23 September 2020

Global warming, climate literacy and your curriculum

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Design professionals can have a huge impact on addressing global warming. Construction contributes 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions every year, according to the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction 2018 Report.


In 2019, the UK, became the first major economy in the world to pledge to reduce these emissions to ‘Net Zero’ by 2050 as recommended by the UK Committee on Climate Change. But the UK government has been slow to act or legislate, and many organisations and sectors have taken it into their own hands to declare an environmental and biological emergency – for example, Architects Declare, Structural Engineers Declare, and Construction Declares, to name a few.


RIBA has developed the 2030 Climate Challenge to help architects meet net zero (or better) whole life carbon for new and retrofitted buildings by 2030. IStructE has set up a Climate Emergency Task Group and is developing guidance, training and resources under six key actions which should be priorities for all structural engineering professionals: Get Informed; Low Carbon; Lean Design; Zero Waste; Influence the Brief; and Get Involved.


So as a design student or lecturer, where does climate literacy, energy and material efficient design, renovation and retrofit, Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) or Whole Life Carbon (WLC) feature in your curriculum? Marginally, or at best a specialist optional subject?


If so, you are not alone – but this is set to change. I have been speaking to students, professionals and groups who are at the forefront of calling for curriculum change, those running workshops to educate and upskill you, and those unravelling complexity and providing routes and resources to aid you.


– Tabitha Binding, University Engagement Manager, TRADA



Interviews on climate literacy:

Interview with ACAN Education on its Climate Curriculum Campaign


ACAN is a network of individuals within architecture and related built environment professions taking action to address the twin crises of climate and ecological breakdown. There are 8 working groups including ‘Education’ whose members include students, tutors, lecturers, professors, architects, engineers and other professionals. Over the last three months, the Educational Working Group has been focused on a Climate Curriculum Campaign.


architectscan.org / education@architectscan.org



Why architectural education needs to change

We are living in a climate emergency – the sixth mass extinction. As an industry, we know we must de-carbonise fast[1], but the scarcity of carbon literacy in the profession is restricting our ability to act. Architecture schools could play an incredibly positive role in addressing this knowledge gap. 


To make this happen, architectural education needs an overhaul. Presently, schools across the country are not imparting basic carbon literacy skills, failing both their students and the wider public.


After five years in formal education, architectural graduates are entering the workplace unaware of the severity of the climate emergency, and without the technical know-how to tackle it.[2]


Essential knowledge now needs to be embedded within curriculums, educating on the environmental impact of architectural practice and the wider construction industry. We believe teaching around environmental design must be incorporated into every module, utterly normalising it and removing its specialist status.


We are campaigning for increased climate literacy in all course programmes starting autumn 2020. Specifically, we are calling for schools to embed ACAN’s three aims into curriculums:


1. Decarbonisation

  • Climate change fundamentals and the impact of the built environment
  • Whole life net zero carbon design
  • Retrofit and reuse
  • Policy, legislation and national commitments
  • Design for deconstruction


2. Ecological regeneration

  • Fundamentals of the global ecological crisis and impact of construction supply chains
  • Life cycle analysis and ecological materials
  • Circular economy design principles
  • Water conservation
  • Enhancing biodiversity, integration of non-human habitats
  • Principles of regenerative design


3. Cultural transformation

  • Ethics and architecture: wider impacts of the built environment and the meaning of professionalism in the anthropocene
  • Critical thinking: what hasn't worked and why are we in this mess?
  • The agency of the architect to affect change
  • To-build or not-to-build: the impact of developmentalism as a mindset and architectural approaches that are not buildings
  • Foresight: adaptation and visioning for likely scenarios


[1] UN Climate Goals and see the government’s Climate Change Committee website for more information

[2] Scott McAulay of the Anthropocene Architecture School, Crisis Studio, 1-4, Educational Troubleshooting and Feedback (2020)


Actions you can undertake

We are inviting students, graduates and professionals to join this movement and complete one or more of the following:

  1. Write to your head of school. Demand a better climate education.
  2. Fill out our 5–10 minute survey. Help us understand your experience of climate education and environmental design.
  3. Find a climate action group near you or start one at your university.
  4. Share the campaign via Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.



Interview with Anthropocene Architecture School


'For the sake of the planet, students must be taught to design climate-responsive architecture as standard', wrote Scott McAulay in the AJ article Architectural education is key to a sustainable future 2018. Frustrated with a lack of action in architectural education, Scott founded Anthropocene Architecture School (AAS).


