Experts from across the industry join Architecture Today and Medite Smartply at the COP26 House to discuss how to reshape education to address the challenges posed by climate change.
Architecture students are pushing for sustainability to be given more prominence at Parts 1 and 2. But do these demands go far enough? Architecture Today and Medite Smartply invited experts from education, architecture, engineering and manufacturing to the COP26 House in Glasgow to share their experience of – and thoughts on – disrupting the current education system to bring about radical change.
The discussion, chaired by Architecture Today Editor Isabel Allen included: Katherine Li from Glasgow School of Art; Tom Greenall from DSDHA Architects and the RCA; Robert Harstairns from Robert Napier University and NMITE; Matt Kennedy, Director of Climate and Carbon at Arup; Tabitha Binding from TRADA and The Timber Trade Federation; Roly Ward from Medite Smartply; architecture student and ACAN member Kyle Henderson and Peter Smith from Roderick James Architects, the designer of the COP26 House.
Left to right: Katherine Li, architect and studio leader, Glasgow School of Art; Tabitha Binding TRADA, Timber Trade Federation and head of Timber Development UK’s university and regional engagement programme; Kyle Henderson, ACAN member and fifth year architecture student at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen.
Isabel Allen Are schools of architecture doing enough to teach students about sustainability?
Kyle Henderson I’ve had a passionate interest in sustainability ever since I first became aware of the subject, in my second year. I’m really trying to push regenerative design and mass timber innovation in architecture. On my course, a couple of us are engaged with sustainability, the others not so much. This year there was more reference made to issues like environmental performance and things like embodied carbon and whole life carbon, but there’s no obligation to address these issues and no real incentive to actually quantify it. But I’m at the tail end of the old system. I know in the future they’re suggesting that climate literacy is going to be more central to the curriculum.
Katherine Li I think that students have to be assessed on climate curriculum and it has to be important. It has to be inescapable. I think we’re slightly scuppered by the structures of institutions. They’re really slow-moving things. Students and staff who are making changes from the bottom up. But you have to make sure you have everything written down in a course specification. I think that’s the trouble, it’s not something that is inescapable and I think it has to be.
There’s lots of things happening, but what I see is ad hoc. Schools need to take an overview of the structure of all five years. top to bottom. I’m talking architecture schools, but there are other issues about architecture being studies in isolation, without knowledge transfer across the different disciplines and working and learning with the trades, which is really key as well. Schools have to look at their overall strategies. Every subject should have a sustainability component that’s accessible and inescapable and at the heart of every brief.
Tom Greenall There’s been this assumption that academia leads innovation, that practice benefits from. And I think that’s still true to some extent, but I’m not sure that non-practicing academics understand how much practical innovation is happening in practice. They see it as a novelty when it’s introduced through practicing tutors. I think the RCA has been pretty good at bringing this into the curriculum has been pretty good. When Alex de Rijke, who is a massive champion of timber, used to head up the school. That introduced lots more material based knowledge into the department. And now the Dean is Adrian Lahoud, who is also speaking at COP. He did his doctorate on global distribution of CFCs and has worked with NASA to model global scale environmental issues. So I think the RCA really understands that it has to work with practice and with other disciplines, and also that sustainability needs to be looked at in a broader context. So rather than talking about climate justice, we often bring spatial justice, race justice and health justice into the discussion as well in acknowledgment of the fact that the implications of climate justice are not equally distributed.
So I think, thematically it’s integrated really well. Technically it’s integrated through working with some really incredible engineers who run hypothetical embodied and operational carbon assessments on student projects. But I think perhaps where we are lacking still is methodologically in terms of actual design process. Within a two-year masters course, which is only assessed year by year, it’s really hard to develop a criteria for assessment. students are super, super engaged. Three years I go the unit I teach did a live project with Extinction Rebellion. These projects aren’t necessarily teaching them the skills to take into practice. But I think the mind shift is an important first shift. As long as they’re passionate about it, they’ll make sure they’re up to speed on the tools they need to apply their knowledge to practice.
Katherine Li It seems to me that a lot of the information that students need tends to be hived off to masters level or specialist programs. Our first year are looking at spatial purposes, the first one looking at design for disability, and now we’re looking at architecture of the Anthropocene. Then we’re going to do a retrofit for existing building in an area in the east end of Glasgow. That’s quite radical for us. Architecture practice is so complex, but there’s so many issues. I think one of those is ethics. The choices you make when you make a decision about what you are specifying. Who it affects down the chain, suppliers and what part of the earth are we destroying in order for you to have your lovely shiny product?
