How not to get depressed about the Climate Change Emergency.

The School of Architecture and Design have just held their second ‘Future We Want’ meeting to debate the many different ways we will respond to Architecture Education Declares. Below Lecturer and Director of BBM Sustainable Design Ian McKay reflects on some of the many emotional and practical issues.

It’s easy to get depressed about the climate change emergency. Will we or won’t we avoid a catastrophic collapse of the life sustaining engines of our planet’s eco-systems? What is the future we want? What can one do as an individual to make a positive difference? That last question is very significant in a school of architecture because the architect has a special role to play in shaping how society works. We are not just talking about the knowledge necessary to make a low environmental impact building, although that is crucial. The skill sets of this profession also mean we are well placed (often far better than elected politicians) to create compelling visions of how we can create built environments that exist within the sustaining capacity of our planet.

Over the years we have seen many positive visions of how a sustainable society can work. The alternative technology and counter culture approach of the Whole Earth Catalogue was launched in the late 1960’s. One of the first I remember as a student in my 4th year at Brighton Polytechnic (as it was then in 1990) was Permaculture. Having been alarmed and scared at the discovery of a hole in the ozone layer in 1987, this was the first thing I ran across which made me feel there was a way in which our species can coexist in equilibrium with the rest of the planet. Here was an eco-mending formula largely pulled together by a few enthusiastic individuals including the charismatic Tasmanian, Bill Mollison. It had already gained traction in many marginal climates all over the globe. It is the compilation of much traditional and climate specific knowledge around how to grow food without reliance on fossil fuels and agro-chemicals. They showed how these tree planting and bio-dynamic principles could be designed and integrated into architectural potentials. It continues to grow in influence and there is a vibrant Brighton Permaculture group.

Some years later saw the emergence of another optimistic set of principles as captured in Bio-Regional’s, One Planet Living framework. Largely derived from the ‘test bed’ low environmental impact housing at Bill Dunster’s BedZed from the early naughties, One Planet Living is about “making it easier to live happily and sustainably”. The first of the ten point plan principles is in fact ‘Health and Happiness’.

Around the same time as Bio-Regional’s seminal work came the emergence of Transition Town movement. Its exponent in chief, Rob Hopkins talks about “Harnessing the power of a positive vision” in The Transition Handbook; From oil dependency to local resilience. He underlines how we need to envisage attractive modes of living and avoid the trap of becoming doom and gloom merchants.

Samuel Mockbee and the students of his quirky architectural school outpost in Alabhama, USA suggested we do not need to scour the planet for build new building materials but instead become urban miners and build with previously constructed materials

These have all been inspirational ideas helping to inform our own work in practice and research at BBM Sustainable Design. They are all positive visions which have existing opportunities to explore in architectural endeavour. I like to think that the output of our studio is contributing in some way to the collective need to find sustainable solutions with are fit for purpose and a delight to inhabit.

For me, the 21 Century architect still has to be a talented designer but now, and more than ever, we need a strong ethical compass, a robust working knowledge of sustainable systems within our natural and constructed environments and perhaps above all we need to be great communicators. I say that because I feel it is still all to play for but we have to change mindsets quickly and for that we need to be very persuasive.