Benchmark 2023: Future Forward—Adaptive Change in Architecture Education and Practice

Recent surveys point to the need to adapt education and practice to address sustainability challenges.

In an era of momentous change, architecture is facing the challenge of reskilling to design for sustainability. This will necessarily involve both the formal education of architecture students, and the continuing education of architectural practitioners. Adaptive reskilling will involve developing competencies related to climate change mitigation and adaptation, but also addressing converging issues under the umbrella of sustainability: inhabitant health and wellbeing, affordability, accessibility, equity and resilience. The future relevance and vitality of architecture in Canada will hinge on its ability to assume a variety of competencies, all related to design for sustainability.

In 1969, Herbert Simon defined design as “transforming an existing condition into a preferred one.” In making this transition, it is vital that we do not throw out the baby with the bath water. Design must be at the heart of an architectural response to climate change and to the other pressing issues facing society. 

If architects want to be seen as sources of knowledge and authority in the fight for more equitable, comfortable and healthy cities, it will also involve making some serious changes beyond technical reskilling. These will involve choosing optimism, listening to stakeholders and communities, and meaningfully collaborating beyond our disciplinary silos. Clients, regulators, municipalities, manufacturers, constructors and many others in the planning, design, and construction processes will also need to skill up and do better. 

As the Rise for Architecture initiative reports, “Canadians are facing many intersecting challenges that are both impacting—and being impacted by—architecture. The climate crisis, social justice, truth and reconciliation, human health and wellbeing, economic disparity, and political instability can all be hindered or helped by architecture. Yet few Canadians truly understand the impact it has on their everyday lives.”

“These complex challenges, paired with architecture’s obscure policies, restrict meaningful public participation and hinder communities from becoming healthier, more affordable, just, and resilient. For architecture to truly help Canadian communities thrive, we need a new social contract between the profession of architecture and the public we serve,” the report concludes. “We imagine a future where all Canadians are empowered to guide the design of their communities; where social and environmental justice shape every design decision; and where architecture is leveraged to celebrate diverse cultures and contribute to a prosperous future.” 

How do we get from here to there? Recently, two Canadian surveys have attempted to gauge one aspect of where we are at now, by including a focus on climate change competency.

Climate Curriculum

The initiative was launched in 2022 at Toronto Metropolitan University to better understand how students of architecture are engaging with climate change and sustainable design. The first phase involved a web-based survey for Canadian students and instructors; the second phase was the launch of an international poster competition where students graphically presented their ideas about how architecture should engage with climate change. The data collected in the 19-question web survey is the first national data of its kind, and it was inspired by and adapted from a survey by the ARCH4 Change Erasmus+ consortium, led by Tampere University in Finland, with Aarhus School of Architecture in Denmark, Bologna University in Italy, Taltech in Estonia, and TU Dublin in Ireland.

The premise of these surveys is the belief that future practice will require a greater understanding of the environmental impacts of architecture, and that future professionals will be asked to design net-zero buildings and understand metrics for embodied carbon and renewable energy. The Climate Curriculum survey sought to understand: will students be ready for their future professional lives in the context of a changing climate, extreme weather, and a focus on higher building performance? Do they feel satisfied and prepared by their architectural education?

The initiative collected 196 survey responses from across all 12 of Canada’s accredited architecture schools, and results were presented in an Issue Paper at the 2022 CACB conference. More than 92 percent of responses either agreed or strongly agreed that sustainable design should be a core part of architecture education, and more than 94 percent of responses either agreed or strongly agreed that sustainable design should be embedded in architectural design curricula. 59 percent of respondents indicated they were being explicitly taught about sustainable design, and more than 88 percent of responses either agreed or strongly agreed that sustainable design provides a creative input or inspiration in their designs. 

Yet just 36 percent of responses either agreed or strongly agreed that they are satisfied by the level and depth of teaching content on sustainable design. Only 45 percent either agreed or strongly agreed that their school successfully teaches sustainable design.

