A changing climate: architecture in 2020 and beyond - Architecture NZ
A changing climate: architecture in 2020 and beyond

A changing climate: architecture in 2020 and beyond

As the 2019 bushfires encircled communities in Australia and took a staggering toll on wildlife, the infernos quickly became a symbol of our changing climate.

Words by Clare Chapman

With the growing scale of the bushfires, it quickly became apparent to a group of Australian architects that recovery would be vast and require professionals to work together to deliver solutions for those affected. 

Architects Assist (AA), an initiative initially devised by architect Jiri Lev, was established on 4 January 2020 as part of the offerings of the Australian Institute of Architects. The uptake was significant, with the initiative now coordinating the efforts of more than 400 architectural practices around the country; practices willing to dedicate resources to pro bono work to help with the recovery – linking those who need help with a practice that can provide what is required, making essential architecture services easily accessible to those who need them the most but cannot afford them. “In Australia, the government pays lawyers to support those in need. AA could be the first step towards similar equity in access to architecture,” Jiri says.

“We aim to enable those affected by the present and future disasters to rebuild their lives, either by themselves or with help from the community, at once or in stages. We encourage design outcomes that are architecturally considered, owner-builder friendly, resilient in natural disasters, built with sustainable materials, compact and spatially efficient and affordable.”

It is a sentiment that is shared by New Zealand architects and designers in the face of the last couple of months’ events, a growing awareness of the fragility of our planet and, ultimately, our impact on it. Construction is one of the highest polluting industries and the opportunities for improvement are great. 

“We need to stop taking our beautiful countries, surroundings and environments for granted. We cannot rely on others to fix such a large global issue. We all – as individuals, families, companies, communities and countries – need to play our part and collectively start making significant changes both in our mindsets and in our actions,” says architect Toni-Rose Brookes of Christchurch-based Borrmeister Architects.  

“As architects, we want to create both beautiful and thoughtful architecture that has positive impacts on both its immediate users, future users and wider communities. We need to be building better quality and healthy buildings that exceed the New Zealand Building Code minimum standards.”

Improving our built environment is no longer a choice; it’s a necessity as we move into this new decade...
Red Rock House by Borrmeister Architects was designed to provide shelter from the prevailing winds, incorporate natural cross ventilation, solar panels, rainwater retention tanks and an ultra-low emission logburner.

While cost efficiencies have been a central and underlying factor across a vast part of our built environment, arguably those efficiencies have translated into buildings that are not well considered, efficient, healthy or environmentally appropriate. “This is an issue particularly prevalent in New Zealand, and something which we set out to help improve when we launched ArchiPro five years ago,” says ArchiPro founder Milot Zeqiri. “Improving our built environment is no longer a choice; it’s a necessity as we move into this new decade and, as the country’s largest architecture platform, it is something we are committed to because change has to come from every part of the industry. It’s this level of change that we are here to support; ultimately, to create a more resilient and sustainable built environment for generations to come.”

In Australia, similar issues have plagued the architecture and construction industry. “What we seem to have in Australia, and in many other places, is not so much ‘architecture’ but vast clusters of expensive paper boxes. Architecture, especially in the single residential context, is quite a rare phenomenon.” says Jiri. 

“We need to seriously educate the public about architecture and its holistic approach to design, as opposed to mere building and, perhaps, the time has come to also change the law. In the Czech Republic, where I was born, each city has its own architects who review every building application; all of which are also prepared by architects. Just as every citizen in Australia has the right to legal advice, so too should everyone have access to architecture – especially in the face of climate change.”

“We absolutely need to ensure the public understands the essential role of architecture and what it is – that it's not just pretty shapes, ‘starchitects’ nor out-of-touch academics, but that architecture is a deep understanding of the environment and its formation.

“One thing that we've learnt from the current disaster and the willingness of architects to serve their community, regardless of money, is that the spirit of idealism, responsibility and good will is far from extinct in our profession.” 

Resilient buildings: affordability, sustainability, longevity

“Today, we can probably build on Mars. The question is, do we really need to? Yes, you can build a house that will survive and protect you in the worst fire, but it’s far from economical. We will need to find the right balance between effective bushfire hazard reduction, building standards and building locations,” Jiri says.

“We cannot just move away from the bush and leave it to burn with all that lives in it. In my opinion, people should occupy the land and diligently manage it. We are an essential part of the ecosystem; we can't just quit and go elsewhere.”

For director of New Zealand-based IQ Container Homes, Brenda Kelly, there are three areas – affordability, sustainability and longevity – that she sees as the key to residential architecture and construction in 2020 and beyond. “While facing increasing pressure with rising building costs, we need to be mindful and have a role in educating clients about the need to use materials that can stand the test of time. Investing a little more upfront for quality materials and sustainable features will reduce long-term costs and environmental impact,” Brenda says. 

“The size of dwellings is important too. Australian and New Zealand home sizes are far larger than they need to be, delivering some of the highest average residential floor space per capita in the world. 

“As we experience more extreme temperatures and an increase in events – such as earthquakes, fires and hurricanes – the structural integrity and durability of buildings and homes is more important than ever. We may see the likes of storm or fire shelters make their way into homes and commercial buildings, as well as higher specifications for foundations and higher fire ratings. Off-grid elements may also be incorporated into designs to provide a sense of security should the likes of water and power be unavailable for days on end,” Brenda says. 

The twin crises of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss are the most serious issue of our time. Building and construction play a major part...

Worldwide, architecture and construction is evolving in line with our changing world. Architects Declare is an initiative launched in the United Kingdom in June 2019 that is committed to driving change, and has been replicated in various countries around the globe, including New Zealand Architects Declare Climate and Biodiversity Emergency, which currently has 97 signatures and growing.  

“The twin crises of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss are the most serious issue of our time. Building and construction play a major part, accounting for nearly 40 per cent of energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, whilst also having a significant impact on our natural habitats,” New Zealand Architects Declare says. 

“For everyone working in the construction industry, meeting the needs of our society without breaching the earth’s ecological boundaries will demand a paradigm shift in our behaviour. Together with our clients, we will need to commission and design buildings, cities and infrastructures as indivisible components of a larger, constantly regenerating and self-sustaining system.

“The research and technology exists for us to begin that transformation now, but what has been lacking is collective will. Recognising this, we are committing to strengthen our working practices to create architecture and urbanism that has a more positive impact on the world around us.”

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