Sustainability the Role of the Architect
Current estimates suggest that the built environment accounts for approximately 37% of global emissions1. Few dispute the need for radical change, but with increasing pressure on such a carbon intensive sector where does that leave a profession practised in the design of new buildings. Sustainability and the role of the architect is under scrutiny, and rightly so.
Perhaps before we look forward, we should first look back on the history of the architect and their role in the built environment. In fact, from the earliest times those responsible for the design and construction of buildings have had to work within the limits of available resources. Local materials, manual labour and the natural environment would have shaped thinking and building design alike. There was no choice but to adopt what we would now consider a sustainable approach.
The term architect owes its origins to this period too, and the ancient Greeks, a definition that we shall return to later. It was not until the latter periods of the Renaissance in the mid-16th century, however, that architecture began to be recognised as a discipline in its own right. Indeed, many regard Palladio (1508-1580) as the father of modern architecture.
From that time the profession of architecture has become increasingly formalised. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), was established in 1834 to represent the profession in the UK and in 1931 the Architects Registration Act moved further to protect the title of ‘architect’. But our reference point lies far further back in history.
Another term, master builder, has been in use for as long as the built environment has existed. In medieval times the master builder would perhaps have been the carpenter who understood the principles of the cruck frame and co-ordinated the work of the other trades in the construction of simple housing. Nonetheless, the pinnacle of the master builders’ profession was surely their role in the construction of the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Co-ordinating the work of masons, carpenters and many others besides, the master builder lay at the very heart of construction.
It seems a long way from those building projects of the Middle Ages to the modern world that we now inhabit. Hand drawn plans have been replaced by computer models, long-served apprenticeships have evolved into professional qualifications, and building standards, specification and data now govern the complexities of building construction.
But the aim remains a simple one. Having passed an age of apparent abundance, we need to design and build with a minimal impact on our environment, with a finite supply of materials and with a necessity to minimise the energy we use in constructing and then operating our buildings, if indeed we can afford to build them at all. The carpenter and his cruck frame may have been replaced by the structural engineer and his computations, and the mason by off-site fabrication and modern cladding systems, but the need to co-ordinate and collaborate across a project remains as important as ever.
The architect of today has a fantastic opportunity to facilitate the design and realisation of a built environment fit for the modern world. One where we co-ordinate a myriad of important outcomes; minimising embodied carbon, protecting biodiversity, anticipating future use, and embracing the circular economy to name but a few.
Architects lie under the instruction of clients and developers, work alongside ecologists and structural engineers, have the ear of contractors and planners and the need to engage with end users.
With participation across all stages of a building’s life, the modern architect is ideally placed to make our voice heard, from concept through construction, to end of life and retrofit and re-use, in collaboration with our fellow professionals. The opportunity lies, most definitely, in acknowledging our responsibility for the buildings and developments we design. We are, and need to become, custodians of that built environment.
Oh, and that definition which we referred to earlier. Architect, from the Greek, arkhi, meaning chief or master, and tekton, artisan or builder. Master Builder.
And that, might we suggest, is key to the role of the architect and to the sustainable future that we all strive to achieve. What do you think?
1 United Nations Environment Programme (2022). 2022 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction (p26)
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