Opinion

Architects Declare: What We Think, We Become

Architect and researcher Hugo Chan asks how do you begin to remould an industry whose entire structure has become so embedded within systems of capital?

Image by Ican Bandura via Unsplash

“Watch your thoughts for they become words, watch your words for they become actions, watch your actions for they become habits, watch your habits for they become your character and watch your character for it becomes your destiny. What we think, we become.”

— Margaret Thatcher portrayed by Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady.

Ironic though it may be to quote (albeit fictionally) from a principal architect of neoliberalism, which has in part led to our current age of climate crisis and unregulated environmental exploitation, the Iron Lady’s fortitude and strength remains legendary and formidable. The strength with which Margaret Thatcher used to fundamentally reshape globalisation in the last decades of the 20th Century must now be taken up by the over 900 signatories of the Australian Architects Declare Movement and broader construction professions as we face the daunting task of reshaping an industry to prevent climate apocalypse.1

“The broader task of reshaping the construction sector will remain formidable unless we also acknowledge that at its heart, the problem is not a physical one, involved with energy efficiency or recycling materials, but a systemic one.”

The main narrative of ecologically sustainable development often centres around the tangible. The 2018 National Waste Report, which established baselines for the recently tabled Federal Recycling and Waste Reduction Bill 2020 identified that 20,400,000 tonnes (20.4 Mt) of waste came from the construction and demolition sector, accounting for 30% of total annual waste generation in Australia.Similarly, the UK Green Building Council has identified that 55% of carbon emissions in new construction arise from the use and manufacture of the products and materials specified.Addressing these statistics lies partly at the core of the Architects Declare Manifesto, with several of its promises centred around “reducing both embodied and operational resource use” and “accelerating the shift to low embodied carbon materials”.4

Whilst addressing these tangible outcomes is important, the broader task of reshaping the construction sector will remain formidable unless we also acknowledge that at its heart, the problem is not a physical one, involved with energy efficiency or recycling materials, but a systemic one. Architecture over the last few decades has transcended the material. The neoliberal project transformed housing from ‘home’ to ‘investment’ and architecture became viewed in purely economic terms, with development potential quantified and given monetary value. Some developers maybe neither encouraged nor willing to go beyond minimum standards, viewing immediate financial gain as the core and sole purpose of a project without regard for a project’s far reaching impacts. As a result, an omnipresent question remains as to where we should begin – How do you begin to remould an industry whose entire structure has become so embedded within systems of capital that architecture is little more than a cog in the machine?

In this quest to shift both our role and our architectural thinking more broadly, we should, at the very least, start with principles already enshrined in our legal system and our planning process. Indeed, for some time now, the NSW Land & Environment Court has used its jurisdiction over appeals de novo in key projects to establish and refine the principles of ecologically sustainable development within our development approvals processes. In 2004, Chief Justice McClellan (as His Honour was at the time) concluded in BGP Properties Pty Ltd v Lake Macquarie City Council [2004] NSWLEC 399 that:

“…by requiring a consent authority (including the Court) to have regard to the public interest, s79(c)(e) of the EP&A Act [Now, s4.15(c)(e)] obliges the decision-maker to have regard to the principles of ecologically sustainable development in cases where issues relevant to those principles arise. This will have the consequence that, amongst other matters, consideration must be given to matters of inter-generational equity, conservation of biological diversity and ecological integrity.”5

Preston CJ reconfirmed this position in Telstra Corporation Limited v Hornsby Shire Council [2006] NSWLEC 133, stating that consideration of relevant matters by a consent authority prescribed under s4.15 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act (EPA Act) includes consideration of “the public interest” which is “ample enough, having regard to the subject matter, scope and purpose of the EPA Act, to embrace ecologically sustainable development”.6

Over two decades of environmental planning law have eventually built up to Preston CJ’s judgement in Gloucester Resources Limited v Minister for Planning [2019] NSWLEC 7, in which he declared that the Rocky Hill Coal Mine:

“…would be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Wrong place because an open cut coal mine in this scenic and cultural landscape, proximate to many people’s homes and farms, will cause significant planning, amenity, visual and social impacts. Wrong time because the GHG emissions of the coal mine and its coal products will increase global total concentrations of GHGs at a time when what is now urgently needed, in order to meet generally agreed climate targets is a rapid and deep decrease in GHG emissions.”7