When asked about a number of specific aspects of sustainable design, the overall feedback indicates that students lack confidence that they are well prepared, and want more of the curriculum devoted to sustainable design. In particular, respondents believe there is a gap between what they are taught—and what they feel they need to know, or should be taught. Respondents expressed strong opinions about the connection between architecture, climate change, and sustainable design, but reported they do not have confidence in their knowledge about many key terms and concepts. A climate-centred curriculum should be explicitly part of the education of architects, as has now been mandated in the UK.

The survey also points to the need for educators and accrediting bodies to embed sustainable design in the architecture curriculum, in particular by reinforcing sustainable design concepts in studio. While 74 percent of students believe that successful design studio projects must address sustainable design, only 38 percent feel this aspect of their designs is being formally evaluated. 

Within these responses, there is a lot to be optimistic about. Students overwhelmingly report they are interested in learning more about sustainable design, and incorporating climate action into their curriculum. But until such time as sustainable design and the essential knowledge and skills are clearly defined, it is difficult to formulate fundamental course content. Further, if this learning is not embedded and reinforced across the curriculum—both in lecture and studio courses—then it will remain challenging to assure students will graduate with a high degree of competence in sustainable design.

Canadian Architectural Practices Benchmark Survey (2023)

The RAIC and Canadian Architect’s recent benchmarking survey refreshes a previous 2011 survey, adding new sections related to Indigenous themes and reconciliation, EDI, and climate action. 

When asked: “Does your firm have a formal commitment to leadership on climate action?” one-third of responding practices indicated they did. These commitments varied across a wide range of initiatives, such as LEED, Passive House, 2030 Challenge, net-zero and a diversity of internal policies. Regardless of whether they have a formal commitment, nearly half of the responding architecture firms are engaged in the mitigation of operational and whole life carbon. About a third of firms engage in climate change adaptation, and roughly one in seven firms advocate for climate justice. About one-third of firms indicated they did not engage in any form of mitigation, adaptation or climate justice measures. 

A follow-up question asked: “To what extent do you feel that your organization is engaged in climate action, relative to its capacity to be?” A third of firms believe they apply up to one-quarter of their potential capacity towards climate action. Another third felt they applied between one-quarter to one-half of their potential capacity towards climate action initiatives. 24 percent of firms reported they achieved one-half to three-quarters of their climate action capacity, and 11 percent indicated achieving better than three-quarters of their potential capacity to engage climate action leadership in practice. Based on these responses, it appears that one in ten practices are highly engaged and committed with respect to their potential capacity, about six out of ten are moderately engaged, and that three out of ten are marginally engaged in climate action leadership activities. Another way of interpreting these results is that only about one-third of respondents believed they were working to 50 percent or more of their potential capacity to engage climate action initiatives. 

When asked, “What is your sense of the importance of climate action?” over 80 percent of survey respondents indicated they sensed climate action as being highly to extremely important. Clearly, a vast majority of architecture firms acknowledge the importance of climate action in professional practice.

Finally, respondents were asked: “How would you rate your own climate action knowledge and competency development?” Based on a scale of 0 (Poor) to 10 (Excellent), about one in 10 respondents rated their climate action knowledge and competence as somewhat less than half of what would be considered excellent (0-5). Roughly six out of ten rated their climate action knowledge and competence as ranging from moderate to high (6-8), while some three out of ten rated themselves as possessing a very high to excellent level (9-10). Assuming that self-assessed levels of climate action knowledge are reasonably well correlated with externally assessed levels of competence, there is clearly  justification for improving general levels of expertise. At present, there are no mandatory continuing education requirements related to climate change competence for practicing architects.

The key takeaways from the two surveys? Both architecture students and practitioners believe that climate action is extremely important. Both groups are aware there are gaps in their climate action knowledge and skills, and that they could be learning and doing more about climate action leadership. It is encouraging that some firms reported significant commitments to, and competencies in, climate action leadership. This indicates that a transition toward greater emphasis on climate action and sustainable design is desirable, realistic and achievable.

