Reading the inspiring Letters to the Earth, I thought I would pen my own, in the runup to our election, when we have hope of a climate emergency facing government. The following, written on a recent train journey, influenced by (seasonal) tracks on the playlist and running around my head.
Letters to the Earth was an invitation early in 2019, open to all, to think beyond the human narrative and to bear witness to the scale and horror of the climate crisis, an opportunity to pause and reflect.
It’s late autumn, coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees, forecasting winter snows.
The days are contracting, COP25 debates commercial carbon against a backdrop of daily bad news records. Increasingly it feels we are driving towards a cliff edge, slower maybe, but with reluctance to change direction.
Youth hope sails across oceans, raising many voices, as heat, ice, water, fire and carbon, our vital elements, move into interconnected feedback loops.
We now understand that in nature everything is connected and we have no free lunch. We are now paying for all the lunches we took without paying back, seeing ourselves apart from nature and not as a part of nature.
So, we now plant more trees, as it’s the thing to do, virtue signalling, for hope, for biodiversity, for futures, for carbon, if our trees reach maturity.
There is hope, in the days before our wet and dark winter election. Climate and biodiversity emergencies have been declared, manifestos outline promises, and we will vote. Our designers, builders, engineers, researchers, media communicators and others have declared, now called on to share actions of commitment.
And so, as we move into the time of red and green, through the dark of winter, what will birth of the new spring, new year and new decade bring? Will loud bells welcome in renewed hope, or foretell a silent spring?
We will move closer to our 2025, 2030, 2040, 2050 commitments, in time, although not so in progress. Yet. But we will.
The plethora of climate, carbon and biodiversity targets, visions and reports within, and beyond, the built environment, may seem to cause confusion, but there is a core, science based purpose. However, the explosion of focus on climate emergency, over the last six months or so, driven by IPCC, CCC, Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and others has changed the narrative … from why to how.
Reading the latest, Transforming Construction report published recently by the NFB, I realised we have many, perhaps too many, reports re-emphasising or regurgitating the why, we now need more how. The urgent how challenge of adapting existing and construction new in the climate emergency is to quickly reduce the upfront and operational carbon emissions from our buildings and infrastructure. Indeed the biggest contribution, and responsible contribution we can make is to deliver buildings that store carbon.
Our last 30 or 40 years of sustainability reports and events on why we need to understand and monitor carbon hasn’t shifted the sustainability needle. In fact on our watch, despite great sustainability initiatives, the situation has gotten worse and is escalating … in the wrong direction.
In 2012 the Construction Vision 2025 called for a 50% reduction in built environment carbon by 2025. It’s probably fair to say the bulk of the construction sector has done little towards this. Indeed when presented now the reaction from many contractors is ‘thats impossible’
That was then: this is now.
The climate crisis is a rapidly changing picture and as we have more understanding there is the recognition there is no time to lose. The recent paper published in the journal BioScience endorsed by over 11000 scientists emphasises “The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected. It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity.”
How we address carbon management over the next 10 years is vital – if we haven’t moved significantly on the 1.5 deg warming Paris pathway we are stuffed. 2030 is far more important than 2050.
Having recognised an emergency exists, are we dialling 999 and requesting firefighting services in 20 years?
The UK Green Party 2019 manifesto If Not Now, Then When, is based on the premise New green homes, new green transport and new green jobs will get us on track to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2030 and provide new opportunities for everyone to live happier and more secure lives.
One ‘how’ solution, for clients, designers, planners, contractors, manufacturers and facilities, that can move us forward rapidly as ‘a visionary pathway to a regenerative future’ is the suite of standards and tools associated with the Living Building Challenge from the International’s Living Future Institute, (includes Living Building, Living Communities and Living Product Challenges, Declare and Just labels, Net Zero Energy and Net Zero Carbon tools)
Round up of Carbon Visions and Targets
IPCC 2018 if we want to hold the line to 1.5 degrees, we have to slash emissions by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030. Then we have to reach net-zero around 2050. Note Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report re-emphasizing the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for all sectors by 2020
RIBA 2030 Challenge – Reduce embodied carbon by at least 50-70%, before offsetting. Target net zero whole life carbon for new and retrofitted buildings by 2030. And on embodied, up front carbon based on 1100 kgCO2e/m2 (M4i benchmark) – 2020 < 800 kgCO2e/m2 30% – 2025 < 650 kgCO2e/m2 40% – 2030 < 500 kgCO2e/m2 60%
The NZGBC Zero Carbon Road Map proposes that – building owners start certifying their existing buildings to zero carbon in 2020 and have all their buildings zero carbon by 2030 – building developers construct their new buildings to zero carbon, and 20 per cent less embodied carbon, by 2025.