Matt Kennedy The recent graduates I’ve taken on, their focus has been on ecological economics, or energy engineering, so very specific disciplines, that need to merge together so that we can understand how design works and how it interacts with other disciplines. I work for a multi-disciplinary company, so we can provide solutions that can’t be provided by one discipline. Ultimately, the sweet spot is that we can bring a lot of disciplines together in one project. A lot of the portfolio I have involves that. So you will have an ecologist together with a landscape architect, together with an urban designer, together with the buildings people who are obsessed by operational carbon or embedded carbon. And then you are trying to bring the digital bit with GIS. And there’s the public realm. Maybe all we’re doing is designing a pavement, or a cycleway. But how about we use some green infrastructure in it? How about we look at the circularity of the materials that go into the pavement, or stop all these trucks going around the place to drop the materials? What’s the longevity of that? Do you want something that will last 50 years or 20 years? How do the public interact with that? And how is it for people with disabilities? And how is it good from an ecological perspective? So you’re bringing all that to those disciplines together to build in and design a pavement. And I think the academia needs to understand that this is now what the market is.
Left to right: Tom Greenall, director at dsdha Architects and teacher at the RCA; Peter Smith of Roderick James Architects, designer of the COP26 House; Matt Kennedy, director for carbon and climate at Arup.
Isabel Allen What have you found to be the most effective means of knowledge sharing across disciplines and between academia and practice? And what obstacles have you encountered?
Katherine Li Architecture education is too vocational. It’s too narrow. You should be encouraged to jump cross into different disciplines. You get a wider view. And learning to deal with people is the biggest issue. If you can’t do that, you’re pretty stuck in the world of business. You’re not going to be the lone genius. That’s an idea embedded in architectural education and it needs to be challenged. That’s about working with other courses, other colleges, talking to contractors and the whole team, and even biologist, physiotherapists, whoever… It’s collaborative work, and students have to learn how to collaborate. There can be a sort of selfishness. And I think further up the school they go, the more individualised students become because we have to assess them individually at some point. The longer I’m in education, the worse the systems seem to be.
Robert Hairstans My area of work has been the research and innovation space, where we interface more closely with industry. But then the frustration is that it’s difficult to actually introduce that work into he curriculum because you’ve got to follow the core syllabus. That’s where I did the whole exchange piece. That was essentially about how you providing students with opportunities to engage with industry, whether that’s a scholarship or an innovation internship with Entrepreneurial Scotland, or whether it’s about employing students directly – giving them an employment contract rather than saying ‘you can do this as you’re project and I’ll use the end results’.
And then you come up against university systems saying, “What are you doing paying the students? You shouldn’t be doing that. That’s not allowed.” So I say “Okay, they can go and work in Tesco’s, or they could be doing this live piece of work, developing a network, engaging with an industry, understanding things and making them ready for the workplace and you’re telling me that that’s wrong? Because honestly, I’m not Mike Ashley. I’m not running Sports Direct, I’m trying to do something that’s open.”
It doesn’t matter what people are studying. Regardless of the subject matter, we need multidisciplinary activists; we need holistic knowledge sets. It’s not just academia and the professions but the product manufacturers, the supply chain. People studying computing.It’s about linking it all together. And if the schools can’t make it happen, we just have to get on and do it.
It was extremely challenging. I was getting so frustrated I was going to pack it in. But we started to find enlightened tutors and professors and professionals and product suppliers to work with. We started doing it back in 2018 via a student challenge where we got architects, architectural technologists, engineers, and landscape architects to work in multidisciplinary teams of six. We’d get the lecturers to put it out to their students. They were final year undergraduates, which was a little bit late in the system. But everybody got so much from it. It’s about learning to speak each others’ language. And yeah, the architect has to let go of that ego and think about the project as a whole. We realised that what we were missing was the costings, because if you don’t get that right the project doesn’t go ahead. So the next year we bought in costing and that again worked really well. At first, we used a theoretical student accommodation block as the project, to make it seem relevant to the students. But then we thought ‘How do we make this thing real?” So we found a real life client in Wales, who is delivering social housing.
Robert Hairstans, founding Director of the Centre for Advanced Timber Technologies (CATT) at the New Model Institute of Technology and Engineering (NMITE) and Head of the Centre for Offsite Construction + Innovative Structures (COCIS) at Edinburgh Napier University and Isabel Allen, Editor of Architecture Today.
Tabitha Binding We do a lot of work in this area. We’re very aware that the timber products we produce are part of a bigger system. Unless we understand where they fit in, we’re not going to make any headway. Scott McAulay from the Anthropocene Architecture School delivered an online climate literacy workshop for us back in 2019 and it sold out instantly. We put it out to lecturers and students and we got both. So it was ‘OK, let’s get a bigger Zoom licence and do it again’. We got 400 participants from 40 plus universities and across all the disciplines. And it’s like, hang on a minute, this is so necessary. And that’s when we brought together Riverside Sunderland. Sunderland City Council want to build 1,000 homes on a site in Sunderland. We worked with council, and invited students to put together teams from different disciplines – architecture or architectural technology, engineering, quantity surveying, and landscape architecture – to come up with an indicative masterplan for 100 homes and to design, engineer, plan and cost one home in detail.
