Book Review: Everything Needs to Change—Architecture and the Climate Emergency

Edited by Sofie Pelsmakers and Nick Newman (RIBA Publishing, 2021)

Over the last 18 months, we have all thought a lot about change: with Covid-19, wildfires and record-breaking extreme weather in many areas of the country, and global political and social upheavals. The idea of “building back better” is a positive message—and in any case, there is little chance of things going back to the status quo.

Such is the ethos of Everything Needs to Change: Architecture and the Climate Emergency, the first in the Design Studio book series from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). The well-illustrated book has an unmissable brightly coloured front cover, and is edited by Sofie Pelsmakers, professor and author of The Environmental Design Pocketbook, and Nick Newman, climate activist and director of Studio Bark

The book features essays, interviews and case studies of new global approaches to sustainable buildings. For example, there is a profile of the UK office Mikhail Riches, an award-winning environmental architecture firm that focuses on designing projects that achieve zero-carbon targets while promoting zero-carbon lifestyles. Projects exploring ideas of resilience include the work of Indian office Samira Rathod Design Atelier, whose inspiring spaces beautifully combine passive strategies, simple forms, and local materials such as terracotta brick. Danish office Lendager Group explores building-scale reuse strategies, including in the innovative Resource Rows: a series of three-storey apartment blocks that use upcycled bricks from a nearby brewery as well as waste wood from the nearby metro construction.

Dorte Mandrup Arkitektur’s Ilulissat Icefjord Centre, in Greenland, is expected to be completed by the end of this year. Its steel and timber construction is based on local conditions, ensuring sustainable solutions suited to the context. Rendering by MIR

The book’s overarching message is that the buildings of the future are being built right now. There is no point in architects waiting to get the perfect project, or holding out for some new technology, or for some ideal next project. We need to treat this as an emergency. We are seeing “future” climate scenarios happening all around us and need to design accordingly. In the introduction text, Pelsmakers and Newman state the obvious: we have likely about 10 years to transition into a climate-neutral society. So, yes, basically everything needs to change.

While the book focuses on professional practice, there is also the question of how well architectural education is preparing students in terms of climate change and sustainable buildings. This theme was also the focus of the recent ACSA Teachers Conference, entitled “Curriculum for Climate Agency: Design (in)Action.” The book discusses the volunteer-run network Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN), which calls for increased universal integration of environmental design, radical activism, and increased collaboration. It argues that schools must equip students with the tools to reduce carbon emissions linked with the built environment to zero by 2050. One article includes graphics of results from a number of studies: instructors scoring student understanding of sustainable design, analysis of modules offered in the current curriculum relevant to the climate emergency, and student scores of their own understanding of key terms.

The book raises some relevant questions for Canadian educators, some controversial. Should architecture students learn and be assessed on their ability to design carbon-neutral buildings? Or do educators have enough to do in just teaching the required topics to continue to meet accreditation requirements?  The Architects Registration Board (ARB) in the UK recently announced that schools of architecture must start teaching sustainability and fire- and life-safety design from this fall onwards. While changing the conversation in schools and in practice is not this simple, this is a step in the right direction. It’s a solid example of the change we need to see.

Terri Peters is an Assistant Professor at Ryerson University in Toronto. Her research project launching this fall includes collecting national data about how Canadian architecture students feel about the climate change and sustainability aspects of their design educations.