World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) global Advancing Net Zero Campaign which has set targets for all buildings to be net zero carbon in operation by 2050 and all new buildings to meet this standard by 2030.Bringing embodied carbon upfront
UKGBC“We need to take urgent action to almost halve global emissions by 2030 and eliminate them completely by the middle of the century”
“By 2030, all buildings and infrastructure will, throughout their lifetime, be climate resilient and maximise environmental net gains, through the prioritisation of nature-based solutions.”
Committee on Climate Change Using known technologies, the UK can end our contribution to global warming by reducing emissions to Net Zero by 2050. (Scotland a net-zero date of 2045, Wales, a 95% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050.)
Green Construction Board Buildings Mission 2030 report shows that net zero operational carbon is already possible.
Architects Declare Adopt more regenerative design principles in our studios, with the aim of designing architecture and urbanism that goes beyond the standard of net zero carbon in use.
Building Services Declare: Adopt more regenerative design principles in practice, with the aim of providing building services engineering design that achieves the standard of net zero carbon
Structural Eng Declare Adopt more regenerative design principles in practice, with the aim of providing structural engineering design that achieves the standard of net zero carbon.
UK – Parliament Declaration – all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.
What if we lived in a time when the human imagination flourished and anything felt possible.
It was back in 2008 when I first came across Rob Hopkins through his Transition Handbook. This helped shape a lot of my sustainability thinking at the time, (Time for built environment transition?) and in turn participation in Transition Town activities here in the North West. Writing in 2008, from a future 2030, Rob looked back over transition achievements, to when “in 2011, the Government initiated the concept of the Great Reskilling in the training of construction industry workers” with skills and mindset to address a sustainable future.
Of course that reskilling is still to happen within the built environment sector, and is ever important as we look to circular economy, toxic free and nature based construction techniques and materials. Fast forward to Rob’s latest book, What If …From What Is To What If … What if we had undertaken that construction re-skilling back then?.
What If does have a sprinkling of the climate doom gloom we face (and read in many climate change texts at the present) but the focus is on our capability to reimagine a better future and in asking the question how can we unleash the power of our imagination to create the future we want.
This resonates well with me, and with many of the messages I have used over recent years, in FutuREstorative in 2016 and in the series of #imaginebetter keynotes for Specifi and others through 2018 into 2019. And it is indeed core to the Living Building Challenge call to “imagine if every act of construction made the world a better place”
What If takes us on a deeper exploration of ‘imagination’ in an inspiring and urgent call for us to look deeper, to reconnect, with place, with nature, with ourselves and to reimagine a better future with a renewed sense of possibility.
Within sustainable design we focus on topics such as biophilia, that FutuREstorative described as the secret sauce for sustainability behaviour, to rekindle our believe that we can achieve a restorative future. Yet, spending 90% of our time in buildings we increasingly suffer solastalgia – a distress and yearning for earlier times, of better childhood memories, of a cleaner, more natural environment, that ebbs away our power to imagine a better environment, or reclaiming the one we have lost
Worringly, What If details how we are losing our capacity for imagination through dependency on technology, through loss of biodiversity, disconnection with nature and a degradation of of our environment, pushing us further into a spiral of being unable to imagine, and then achieve, a better future.
What is the impact on our imaginations of freefalling biodiversity and abundance? And, the corollary, is a diminished imagination to blame for the tolerance of such abject (biodiversity) tragedy?
What If revisits the power of our imagination, with stories, research and case studies, in play, as a vital element of our health, as a core element of connectivity with nature, of our ability to ask better questions and then importantly explores what if our imagination and desire for a better future came to pass.
On the dustcover, What If is described as a passionate call to action, to revive and to replenish not only our individual imaginations but a collective imagination, and once achieved there could be no end to what we may accomplish.
“I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and even imagine some real grounds for hope.”
Ursula Le Guin, 2014
FutuREstorative included a list of books that have inspired me along my sustainability journey. However since its publication in 2016, the world of sustainability has moved on, we now have recognition of a climate and biodiversity emergency, we are asking how, not why, we have IPCC, UN and UKCC reports, we have extinction rebellion, we have school-strike activists and record breaking protests demanding climate change action. We need and we have, an updated library of climate change sustainability texts and novels. Below is the wonderful text that appeared in the Guardian Review on the 5th of October, that promotes great writing on a planet in peril. Where, In Life Stories, Amitav Ghosh asks the question “How do we make sense of the Earth when it seems to be turning against us in revenge for its despoliation?”
