Architects Declare in the Finnish Context and lessons from the UK
Climate change is the most pressing issue of our times. Joint efforts to tackle it and the necessary urgency for global action has been emphasised time and again, most recently in the Paris Agreement of 2016, where several countries in the world pledged to work together to strengthen the global response to climate change by keeping global temperature rise in this century well below two degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In response to this agreement, several profession-driven movements have risen in the past few years, addressing pertinent issues regarding climate change. Architects Declare is one such movement, which originated in the United Kingdom. The building industry accounts for nearly forty percent of energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and this necessitates radical change within the sector. Architects Declare unites practitioners under an eleven-point declaration that provides a preliminary road map for action. By signing up, offices agree to initiate practices that align with the framework of the declaration.
As a signatory of the Finnish chapter, we have acted by re-evaluating our quality control systems to include the role of a sustainability advisor in every project. We are following up with a few initiatives that include upskilling our team and assessing our own work to provide tangible outcomes. In light of our upcoming educational session titled Climate Impact Assessment for Buildings and Land Use, we are meditating on the path forward and drawing some lessons from the forerunners.
Architects Declare was launched as a non-profit organisation in the UK on 30 May 2019. There were seventeen founding signatories, all of whom were recipients of the Stirling Prize. The Finnish chapter was launched on 29 May 2020, exactly a year later – also with seventeen founding signatories. A quick comparison of these founding signatories already highlights the stark difference in context. Almost all the UK founding members are architectural practices with more than twenty employees. Often, they employ over a hundred workers and operate from multiple locations across the globe. Among the Finnish founding members, one notices a majority of smaller practices, employing less than twenty people and for the most part, focusing on projects that are within Finland. One also notices the presence of non-profit collectives and professional associations such as SAFA & MARK, who have pledged background support towards the same goal. While the Architects Declare UK does not have the same open endorsement from the RIBA (the SAFA equivalent in the UK), there is a strong presence of various supporting bodies or networks like ACAN & LETI, working towards the same goal. Key members of these networks are also part of the steering group of Architects Declare.
‘We are all in this together, but what form of ‘being together’ is most effective for action?’
The Architects Declare movement aims to be a highly devolved network and the presence of multiple role-players, with different perspectives, united by the same goal is crucial to its efforts to bring about systemic change. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the RIBA as the primary professional body has developed the 2030 climate challenge targets for architects. Organised under two heads – the Sustainable Outcome Metrics (Operational Energy, Embodied Carbon, Potable Water use) & Best Practice Health Metrics (Overheating, Daylighting, CO2 levels, Total VOCs, Formaldehyde), the document sets consecutive targets for 2020, 2025 & 2030. This set of guidelines has become the reference for architectural practices working towards carbon neutrality in the UK.
The ACAN has an activist and sometimes, provocative approach to action. This is best illustrated in the case of their letter to Foster + Partners regarding the Amaala resort airport.
The Architects Climate Action network (ACAN) is a network of architects and built environment professionals acting to address the twin crises of climate and ecological breakdown. They have established three overarching aims, namely, Decarbonize Now!; Ecological Regeneration and Cultural Transformation. They plan to act through political campaigning & lobbying, direct action & public engagement, research & knowledge sharing. They have, so far, established eight working groups that work on themes corresponding to their three overarching aims. These working groups explore and delve into their respective themes and find meaningful ways of taking action. For example, the Safe Timber Campaign aims to oppose the government proposal to ban structural timber in buildings through collective petitions. The ACAN has an activist and sometimes, provocative approach to action. This is best illustrated in the case of their letter to Foster + Partners, where they asked the practice to either withdraw their involvement from the Amaala resort airport in Saudi Arabia or step down from Architects Declare . Although Architects Declare has a firm ‘no public blame and shame’ policy in place, ACAN’s action regarding the Amaala case complemented its goal and helped reiterate the need for integrity from the signatories.
Wooden Pyramid: a modular vertical village © Ark Brut. Submitted in response to the open call for Future Visions by Architects Declare Finland.
The London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI) is a network of over one thousand built environment professionals working together to create a zero-carbon future for London. Their modus operandi consists of deliberate and sustained educational initiatives that have produced evidence-based recommendations to initiate change in the energy policy and have helped develop strategies that actively work towards lowering energy consumption. They also publish guides and primers for climate emergency design and in doing so, create a framework of discussion where tangible and measurable targets are set. This, subsequently, creates an environment for the signatories to easily find direction in their drive for carbon neutrality.
In addition to these organisations, there is a requisite for the role of an impartial and critical observer, best served by the press.
