Representatives from RIBA, ACAN, and private practice discussed the challenge of reshaping practice to address climate breakdown at a roundtable discussion hosted by Architecture Today and Medite Smartply at the COP26 House.


Evelyn Choy speaking an an ACAN event in Glasgow for COP26. Photo by Pablo Llopis.

Activists and institutions need to work together to bring about the change needed to avert climate catastrophe. But ultimately practices have to change the way they work by educating clients, sharing knowledge and, crucially, admitting and sharing mistakes.

“It’s important that we all sign up to the same agenda,” said Jennifer O’Donnell of O’Donnell Brown Architects. “But ultimately, as practitioners, we have to take the lead.”

O’Donnell was among a group of architects, engineers and sustainable construction experts gathered in Glasgow for a COP26 fringe event on how to reshape practice to address the challenge of climate change. The event chaired by Architecture Today editor Isabel Allen was hosted in partnership with Medite Smartply and took place at the COP26 House, a demountable house designed by Roderick James Architects to Passivhas principles that will go on to form part of an affordable housing development in Aviemore.

Alongside O’Donnell, our guests were Evelyn Choy of Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN) and HASSELL, Ingrid Berkeley from Max Fordham, COP26 House designer Peter Smith of Roderick James Architects, Roly Ward from Medite Smartply, Gary Clark of HOK and chair of the RIBA Sustainable Futures Group, and Matt Kennedy, the Director of Climate and Carbon at Arup. 


Isabel Allen Everybody in this room is very much engaged with the issue of how to reshape practice to address the challenges posed by climate change. How joined up is that thinking? First of all, to what extent are ACAN and RIBA collaborating on this issue?

Evelyn Choy A couple of the ACAN coordinators sit on the sustainable futures group. We’re involved in several of the working groups, and we’ve also got a couple of people who are on council for the RIBA. So there is an overlap in terms of people, and we always try to feedback and get together as much as we can.

Gary Clark I think that particularly last year in Lockdown, it became very clear that the fogey institutions really needed to open up. Basically, I’m in the RIBA to push them, and I’m really pushing hard. We chaired a big meeting and invited everybody in. We invited ACAN and Architects Declare to really strengthen what we’re doing.

There’s only a dozen of us in the RIBA Sustainable Futures group, so we really can’t create the guidance fast enough. So I’ve managed to hopefully clear the barriers in RIBA. The key thing is that we don’t duplicate effort. We need to come together to agree what are the principles, the definitions, and the direction of travel. There might be different speeds, but if we can agree that, then we endorse each other. Because the main thing is we’ve got to speak with one voice. To government and to the politicians, If we are confused and the message is confused, then that gives them an excuse not to act.

That said, it’s important that ACAN is so independent. You don’t want to be pulled too much into the institutions. You want to stand separately and challenge, and not be content. You’re going to make feel people uncomfortable. It’s got to be positive, constructive challenge. We’re all challenging each other. If we get too comfortable, we’re not doing enough.


Photo by Callum Bennetts

Isabel Allen  As practitioners with clear sustainability agendas, how much do you feel that the institutions –the RIBA and the RIAS  – are supporting you in what you’re trying to do?

Jennifer O’Donnell I  think we can all sort of sign up to the same mandate and the same agenda, but ultimately, as practitioners, the responsibility sits on the industry side of things and we have to target net-zero construction, and we have to take the lead on that.

There’s a conversation just about what projects we work on and who we work with. Obviously when you’re a relatively new practice starting up, you get accustomed to saying yes. But now that we’ve been going for a while now, there’s a conversation about what type of clients we want to work with. We’ve got some really inspirational clients at the moment. And so they’re sort of pushing us to think in a different way. And then from a Glasgow perspective, there’re a number of small practices in Glasgow, and we’re joining together to share information and share knowledge. We’d like to see more of that, and think about ways that we can broaden that discussion further still.

We need to share information and collaborate on a practice to practice level. So it’s not the case that we feel unsupported. It’s just that there’s a sense of urgency. It’s important to be joined up, but we have to take responsibility ourselves.

Peter Smith That crossover and sharing of information is definitely happening across the UK, across Europe, across the world. Through the first lockdown we started having conversations on Zoom that would have been unthinkable just a few months before. The speed of change is amazing.

Ingrid Berkeley As someone  based in Edinburgh, I think a lot of these discussions were more London-centric. The pandemic has made things more accessible. And I see that UK Green Building Council has done a Scotland launch. I’ve been hoping they’d do that for a long time.

Gary Clark The climate emergency means that we’ve got to share. For me that’s the biggest change in practice. So all of the RIBA’s guides and processes are open source. Then if you look at HOK, we’re a global firm, but our CEO is totally behind the principle of openness and sharing data. We’ve announced that we will be sharing our carbon emissions data for all projects. My old colleagues at Bennetts have shared open-source data for buildings. If we all share it, and we get our clients to share it, it becomes normal. At the RIBA we’re working with the local network and trying to create a single data base of information. All the data for RIBA awards entries is going to be captured and analysed by UCL. We’ll probably need to anonymise it for some clients, but if the clients are be open and honest, there’s things to learn. That’s the challenge. I used to chair the soft landing user group, and it was very difficult for people to really share problems.

Ingrid Berkeley I do post evaluations in soft landings. Getting the information is straightforward, but there are still a lot of clients that are very hesitant about sharing. It’s important to share the good and the bad, because that’s when we learn from it, but there’s definitely resistance to that. We share internally, but it’s about sharing with everybody, isn’t it?

Jennifer O’Donnell It’s not about branding things as a mistake, but just what could we do better? This didn’t work quite so well. It’s about creating a different culture. So then you think, well, is it maybe the way that we view buildings, the way we judge buildings, the way we judge good architecture and bad architecture. We need a whole cultural shift.


ACAN protesting outside the ARB. Photo by Keith Van Loen.

Evelyn Choy I think that it’s really important to be vocal and visible in your activism. As soon as you’re vocal about something, especially as a leader, it gives the rest of the practice confidence. I think a big part of that is not feeling like you need to act as an individual. There are so many organisations already doing really good work. So I plug into that.

Peter Smith When I think of the ACAN meetings I’ve gone along to, it fills you with hope to see how much knowledge there is out there that we can really tap into.

Evelyn Choy If you surround yourself with everyone that thinks in a similar way to you, you’re just unstoppable really. One of my workmates said to me that he does really care, but he doesn’t feel like he can act because he doesn’t know anything. And I think as soon as you say, well, you don’t need to know everything, just join a group, then that takes away that fear. I think a lot more people would be more willing to engage in activism if it wasn’t for that.

Nobody can do everything but everyone can do something. One last thing, it’s actually easier to lobby than you think. It’s just so linked. There are loads of government consultations we can respond to. Write a letter to your MP. Again, you can work with other groups that are already doing that. I think as architects, we shouldn’t be afraid to disconnect ourselves from politics. It’s just so linked.