer to a planet incapable of sustaining life as we know it. The death and irreversible destruction we face will dwarf that of any global pandemic.

Architects Looking Over Architectural Plans

Similarly, architecture schools and accreditation boards must fully embrace a sustainable and net-zero emissions curriculum. We can no longer settle for the “greenwashing” of the architecture curriculum with environmental design isolated in its silo. Instead, we need a fully integrative curriculum that requires every design class to meet net-zero emissions. Architectural history should include the impacts historical buildings have had on the climate. Perhaps this may make us look at once revered architects in a different light. Materials and methods courses should highlight how bad building-as-usual is for the environment and focus on the embodied energy of a particular material or method of construction. Why aren’t structures classes not only calculating structural loads but also environmental loads? Surely, practice and project management should teach only integrative sustainable practices and procedures and leave the rest for the history books. Net-zero energy and emissions should be the baseline for all designs, not building codes. Every architecture student should be fully aware of the impact their design decisions make on the planet from day one of architecture school. If a design does not meet the criteria that the AIA has signed onto, net-zero emissions, then a student should fail. Unless we fully commit to net-zero energy and emissions, from education through to a finished and operating building, we are not living up to our responsibility nor the AIA’s commitment and declarations.

As the most significant sector contributing to climate change, the architectural industry has the lead role and responsibility to design our way to a better future for our planet. If we make slow changes and are resistant to completely rethinking the role of architecture, we will remain part of the problem instead of emerging as part of the solution. It’s our choice. We hold an obligation to design and lead the way to a completely sustainable future and save the only real home we have – planet Earth.