Photo: John Englart

“I don’t want your hope, I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act, I want you to act as if you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire, because it is.” –  Greta Thunberg

Every Australian (and many people beyond) are now feeling the fear that Greta enunciated just one year ago in her speech at Davos. Much to the surprise of the hopeful, hope has not delivered so let’s assume we need to actually do something now. After all, if not now, then when?

The Architects Declare movement has been underway for a few months. Over 800 firms have signed up and meetings have been held, yet for many, the question remains: “What next? What do I do?

This is my declaration, my “architects do”. It is not the answer to everything, but it’s a start. It covers the most important things and is manageable; everything below can be implemented immediately (the last one may take a while to master).

Architects are creative thinkers; we think of ourselves as problem solvers, we continually argue for design as the solution in almost every situation. So let’s design the solution for the climate crisis. You’ll be happy to know that the methodologies and technologies we need all exist, we just need to use them in the right ways.

There is no checklist coming below. No tick box approach. No getting it 70 per cent right. Our house is on fire, put it out, 100 per cent out. Now!

(Y)our practice

Walk the talk. It’s difficult and embarrassing to ask your clients to do more – build better and prepare for the future – if you aren’t doing it too. If architects want to be taken seriously, we need credible actions to show the leadership that has, so far, been lacking.

What to do: Go carbon neutral as soon as possible (A big thanks to Jeremy McLeod at Breathe Architecture for kicking this off in various ways).

How to do it: Buy only 100 per cent certified Green Power. Offset all your flights (fly less too). Get a carbon audit and offset your remaining carbon emissions.

(Y)our people 

Your firm only exists because of the people who give you work (clients) and those who do it (staff and partners). Most firms do a great job of looking after clients, let’s make sure we do the same for our staff.

No more unpaid overtime. The profession has a well-deserved reputation for exploiting a salaried workforce that lacks an organisation to represent their rights. Just because it happened yesterday does not mean it should happen tomorrow.

Building a great practice, with people who are well-rested, balanced individuals with a satisfying personal life, will aid in creating a better business, better projects and, ultimately, a better society. If not now, than when?

(Y)our projects

An architects’ biggest influence is through their projects. We need to collectively lift the performance of them all, not just the top tier. Remember, code-compliance is the minimum that is not illegal, or “barely legal”

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has produced a 2030 Challenge: a series of rigorous, peer-reviewed, science based targets for building performance. It’s no small coincidence they happen to be very similar to those in the innovative British Columbian Energy Step Code.

Let’s use these targets here in Australia too. Science is science, energy is energy and we are all, most definitely, in this together.

Let’s not waste time debating the finer details. Let’s agree that, broadly speaking this is how good our buildings need to be and get on with it. We do not have time to argue Australia’s special snowflake status and the uniquely benign climate that supposedly transcends the laws of physics.

The RIBA residential targets are in the tables below:

From RIBA’s 2030 Challenge.
From RIBA’s 2030 Challenge.

Contrary to most client architect agreements, we do hold a responsibility that our designs are “fit for purpose”. In a heating and carbon-constrained world, it is negligent to deliver a 50-plus year asset that won’t be code-compliant in a decade. It may be great for businesses specialising in remedial and retrofit work, but it’s unethical, financially irresponsible and lazy.

What to do: Measure the future performance of every project against the RIBA targets. My suggestion is that we all start with operational energy and water. The other targets are incredibly important but the industry needs to walk before it can run.

How to do it: We have created a simple Excel-based tool (here) to allow you to enter your projects data, a graph will plot your project against the RIBA target. We encourage you to use this tool to realistic assess your work, and to share this information with your clients too.

How do the targets and the tool work?

 The RIBA targets are predicated on getting projected performance data from either CIBSE TM54 Evaluating operational energy performance of buildings at the design stage, or the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP). As RIBA note, PHPP has a number of benefits over TM54 including “the success of Passivhaus in consistently delivering a step change in energy reduction”.

Our tool allows for the entry of NatHERS data as well as PHPP data.

Most in industry understand the flaws of the NatHERS system; a lack of verification, some overly optimistic behaviour assumptions, wildly varying targets depending on climate along with silly flaws such as gaming the system by varying room names to change the predicted energy use.

This means comparing NatHERS to PHPP is a complex yet pointless task, but it’s what we have, so we built a tool to work with it. Personally, I prefer PHPP as it gives me useful design feedback that we use to optimise a design for performance and cost.