The very act of writing about the devastation can sometimes create a kind of coherence. Elizabeth Kolbert shows us how with The Sixth Extinction, where she focuses on a few of the million or so species that are dying out in what is now known to be one of the greatest extinction events in the history of the Earth. The closeness of the focus creates a powerful sense of empathy, not just with the vanishing creatures but also with the writer as she struggles to account for the horrors to which she is bearing witness.
MB: Elizabeth Kolbert Field Notes from a Catastrophe 2006 was part travel, part reporting and for me an early eyeopener to climate change, which. in 2006 was not recognised outside of the science community
Dahr Jamail’s The End of Ice is another unflinching attempt to grapple with almost incomprehensible realities. Jamail travels widely and listens closely to scientists, and to people whose ways of life are threatened by ecological breakdown. “The grief for the planet does not get easier,” he writes. “Returning to this again and again is, I think, the greatest service I can offer in these times.”
Our current predicament is both overwhelming and elusive, manifesting itself not in big events but in what the Princeton professor Rob Nixon calls a kind of “slow violence”, revealed in small but telling details. Such details abound in Annie Proulx’s Bird Cloud, a memoir of her experience of building a house in a very challenging location in Wyoming. Proulx has always paid close attention to landscape and this is no exception: it is the terrain that awakens the writer to the effects of planetary changes.
MB on my reading list …
A memoir of a completely different kind is Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. Scranton served in Iraq as a private in the US army and he draws on that experience in trying to understand the implications of climate crisis for himself and his loved ones: the result is a book that is fiercely urgent and deeply poignant.
In The Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Tsing goes in search of the much-prized matsutake mushroom, found only in certain damaged forests. The matsutake serves as both vehicle and metaphor for a giddying exploration of capitalism, networks of trade and the hidden lives of forests, ultimately opening up the possibility of salvaging meaning from an increasingly disordered reality.
The disrupted migration of monarch butterflies underpins a powerful human story in Barbara Kingsolver’s luminous novel Flight Behaviour.
MB Choosing the Monarch Butterfly as the symbol for FutuREstorative led me to reading and research, including a scan read (the sample kindle chapter I must admit) from Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, it has remained on my ‘to finish’ reading since
We need stories that can accommodate other kinds of protagonists, and there is no better example of this than Richard Powers’s marvellous The Overstory, a novel that gives trees a wonderfully vivid fictional life.
MB Currently half way through and its changing the way I think of trees, in particular the huge difference in time frames between us & trees, and how our stories are linked & eclipsed by the arboreal overstory
Many people have always known that emotions are not exclusive to humans. But what does it mean when someone says they can understand the inner lives of animals, trees, or even forests? Bruce Albert and Davi Kopenawa provide a vivid sense of this in The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman. The Yanomami of the Amazon, like all the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia, have experienced the end of what was once their world.
To this list I would add:
Climate Justice, Mary Robinson A Man-Made Problem With a Feminist Solution. An urgent call to arms by one of the most important voices in the international fight against climate change, sharing inspiring stories and offering vital lessons for the path forward, I picked up a signed copy after listening to Mary talk at Living Futures in Seattle back in May. Mary also has a wonderful podcast, Mothers of Invention with Maeve Higgins
This is Not a Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook. Extinction Rebellion are inspiring a whole generation to take action on climate breakdown. By the time you finish this book you will have become an Extinction Rebellion activist.
“It is worse, far worse than you think” the opening sentence to Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace Wells, is perhaps one of the best openers for a while. David Wallace-Wells brings into stark relief the climate troubles that await–food shortages, refugee emergencies, and other crises that will reshape the globe. But the world will be remade by warming in more profound ways as well, transforming our politics, our culture, our relationship to technology, and our sense of history. It will be all-encompassing, shaping and distorting nearly every aspect of human life as it is lived today.
No one is too small to make a difference. The history-making, ground-breaking speeches of Greta Thunberg, the young activist who has become the voice of a generation. With the cost of this being les than 1/2 pint of beer – its one to gift.
Although over recent years in the built environment, ‘on our watch’, we have been discussing and to varying degree implementing biodiversity net gain, biodiversity units, action plans, habitat exchange, ecology of place, connectivity with nature and biophilic design. Yet today’s State of Nature report paints a dire picture of decline and loss of so many species and habitats. And, worryingly, reports no significant improvement since the 2016 State of Nature report, that labelled the UK as “among the most nature-depleted countries in the world”.