I asked Scott: 'What is climate literacy? When should it be introduced to design students? What does AAS have to offer to students, lecturers, universities, and professionals? And is it only applicable to architecture?'


info@anthropocenearchitectureschool.co.uk  / @Anthropocene.A.S


Climate Literacy is the understanding of the complexities of our context of Climate and Ecological Emergency and recognizing the impacts that built interventions have upon both people and planet. At its broadest scale, it is recognizing the ongoing breakdown of the Earth’s climate, noting constructions’ impact upon the Carbon Budget, and acting as if this science is real. At its finest, knowing the impacts of early design decisions and construction material choices on human and planetary wellbeing – designing with circularity in mind and specifying sustainable timber and other bio-based materials that lock-in carbon as they grow. Cultivating this literacy across the construction industry is crucial to accelerate a shift towards healthier, more carbon sequestering design decisions with the necessary urgency.


Ideally, this should be embedded into the learning of all design disciplines as early as possible as a core tenet of good design, but traditionally this has not been the case. In response to this, I started the AAS project and it has developed from a protest to an internationally recognised platform in tackling the Climate Emergency through architectural education. To tackle the gap in Climate Literacy, I developed workshops for built environment professionals, and educators of architecture that hyper-distil it: communicating it powerfully and equipping attendees with decarbonisation solutions, resources, and strategies. Having delivered almost 20 of these workshops, they have proven invaluable across the spectrum of built environment professions and far beyond architecture – particularly in hammering home the immediacy of the climate crisis and in providing a multitude of starting points for future learning.


Actions you can undertake

TRADA plan to run a two-hour Climate Literacy workshop with the Anthropocene School of Architecture on Friday 16 October 10:00–12:00. This will be free to students registered with TRADA and low-cost for tutors. To register your interest, please email tbinding@trada.co.uk with the subject line 'Climate Literacy Workshop' and include your name, university, course and year group.



Interview with Ciaran Malik


Whole Life Carbon assessment (WLC) appears to be both complex and evolving. I asked Ciaran: 'Why is an understanding of WLC important? How do you demystify the perceived complexity? Is there a simple first step or calculation that can be undertaken to look at options to reduce embodied carbon at design stage?'




Whole Life Carbon assessment is part of the way we need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to prevent a climate catastrophe. It is the method we use to measure the carbon of different design options, to reduce the carbon emissions and reach net zero carbon design.


It can be difficult; materials come from a variety of global sources and undergo a variety of processes. To calculate one value, to represent the carbon released for a material, for all those different options is not simple. It is an evolving process; as construction processes decarbonise, as more data becomes available and the methodology for calculation is refined, those values will change.


When I teach about this, I remind students that it may not be easy now, but we all need to be doing it to reduce carbon emissions to zero.


The first thing to understand is measure the ‘equivalent carbon emissions’ (CO₂e), which includes the impact of other greenhouse gases and not just carbon emissions (CO₂). Because a low carbon process may be emitting other more harmful emissions.



The second thing is that the whole life carbon emissions includes the emissions for the manufacture, transportation, construction, use, repair and deconstruction of materials. If you can remove one or more of those stages, it will have a large impact. Then, you have to get into the calculation process, looking at volumes of material in the design, their lifespan, sources and calculate the carbon.



I only started learning about carbon assessment last year, so with some practice it’s pretty quick to pick up. If you want to understand the concepts involved in the process, I recommend reading the LETI Embodied Carbon Primer which provides a clear overview. A more detailed explanation is in the IStructE guide, How to Calculate Embodied Carbon.


There are two first steps I would suggest: calculate the embodied carbon of a simple frame like this one to see where the most material and carbon is being used; or calculate the embodied carbon per metre square for your typical details and buildups to see which options have the lowest and look for ways to improve the others.


We urgently need to reduce our carbon emissions, but we also face a number of other urgent issues such as equality and ecology. We all need to continue to upskill ourselves to better understand and address these issues in design.


Actions you can undertake

The Engineering Club is offering a Green Recovery course. Commencing 23 October, the 6-week course will be held on Fridays 10:00–12:00. More information is available here – it’s not just for engineers!



Trees, timber and engineered timber products have their part to play. Our mission at TRADA and the Timber Trade Federation is to work with academia, professionals, the trade and relevant bodies, so that as we face the climate challenges ahead, design students graduate not only comfortable with timber as part of their pallet of materials but also confident and competent in designing and detailing, with both solid and engineered timber, on its own or as part of a hybrid structure, in both new and re-used buildings.


I’m here to help and, whilst travel is currently discouraged, I’m happy to deliver guidance, talks and lectures online. Contact me, Tabitha Binding, at tbinding@trada.co.uk.


About the author

TRADA’s Tabitha Binding drives our busy University Engagement Programme, which proactively seeks to encourage lecturers of architecture, engineering and other building-related courses to teach timber as an equal to other materials. To facilitate this, TRADA has developed a range of free teaching materials, runs high-profile design competitions for students, and creates opportunities to collaborate, uniting universities with members of the timber industry. Together with scheme sponsors TTF, Tabitha has coordinated and made possible student-centric experiences.