I’m gonna feed our children non-organic food
And with the money saved take ’em to the zoo

Totnes Bickering Fair

The Council Chambers at the RIBA HQ turns out to be the quietest place in the building to record a podcast, and the antechamber (where in years gone by many an architect must have waited in terror at the prospect of their impending disciplinary hearing) turns out to be a decent spot to enjoy a sandwich and a beer whilst reflecting on that fact you don’t recognise half the photos of past RIBA presidents.

After a previous invite to attend an awards gig for the Retreat competition was rescinded due to the mortality of a monarch, I happily accepted a more productive alternative proposal to take part in a recording for the RIBAJ podcast with other entrants and guests. Hosted by deputy editor Jan-Carlos Kucharek, the question put to the panel was:

How does the profession retain “Net Zero” and the “Climate Emergency” as its main priority?

Given firms, large and small, are faced with generational pressures from the economy, such as winning work and managing talent, and given the lack of government proactivity, the profession should remain focused on the long-term goal of achieving Net Zero by 2030. Is this realistic – and does the current energy crisis in fact incentivise this ambition?

I think the conversation was interesting and Jan-Carlos did a great job as host, although admittedly we perhaps took some time to loosen up. My sympathies are with the editors and I hope they focus more on the latter half of the discussion when it’s broadcast. With hindsight, drinks before the event instead of afterwards might have helped. Alongside me were Phil Obayda from SOM, Rosie Murphy from ACAN and Elliot Nash (fellow competition entrant) from Wright & Wright Architects. Diversity of practice scale, age and gender seemed healthy and it was with that in mind that I felt we should acknowledge that part of the problem with the question was that it assumed a homogenous ‘profession’ with a common culture.

Going further, I was also happy to find common ground with other panellists around the question of whether a topic as complex as climate change can – or should – be simplified to us patting ourselves on the back by ensuring we have a neatly balanced spreadsheet by 2030. Being able to point at a flow chart that results in embodied and operational net zero is not enough if the program itself is extractive and harmful. The recalibration needed by the profession is admittedly easier for my scale of practice and I’m endeavouring to work solely on projects that result in community benefits that extend beyond the site and client. A shared experience of street and neighbourhood level engagement helped Rosie and I find some agreement here.

Going further still, I offered an admission that I feel lies at the heart of my critique of an overly simplified net zero calculation. The very projects that offer the broadest community level impacts in relation to climate change may well be the schemes that have neither the time or the money to account for every kWh or kg/CO2e. Whilst all my projects deliver renewable energy, very high fabric performance and low carbon materials, I do not have a definitive cradle to grave calculation for every aspect of them and nor do I think huge quantities of client resources should be spent assessing it if the broader delivery of a project with the right program risks being delayed or financially squeezed. We should not lose sleep over modest fugitive emissions from programs that offer care, mutual aid, resilience and knowledge that multiplies further out in the community as these benefits will far outweigh a perfect net zero calculation at hand-over.

During the train journey to London that morning it had struck me that within the context of the RIBA and its Plan of Work, it might be time to consider a rethink of what we perceive to be the most valuable services of the profession. If we are to radically rethink the role and offer more than empty attempts to heal through technocratic systems or novel form, we must be more concerned with demand than supply at the very outset and make places that deliver ongoing climate change resilience for generations after handover.

Can the services in stages 0 and 7 become the most valued part of the profession?

RIBA Plan of Work table folded to conceal all except stages 0-7