Causes of the losses are reported as intensification of farming, pollution, plastic, urbanisation – destruction of habitats for houses and development, hydrological change, the climate crisis and invasive alien species.
Over recent months many architects, civil, structural & service engineers and landscape architects have signed a biodiversity emergency declaration, in recognition that an emergency exists, to tell the truth and take regenerative, net positive actions to address. Now then is the time to act – and to consider every decision of design, construction and operation of buildings as being part of nature, rather than apart from nature.
Realigning how people understand and relate to the natural environment that sustains us. … The intent of the Living Building Challenge Place Petal
Design can no longer be only concerned with reducing environmental impacts within the threshold of greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings today must be developed to reverse the effects of climate change, enhance natural systems, the built environment and habitants health.
“Regenerative Design in the Digital Practice” explores how the regenerative concept is now being applied to the regenerative design of cities and buildings. A series of digital design approaches are exemplified via a series of examples drawn from leading international practitioners and researchers.
“Regenerative Design in the Digital Practice” fills a gap in the existing literature by introducing fundamental design principles of regenerative design practice whilst acknowledging the potential and imperative of integrating science, big data and multi-discipline digital tools in the design process.
This book offers those involved within the built environment a wide range of insights into regenerative design from international design practitioners and researchers in the field. As well as theoretical insights into the historical, cultural and philosophical development of regenerative design, practical insights are framed in a set of key regenerative design principles, methods and performance simulation tools. Finally, the ability to create regenerative designs and the positive impacts they bring are demonstrated through a series of built examples.
REGENERATIVE DEFINITIONS FOR DESIGNERS The Pillars of Regenerative Design Edited Martin Brown, Emanuele Naboni, Lisanne Havinga TOOLS AND DATA FOR HOLISTIC MODELLING Simulating Regenerative Futures Edited Emanuele Naboni, Clarice Bleil de Souza, Terri Peters, Lisanne Havinga CLIMATE AND ENERGY FOR REGENERATIVE URBAN DESIGN Local Context, Adaptation, Resilience Edited Emanuele Naboni, Ata Chokhachian, Luca Finnochiaro, Lisanne Havinga CARBON AND ECOLOGY WITHIN THE DESIGN PROCESS Environmental Impact Assessment Edited Lisanne Havinga, Catherine De Wolf, Antonino Marvuglia, Emanuele Naboni HUMAN WELL-BEING VIA CERTIFICATION AND TOOLS Comfort, Health, Satisfaction, Well-being Edited Angela Loder, Sergio Altomonte, Emanuele Naboni, Lisanne Havinga CASE STUDIES SHOWCASING REGENERATIVE DESIGN 346 From Theory to Realisation Edited by Emanuele Naboni, Lisanne Having
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” John Muir, The Yosemite, 1912
“Beauty is an experience – it is not the property of an object. It is not a permanent state, but the response a person will have to something, another person or action, a feeling or object.”
Over the weekend I sat down to read and review Wellbeing In Interiors, Philosophy, Design & Value in Practice by Elina Grigoriou, recently published by RIBA. A book that is indeed a welcomed and fresh contribution to wellbeing within the built environment. I was struck on the alignment of my thinking with that of Elina in particular regarding ‘beauty’.
The latest edition of Living Building Challenge, 4.0, has moved biophilic design from the Health and Happiness ‘petal’ to Beauty. This takes a little understanding of the philosophy of beauty and nature, something Elina describes within Part 1 ‘Philosophy: prerequisites and outputs of wellbeing’
There is a caveat here., in that we should strive to be far less human-centric when considering biophilia and create buildings and spaces that are both regenerative and beneficial to nature and to humans. Seeing ourselves as part of nature not apart from, and nature as something that happens around us. In this thinking Biophilia would have found a better home in the Place petal, celebrating and recognising our inclusion within Ecology of Place.
Elina refers to the Living Building Challenge, noting the requirement towards creating aesthetically beautiful buildings and spaces, where beauty is a key requirement for a sustainable outcome.
“a requirement that neatly explains LBC’s vision in nurturing designs that do not just elevate but celebrate peoples spirit and inspire everyone to be and to do better.”
The conclusion follows that if we design and incorporate biophilic principles within our buildings, we are creating beautiful buildings.
Wellbeing in Interiors also sheds light on another issue I am currently exploring, that of measuring biophilic interventions. Our COST Restore working group looking at KPI’s for interior comfort has identified biophilia as a key performance driver, and exploring indicators that observe successful biophilic designs.