The UK CarbonBuzz project has shown that on average, buildings consume between 1.5 and 2.5 times predicted values; the Performance Gap. The tool allows you to adjust this gap to see its impact on real world performance; actual performance is what matters.

The RIBA targets are in kWh/m2/year. The tool we created plots both the RIBA targets unadjusted and an “area adjusted” version; the current UK average size dwelling is 91m2, the Australian equivalent is 186m2.

In terms of global equity, this isn’t fair; bigger homes should be performing better than smaller ones to offset their total operational energy. The embodied carbon targets illustrate the same issue; in the physical world we have a total carbon budget, we need to be meeting it through efficient design at an appropriate scale; a super-efficient 500m2 mansion, for one, is not helpful.

Walking the talk

There are three actions listed above, there are others that must follow swiftly on their heels; time is not on our side.

From RIBA’s 2030 Challenge.

As you can tell from some of the architectural award winners each year, not every architect is motivated by building physics, energy performance and sustainability. However, we all need to find a way through this together. Equally, many are not inspired or motivated by structural engineering, yet we seem to be very good at delivering buildings that don’t fall down.

Renewable energy has not rated a mention so far in these words… It’s fantastic, we need more of it, but it’s no replacement for quality, efficient, healthy buildings. A tin shed with a huge PV array may be net zero but it is not an appropriate response – embodied energy, power outages, occupant health and material scarcity all agree.

Future proof buildings that don’t set our planetary house on fire are as important now as buildings that stand up have been in the past. If they don’t do both, we’re toast! 

Andy Marlow is an architect and certified Passive House Designer. He is a director at Envirotecture, Passivhaus Design & Construct and a volunteer board member of the Australian Passive House Association. Envirotecture have been carbon neutral since 2008 and completed Sydney’s first certified passive house.


Spinifex is an opinion column open to all, so called because it’s at the “spiky” end of sustainability. If you would like to contribute, we require 700+ words. For a more detailed brief and style guide please email editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

7 replies on “So you’ve declared a climate emergency? Now architects need to walk the talk”

  1. I agree strongly with Jane. Ageing in place (with or without government assistance)is essential both environmentally and financially. A lot of people leave it too late in life to move house, so why not build something adaptable in the first place? It seems like a no-brainer to me. It might cost more to build initially, but still less than selling,buying and moving house, or alternatively retrofitting. As she says, it’s mainstream.

  2. Spot on! A client’s perspective:

    “Remember, code-compliance is the minimum that is not illegal, or “barely legal””. Absolutely. From what I’ve seen the building standards (eg energy, bushfire, water use, etc) are just the lowest common denominator- something to be complied with certainly, but often utterly inadequate for clients in the real world. Just meeting legislated standards is often pure negligence, and I’m including home owners and developers in this criticism, and I mean “negligence” in its legal sense.

    As a client I need a house that will be fit for purpose in 20/30/40 years (including the growing bushfire and storm risk), not for today’s conditions. I suspect a lot of buildings which burnt in Australia recently were unsuitable legacy buildings which were suboptimal 50 years ago, and simply dangerous today.

    As you say, “In a heating and carbon-constrained world, it is negligent to deliver a 50-plus year asset that won’t be code-compliant in a decade. It may be great for businesses specialising in remedial and retrofit work, but it’s unethical, financially irresponsible and lazy.” Again, spot on!

  3. And also remember that homes that have to be modified so people can age in place also adds to landfill. Sustainability includes universal design. Get on board with the ABCB RIS this year and support the inclusion of UD features in all new housing. More than 45% of households have a person with disability or long term health condition. See ABS for the stats. It’s mainstream!

  4. Yes, Edith but most people have not yet got operational energy under control. My broad point is that everyone is getting distracted by other (often very important) things at the expense of getting the basics right!

  5. Great article! Have you also thought about the miles that imported products do before they come to our shores? When we try to fly less hours and offset the flights that are absolutely necessary, would it not be a good idea to use as many locally made products in our buildings as possible too?

  6. Having problems with the cold – insulate to maintain the heat. Heat moves to cold. Stop that movement with bulk insulation.

    Having problems with the heat, reflect it don’t absorb it.

    In hot/warm climates bulk insulation aggravates the problem, a proven fact.

    Space exploration depends on reflecting the extreme heat by using reflective membrane to protect astronauts and equipment. That same technology is available for use in the building industry. It cuts down the demand for air conditioning

  7. Thank you Andy, some real zingers here! And a great ‘to do’ list.
    Succinctly put was this: “Remember, code-compliance is the minimum that is not illegal, or “barely legal”” – Having the right team: client/architect/consultants is a must.

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