This decision, in particular, became widely reported internationally as the first major common law decision to expressly refuse a project on climate change grounds and has been lauded as a case which would “remake the legal landscape with respect to climate change litigation”.8

Whilst these court decisions centre on large major developments, the principles they establish can and should now be taken across all scales of development. When we recognise that approximately 80% of buildings in 2050 will have already been built or are actively under construction and that operational emissions from heating, cooling and lighting buildings account for 28% of global carbon emissions, the imperative to understand the long-term consequences of our design decisions has never been more urgent.9 By expanding the definition of “public interest” within key planning legislation, decisions such as BGP v Lake Macquarie and Telstra v Hornsby reinforces the need for design professionals to engage more broadly with ideas of intergenerational equity and the long-term use of natural resources during the design process, shifting such considerations from afterthoughts into becoming an integral part of the approval process for development.

Beyond the base standards established by accreditation mechanisms such as BASIX, NatHERS, LEEDS or WELLS, industry professionals should also take the lead in advocating for higher performance materials and standards to clients. Whilst such conversations can be fraught, particularly up against the question of expense, the architect’s role will be to unpackage the principles of ecologically sustainable development in terms of the planning process, positioning sustainability as a development requirement which will ultimately yield long-term benefits for all those involved, outweighing the short-term additional costs in procurement and construction. Only then can we begin to shift the design industry at large towards a more holistic and sustainable mindset, where the building can be seen as a long-term investment in our built environment, rather than a short-term gambit for a developer’s whim.

The light humming of electricity passing through our solar panels and the gentle breeze of our new wind farms cannot lull us into a false sense of security. A manifesto has now been signed and planning principles for development are increasingly edging towards making sustainability a core aspect of design decision making. But for a movement such as Architects Declare to engender a fundamental paradigm shift in the construction industry, we must also walk the talk, which is empowered by actions, and not merely words, and embracing an ecologically sustainable future to become what we think.

References
1. Architects Declare Australia. ‘Australian Architects Declare Climate and Biodiversity Emergency,’ (May 2019)
2. Blue Environment Pty Ltd and Randell Environmental Consulting, (19 November 2018), National Waste Report 2018, (Canberra: Department of the Environment and Energy), p. x.
3. UK Green Building Council, ‘Climate Change: UKGBC’s vision for a sustainable built environment is one that mitigates and adapts to climate change,’ (2020)
4. Architects Declare Australia. ‘Australian Architects Declare Climate and Biodiversity Emergency,’ (May 2019), <https://au.architectsdeclare.com>.
5. BGP Properties Pty Ltd v Lake Macquarie City Council [2004] NSWLEC113, [113].
6. Telstra Corporation Limited v Hornsby Shire Council [2006] NSWLEC133,  [123]
7. Gloucester Resources Limited v Minister for Planning [2019] NSWLEC 7, [699].
8. Don C Smith, ‘Landmark Climate Change-Related Judicial Decisions Handed Down in the Netherlands and Australia: A Preview of What’s to Come?’ (2019) 37:2, Journal of Energy and Natural Resources Law, 146.
9. UK Green Building Council, ‘Climate Change: UKGBC’s vision for a sustainable built environment is one that mitigates and adapts to climate change,’ (2020); World Green Building Council, ‘New Report: The Building and Construction Sector can reach Net Zero Carbon Emissions by 2050,’ (23 September 2019).


Hugo Chan has recently completed the Graduate Diploma of Environmental Law program at the University of Sydney and is a sessional academic with the School of Design, Architecture and Planning. Hugo is also Director & Architect (ARB 10803) of his own research-driven design practice, Studio HC. Hugo’s research interests lie in unpackaging adaptive reuse in architecture as fundamental to the cultural and ecological sustainment of urban contexts. This work is the outcome of his 2018/19 Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship which resulted in a research report, Alternative Realities: Approaches to Adaptive Reuse in Architecture and a public lecture delivered as part of the 2018 Centenary Symposium on Cathedral Thinking here. The research project remains ongoing as a developing YouTube channel via the Alternative Realities Explainer Series.