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Maria Henshall, art. 3 "Having an impact"

In the brief for these articles, one of the things Sannah challenged me to think about was how people could take action in their personal lives to tackle the climate emergency, through the lens of architecture. What is interesting is I have spent a lot of time with colleagues and tutors considering how architects can operate more sustainably, but I have really no idea how someone outside of the industry could also engage and have an impact.

Although architecture is something that everyone experiences in their day-to-day life, the process of producing architecture is largely shielded from the public eye. Entry to the industry is gated by many levels of education and professional qualifications. These can take the best part of a decade to obtain, before you can even start thinking about what your contribution to the industry might be. The result of this is that, other than possibly some community engagement sessions that might happen for urban projects, there is really no way for the public to contribute directly to or critique how architecture is produced.

In my view, there are a few key ways that it is possible to make an impact on the built environment, even if you are not directly working in the field as a professional.

Firstly, many people are opting to be self-builders, which essentially refers to the process of acquiring land and building a new-build home. Anyone looking to build their own home has a fantastic opportunity to create a sustainable, regenerative space that uses low impact materials, high thermal efficiency, passive design or efficient mechanical ventilation systems, and off-grid energy possibilities.

Building standards such as Passivhaus are brilliant, as it acts as a guarantee for the homeowner that the house will perform as promised (the key with Passivhaus is that the building needs to pass an inspection after completion). Unfortunately, self-build is an option open to very few - those with the time, money and willpower to see through several years of chaos. Not to mention the process of finding a plot, which in the U.K. is a project in itself. For many, renovation, home upgrades, and interior design are the most effective way to directly influence the environmental impact of their inhabited environment.

Homeowners (and in some cases renters) can consider retrofit upgrades that could reduce the energy demand of the house such as adding insulation, upgrading to double or triple glazing, swapping to low energy appliances and lightbulbs. In addition to this, smart tech is a fascinating growing industry which enables features such as smart metering and automation of lighting, heating and other electronic fixtures. Learning to use smart tech effectively will inevitably empower us to understand and monitor the energy consumed in the spaces we inhabit.

Finally, the most effective way that anyone can make a direct impact on the built environment is through activism and backing legislation or policy change. System change and government scale investment in subsidies are some of the most effective ways to shift trends to a more resilient future.

A fantastic example of a campaign in the U.K., which is being run by ACAN (Architects Climate Action Network), is seeking to introduce embodied carbon legislation in the U.K. that would allow the planning process and building regulations to assess, report and reduce embodied carbon emissions of construction projects. Embodied carbon is the total carbon emissions as a result of the construction of a building, including in the mining, transportation and processing of the building materials, the assembly of the building and on-site construction activities. Although embodied carbon calculations can be complex, this legislation would bring a much higher level of environmental accountability to projects, which is currently too easily ignored.

Another example of an ongoing campaign is ‘RetroFirst’. This campaign is looking to achieve VAT cuts for retrofit projects that improve the energy efficiency of a building. Currently, the VAT system is biased towards new builds, which do not incur the tax. Under the proposed changes, new builds would be subject to the full VAT rate, unless the building can be shown to meet a rigorous energy efficiency standard. It’s essential to look to improve the existing building we have first, before incentivising new construction, which ultimately depletes our raw materials and natural resources, and increases the amount of embodied carbon in our building stock.

Much of this change will need to happen within the industry, with sustainable agendas being driven by built environment professionals who are familiar with the challenges at hand. However, involvement and engagement by non-architects will also be crucial in developing a wider culture that views the environmental impact of buildings and cities as urgent and fundamental in achieving a more sustainable future.

- Maria Henshall


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