Wellbeing in Interiors addresses this issue in the chapter defining project KPIs and UPA’s (User Profile Activities) within in the ‘Value in Practice: Measuring Wellbeing” section, and again, I am inspired with alignment on my thinking regarding the use of Maslow’s hierarchy (a commonly talked about but underused model) as the basis for inhabitant wellbeing when conducting POE assessments.
Indeed Wellbeing In Interiors provides much fresh thinking for moving the increasingly stale POE and ‘user’ evaluations into a modern, regenerative approach to measuring and monitoring the value of wellbeing interventions.
I look forward to exploring more of Wellbeing In Interiors in future review and insight articles.
Are commitments and actions towards Climate and Biodiversity becoming procurement criteria for consultants, designers, contractors and building product manufacturers, and criteria for selecting which contracts to bid?
Practices and organisations who are making climate and biodiversity emergency Promise of Declarations are questioned on their actions, and outcomes on issues pledged within the declarations, for example:
Moving to regenerative design practices
Set mitigation as critical measures for awards, prizes and listings.
Sharing knowledge on open source basis
Evaluate all new projects against (climate declaration)
Going beyond net zero carbon
Collaborate (on climate / biodiversity emergencies)
Shift to low embodied carbon materials in all work
With the construction materials sector exposed to significant transition and physical risk resulting from climate change, the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC) recent paper, Investor Expectations of Companies in the Construction Materials Sector, outlines the steps that investors expect companies to take to manage climate risks and accelerate action to decarbonise in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.
The guide is endorsed by other investor networks that make up the Global Investor Coalition of Climate Change, and was developed in line with the goals of Climate Action 100+ in order to inform investor engagement with construction material firms on the initiative’s global list of 161 focus companies.
Investors supporting the Climate Action 100+ initiative expect construction material companies to make commitments in respect of
Implement a strong governance framework which clearly articulates the board’s accountability and oversight of climate change risk and opportunities.
Take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across their value chain, consistent with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting the increase in global average temperatures to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Provide enhanced corporate disclosure in line with the final recommendations of the TCFD5 and, when applicable, sector-specific Global Investor Coalition on Climate Change Investor Expectations on Climate Change to enable investors to assess the robustness of companies’ business plans against a range of climate scenarios, including well below 2°C and improve investment decision-making.
Climate change risk is especially acute for companies that manufacture cement. As the most widely used construction material globally, cement is the source of 7 percent of global man-made carbon dioxide emissions. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest global emitter, behind only China and the US.
Declare is a construction materials transparency disclosure programme.
What is the collective noun for declarations? An argument, (used to describe architects and wizards) sounds a good fit. But I like a Promise of Declarations.
Coupled with recent findings from the IPCC, the UK’s CCC Net Zero Report and inspiration from Greta Thunberg and school strikers, over 100 local authorities, have declared a climate emergency and / or committed to net zero carbon by 2030 or 2050. And within the built environment we have declarations from Architects (now over 500 practice signatures), Landscape Architects, Structural Engineers, Service Engineers, Creative Communicators and even Construction Supply Chains. Check them out:
And, if anyone is setting up, or knows of a construction sector emergency declaration, I would be more than keen to assist/support
Tell the Truth: The first objective of call of extinction rebellion is to recognise that a climate emergency exists and to tell the truth. The second is to Act Now. Now that these groups, institutes, practices and individuals have recognised a climate emergency problem exists, we can act, and now is the time to turn these commitments into actions.
Act Now – All of these declarations have similar, reassuring, commitments for faster change in our industry towards regenerative approaches. And in doing so recognising that business as usual sustainability (BAUS) has not moved the needle on carbon, global climate temperatures or biodiversity.
“faster change in our industry towards regenerative design practices”
Act Now – Reimagine carbon – the greatest contribution we can make in the built environment, given that we emit 40% of emissions, is to design, deliver buildings that store carbon.
Act Now – Declare: Only with greater transparency in respect of the products we use, can we address impacts our buildings have on human, biodiversity and planetary health. Declare is focused on taking toxic materials out of the Built Environment through fostering a transparent materials economy free of toxins and harmful chemicals.
3 Collaborate and going beyond silos, we cannot do this alone and will need the might of all good collaborative working approaches from the last 30 years. One powerful benefit of Living Building Challenge accreditation, in not awarding certification until design intent is proven over a 12 months continuous period, is the way in which design, construction, facilities managers and those using the building have to collaborate for sustainable success