We reached out to professionals at the forefront of the industry and it just took off. We had 80 professionals talk. We recorded it all and put it online as a resource for people to refer to. It was great to see professionals from different backgrounds talking to each other. We covered landscape, procurement, problems with timber, fire and moisture. We had 40 plus universities, 300 students. It made us realise that we had to work outside the educational system because it isn’t ready yet.
Roly Ward There is a skills gap we need to address at the trade and subcontractor level. There aren’t enough people coming out of education into the trades we need to deliver these types of buildings. So Peter, when you were looking for specialists to help you deliver this house, I’m guessing there weren’t a huge number of people to choose from. There are graduate schemes within the house builders we work with, and we have our own graduate schemes within the group. If you study wood science in Ireland, and you want to pursue it, you pretty much end up working for us. David Murray (Head of Technical Affairs and Ireland Sales at Medite Smartply) has come through that system. So, we are feeding our own sector. The group is riddled with wood scientists. I’m not one of them, but they’re coming through and going to different fields. Some of them are coming into the commercial side of the business as well, which is invaluable.
The elephant in the room for me is those skill sets coming out of colleges and universities. We’ve got a massive skill shortage. Part of that’s being solved by the modular movement. There’s a huge reduction in the number of people you need to deliver modular and volumetric, but that’s putting a plaster over the bigger problem. If we’re changing the way we build, and we’re coming up with new ways of building, we need people to be able to deliver that. And that comes from education, and incentivising people at schools to do those subjects.
I’ve been working in construction for 17 years now, and when I tell people I work in construction, they think I walk around with a high vis jacket carrying bricks. So it’s about providing an education about what construction means. What those skill sets are, and the new ways of building that are coming online. We need people to be able to deliver that. I appreciate the huge amount of effort that is needed to reform the early design stage, but actually it’s about those trades on site as well.
One of the things I would like to see is money going into education to solve some of these problems. For us as manufacturers, there are all sorts of problems that need to be solved – the end of life for products, creating that clean waste. The solutions are going to come from the next generation, and there’s just no incentive there at the moment for them to come up with those ideas.
Roly Ward, National Account Manager, Medite Smartply.
Isabel Allen Do you think there’s a case for introducing a universal first year across all the disciplines in the built environment that takes an industry-wide view and offers a holistic approach to sustainable construction?
Peter Smith I’m not sure that future generations will need a foundation course in sustainability. Tomorrow we’re going to have primary school kids visiting this house and you can guarantee they’ll be as or more engaged than most of the visitors we’ve had. I think people coming through primary and secondary education will be fluent in sustainability by the time they hit university. Of course they’ll have to specialise within architecture, within finance and within law, that kind of thing, but that holistic grasp of sustainability issues isn’t going to be something that’s an option. It’s going to be embedded in everything they do. It’s going to be part and parcel of everything that everybody knows about.
Matt Kennedy There’s a difference between climate literacy and knowing how to apply the skills in practice. Learners are interrogating information and coming back with a question. And the answer probably changes from one month to the next. So I don’t necessarily have the answer but I probably know how to give you guidance in terms of how you can interrogate that. Or how you can qualify what you’ve come up with as a solution. But I think a lot of students just want the answer.
Katherine Li Students don’t want to fail. If they think they’re going to fail they won’t take risks and try things out.
Robert Hairstans The whole climate resilience business is about risk. It’s important to show what happens when things go wrong. There are some big engineering companies that have been quite willing to share that, not only with the lecturers but down into the student level. But as timber industry, we don’t and I’m always like, “We need to talk about fire, and we need to talk about moisture, and we need to talk about moisture in construction, and then moisture in use. And how do we mitigate that?” Learners really enjoy forensic engineering. So if you look at something like the Oklahoma bombing. Why did you get a disproportionate collapse? Why did it take place? It brings out that reverse engineering piece, so actually learning why the failure happened. We shouldn’t be frightened of failures, because ultimately we can learn from them.
Matt Kennedy In the aerospace industry there’s a blanket immunity. If something goes wrong, everybody is allowed to put their hand up and go “I think I forgot to do that.” You’re allowed to admit your mistakes so that everyone can learn from them. Imagine if we had that. Everybody around this table probably could say, “I made a mistake.”
Peter Smith We’re aiming for zero carbon by 2030, and your average build project takes two, three, four years from conception to completion, which gives us two cycles to learn everything we need to know by 2030. So, we have to share our mistakes and we have to learn. We can’t afford to make more than two mistakes in that cycle. We have to get it right by the third chance. We’ve got to be right.
The climate ready education round table discussion took place at the COP26 House in Glasgow, where Architecture Today is hosting a series of roundtable events in partnership with Medite Smartply.
The modular timber house, which will remain installed on a brownfield site in the centre of Glasgow for the duration of the COP26 climate change conference, is an exemplar of sustainable and Passivhaus building principles. Once the conference is over, the house will be dismantled into its original 1.2 metre-wide panels and reassembled as part of a community of 12 affordable timber houses near Aviemore.