In the article, What has the Architects Declare achieved? published by the Architect’s journal, authors raise the difficult questions that remained unaddressed in the Architects Declare Summary of 2019/2020 signatory feedback . Apart from discussing several controversies over projects by founding signatories that explicitly contradict the goals of Architects Declare, the article also opens a new perspective of ‘one year of Architects Declare’ by simply inverting the questioning logic of the survey and by giving a voice to non-signatories. For example, in response to the Architects Declare survey, more than 50 percent of the participants said that Architects Declare, had positively changed the way their practices worked. On a tangential note, the AJ questionnaire asked how often, the signatories had broken their own Architects Declare-pledges in the past year. A sizeable 18 percent of the respondents said that it had happened frequently. About 62 percent responded with an occasional/rare frequency. The reports, however, unanimously agree that to bring about systemic change, it is essential to lobby for change in building laws and there is a need to leverage bigger signatories and practices to use their powers to this end.
In Finland too, Eko-SAFA, Architects4Change as well as ACAN (Nordic & Baltic Chapter) work towards the same goals as Architects Declare. There is a strong sense of ‘we are in this together’. How do we tap on this potential to trigger faster action?
An Architects Declare signatory is expected to self-govern its progress towards the Architects Declare commitments and the goal of networking or collective action within this framework is, at the very least, to share learnings and encourage radical and quick action. There have been some activities towards this end in Finland, such as the Eko-Safa podcast with VAPAA Collective.
Anttila 2035: Concept for a post-agrarian City © Arkkitehtistudio M10. Submitted in response to the open call for Future Visions by Architects Declare Finland.
The call for proposals for Future Visions, asking for visualisations of an ecologically sustainable built environment of the future was the first challenge from the Finnish Architects Declare, and it resulted in an image bank . While the material opens a lot of new directions of action, ranging from wooden mega-structures to flood accommodating landscapes which could be taken in our collective journey towards tackling climate change, there are not many that set tangible and measurable targets. The urgency and radical change that Architects Declare calls for can only be addressed by a consistent system of goal-setting, analysis and periodic re-evaluation of our methods and procedures. The image bank has a lot of potential in triggering discussion and conversation between different practices about their approach to mitigate climate change. This form of knowledge-share between Finnish Architectural practices could go a long way in creating a framework for action.
Architects Declare places the onus on its signatories to create the roadmap for action and consistently re- evaluate/assess their journey towards carbon neutrality.
In the UK, most practices, both big and small, have responded by offering pertinent education and tools to their staff to actively include carbon costing and measure emissions in their projects. Perhaps this is the most effective and far-reaching action that can be initiated immediately, from the perspective of individual architectural practices. However, in the context of the entire professional ecosystem, there is a need for a paradigm shift in existent building norms and standards in order to address the goals set by Architects Declare. To trigger this shift, resources need to be allocated to research and development of practical strategies for a gradual decrease in emissions and energy consumption.
Flood accommodating park in Kirkkojärvi, © LOCI Landscape Architects. Submitted in response to the open call for Future Visions by Architects Declare Finland.
In view of this, what are our advantages/obstacles to best practice in Finland within the framework of Architects Declare?
Public sector involvement
An architectural practice, in most cases, works with a very low profit margin. This, in addition to the fact that building regulations have not yet been modified to facilitate or incentivise sustainable building methods, warrants the need for funding from governing bodies. Especially in a context like Finland, where over 50 percent of the registered architectural practices consist of 1-2 employees , state funding is essential for sustaining Architects Declare. Finland has set goals to become carbon neutral by 2035. By publishing the ‘Carbon Neutral Helsinki 2035 guidelines’, Helsinki municipality has set the stage for other public sector bodies to declare a state of emergency and act on the basis of the urgency. Under the EU budget 2021-2027 and recovery plan, 30 percent of the funding will go towards climate actions – in Finland, the number is even higher, 50 percent . Therefore, this is a 'once in a lifetime' moment to fund concrete actions. Several systemic changes like the revision of Building Laws & Land Use (MRL) are in the pipeline. Once they are published, will the other cities & municipalities follow Helsinki’s lead in declaring climate emergency? Will the regulations set measurable targets for architects to work with? The architectural sector in Finland is highly regulated and organised - should there be a standardized set of carbon costing/emission reduction tools for Finnish Architects to use?
Proactive involvement of universities and the next generation
A unique aspect of the Finnish Architects Declare is that it has representative bodies from universities as its signatories. While the eleven-point declaration sets actionable goals that are directly applicable to practice, architects of the current generation are in the process of building systems and tools that will aid the journey to carbon neutrality. In this scenario, how do we equip the new generation which will be actively dealing with the effects of climate change upon entering practice? Do our existing curricula address sustainable building with the urgency which it deserves, or should we be redesigning curricula for the ‘new normal’, where carbon neutrality will be the very foundation of design? Could existing bodies of research focussed on sustainability and climate change be re-evaluated through the lens of the emergency, thereby accelerating the availability of possible modes of practical action?
Signed by Henna Iinsalo, Hennu Kjisik, Hannu Louna & Trevor Harris
Author: Sudar Oli Gunasekaran
Advisors: Iines Karkulahti, Charlotte Nyholm, Katriina Rosengren