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Two of architecture’s biggest names just pulled out of an ambitious climate pledge

The high-profile exit of Foster + Partners and Zaha Hadid Architects from the pledge, called Architects Declare, exposes deep rifts in an industry that’s grappling with how to control its carbon footprint.

Two of architecture’s biggest names just pulled out of an ambitious climate pledge
[Photo: Boarding1Now/iStock]
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In as many days, two of the world’s most well-known architecture firms have shocked the field and removed their names from a pledge aiming to reduce architecture’s contribution to climate change and biodiversity loss. First Foster + Partners and then a day later Zaha Hadid Architects withdrew from Architects Declare, a pledge launched by architects in the U.K. in 2019 that commits to reducing the architecture and construction industry’s nearly 40% contribution to global carbon emissions.

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Their exit from the declaration is a high-profile abandonment, raising concerns about whether architects are really willing to change their practices and sacrifice valuable commissions to reduce the climate impacts of the built environment.

The two firms’ namesakes, Norman Foster and the late Zaha Hadid, are recipients of architecture’s top honor, the Pritzker Prize. Their firms were founding signatories of the pledge, and their involvement helped fuel its growth to include more than 1,000 architecture firms in the United Kingdom. A companion pledge in the United States has 345 signatories to date, and others exist in more than 20 countries with a total of nearly 6,000 signatories.

The goals of Architects Declare aren’t explicitly focused on hitting a target, but instead call for shifting the industry’s culture to prioritize climate and biodiversity protection. The signatories pledge to evaluate all new projects on the basis of their ability to mitigate climate change. Perhaps most radically, for architects at least, is the declaration’s focus on advocating for the upgrading and retrofitting of buildings when possible rather than demolishing old buildings and designing new ones.

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Foster’s firm, known for its gherkin-shaped tower in London, withdrew from the pledge over concerns about its work on large-scale airport projects, which has raised concerns among Architects Declare’s steering group and the Architects Climate Action Network for their contribution to carbon-heavy international travel.

“We have a principle of not naming and shaming our colleagues in the industry,” the steering group said in a recent statement. “However, we believe that it is a success of this movement that the media and signatories are holding each other to account and pushing each other to do better.”

Hadid’s firm, famous for its Aquatic Center built for the 2012 Olympics in London, followed the next day with its own withdrawal, citing what it called in a statement “a significant difference of opinion” about “how positive change can be delivered.”

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The core of the disagreement centers on just how far firms are willing to go to live up to the intentions of the pledge. Though Architects Declare’s steering group itself has noted that it can sometime be a struggle for firms to operate in alignment with the declaration’s ambition, there are clearly differences of opinion over how much wiggle room should be allowed as architects and builders attempt a dramatic reinvention of the industry. Like the prison projects that many architects in the U.S. have pledged to no longer perform, lucrative airports appear to be the red line for Architects Declare.

Globally, aviation is responsible for more than 2% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Both Foster + Partners and Zaha Hadid Architects have completed designs for major international airports among their hundreds of large projects. Foster + Partners is the biggest architecture firm in the U.K., with revenue of nearly $350 million in the year ending April 2019.

In a statement posted on its website, the steering group said it was “disappointed” by Foster + Partners’ decision to withdraw, but that it was hopeful that others would remain committed to the pledge and continue working to achieve its climate goals, despite the costs.

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This pledge—along with the climate commitments of many architects around the world—is an important statement for the industry, which is inherently incentivized to pursue new buildings and bigger projects. But pledges can only do so much. Until lower carbon footprint materials and post-occupancy energy audits become more widespread within the field, architects’ designs will contribute to the climate catastrophe. And though some of these climate-conscious concepts are within architects’ control, they operate in a vast ecosystem of players, from developers and financiers to construction companies and materials manufacturers. All have a role in reducing the impact of the built environment.

“We recognize that addressing the climate and biodiversity emergencies challenges current practice and business models for us all, not least around the expansion of aviation,” the steering group wrote. “We believe that what is needed is system change and that can only come about through collective action.”