Moving forward, taking action

Transitions necessarily generate tensions as academia and the profession stretch to adapt to a changing context. In 1970, American futurist Alvin Toffler identified “future shock” as a psychological state of individuals and society, stemming from enormous structural changes in a post-industrial society. The architecture discipline has attempted to buffer many significant changes—globalization, environmental responsibility, sustainability, computational design—in order to preserve the traditional core of the discipline. However, the intensity and magnitude of significant changes have now reached a threshold where difficult choices must be made between core traditions and emerging realities. 

What happens when existing courses compete with climate change competency courses? How can computation and digital fabrication be integrated within design studios? These are difficult challenges that are generating discomforting conversations as they start to happen across architecture schools everywhere.

On the professional front, architecture offices are looking for ways of reskilling their staff while recruiting interns suitably prepared to tackle the 3-Ls: long life, loose fit, and low-impact buildings. Architects need to be able to speak the languages of the various expert consultants that are routinely retained to conduct assessments that inform early stages of design, and later, to ensure compliance with codes and standards. While larger practices can afford to retain resident, in-house expertise, the vast majority of smaller practices need to make tough choices between attempting to learn enough about energy modelling, daylighting, and life cycle assessments to do the work themselves, or convincing their clients to agree to additional fees for specialty consultants that were unheard of over a decade ago. A divide is emerging between architecture practices that have ample resources to engage the sustainability challenge, and those that do not have sufficient bandwidth or access to clients with long-term sustainability goals and the deep pockets to attain these targets. 

The consumers of architecture services are caught in the middle. Many want to build better, but do not have access to a competitive diversity of competent practices with a demonstrated track record. Industry-wide, a lack of post-occupancy evaluation has resulted in a performance gap between sustainability promises and what is actually delivered. This kind of situation would never be tolerated by consumers of automobiles—and the day is nearing when mandatory building performance measurement and reporting will require architects to consistently hit environmental performance targets, in the same way that cars must comply with fuel efficiency and emissions standards.

Stakeholder engagement will be key to a successful transition. Architecture accreditation requirements need to be brought up to date. Professional licensing bodies and educational institutions will have to ensure the ongoing competence of practitioners and instructors, respectively. A more frequent and effective means of reviewing and updating curriculum and continuing education content will need to be instituted. The rate of change must be managed so that the transition is not overwhelming, while still being sufficiently responsive to meet new challenges. Most importantly, the change must begin now.

Adaptive reskilling of architecture—not as we have known it up to the present, but as it needs to evolve in order to manage massive change—is a daunting challenge that schools and the profession cannot afford to ignore. The good news is that the essential knowledge is finite and readily available for dissemination. But letting go of past academic traditions and anachronistic modes of professional practice will not get any easier with time. The recent Canadian surveys indicate a broad awareness that much needs to be done to adapt architecture education and professional practice. This should be celebrated, even if it is accompanied with some degree of shock and discomfort. If architects could transition from drafting tables to computer-aided design and digital fabrication, it is imperative to take the next leap into a rapidly unfolding future. Is there any other option?


Terri Peters is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Architectural Science at Toronto Metropolitan University. Ted Kesik is Professor of Building Science in the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto.

This article is part of Canadian Architect’s series on the Canadian Architectural Practices Benchmark Report (2023 Edition). The full report is available for purchase from the RAIC

See all articles in the November issue 

Read additional articles in Canadian Architect’s series on the Canadian Architectural Practices Benchmark Report (2023 Edition):

·        Benchmark Report 2023: The State of Canadian Architectural Practice

·        Benchmark 2023: How’s your firm’s financial health?

·        Benchmark Report 2023: Mixed Prospects

·        Benchmark Report 2023: Architecture and Capital “M” Marketing

·        Benchmark Report 2023: Firm Expectations—Managing Remote Work and Flexibility

·        Benchmark Report 2023: Women in Canadian Architecture—An Update

·        Benchmark Report 2023: Competitive Compensation

·        Benchmark Report 2023: Looking Ahead—Succession Planning and Firm Value