Dezeen Magazine

Crit at Tulane School of Architecture

"Architects need substantive knowledge and skills to address climate change"

Architecture schools should update the curriculum to teach future designers how to respond to the crisis of climate change says Jesse M Keenan, a professor at the Tulane School of Architecture.

This fall, the Tulane School of Architecture became the first design school in America to sign on to the US Architects Declare initiative. This initiative is led by a vanguard of domestic practitioners who have sought to re-centre the profession in recognition of parallel crises in climate change, biodiversity and social justice.

Architecture bears a certain responsibility for its footprint in the world

This is not a collective act of advocacy as much as it is a recognition of facts, and the facts suggest that the world is changing faster than most schools can keep up with. Across nearly every economic sector, there is a huge demand for skilled practitioners who possess not only a literacy of climate change science but also the substantive skills necessary to face climate change head-on.

Architecture bears a certain responsibility for its footprint in the world – namely its contribution to almost 40 per cent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. For architects, training in energy and environmental modeling has long been a part of a core curriculum in building science. But architects are now being asked to evaluate the lifecycle of materials, optimise supply chains, and design within the parameters of a predetermined carbon equivalent footprint.

As carbon taxes become more widespread, these upfront design decisions will significantly shape the economic performance of buildings – something clients care an awful lot about. There is no doubt that the inevitable implementation of widespread carbon taxes will forever change the glass and steel landscape defining today's commercial architectural practice.

Beyond greenhouse gases, architects must also design with an eye for the risk and uncertainty associated with the performance of buildings that may be operating outside of known design events and material thresholds. This means that architects often have to think about designing a building with the capacity to adapt to future environmental conditions and changing programmes. This requires not only a deeper understanding of resilience in material science, but it also requires an ability to source and translate relevant environmental data.

Architects are not expected to be climate scientists, but they are going to be held to an evolving standard of care

For example, forthcoming updated ASHRAE climate zones will drive new code compliance that will, in turn, introduce new techniques for managing moisture and extreme heat in parts of the country that have often gone without mechanical ventilation. Architects are not expected to be climate scientists, but they are going to be held to an evolving standard of care that requires a regional and site-specific ascertainment of a wide range of climate change impacts – from flooding to extreme heat. The climate is already changing and staying up-to-date is going to require a new vocabulary.

So what do design schools need to teach their students? Well, vocabulary is a good place to start. From ecosystem services to environmental justice, there is a vast body of knowledge that is going to define not only climate literacy but also climate competency. First, students need to understand the basics of observational climate science that includes everything from the physics of radiant forcing to the complex biochemistry of carbonisation and thermal energy transfers shaping ocean dynamics. You have to know this stuff before you can ever study more immediate challenges, such as the newly discovered processes by which concrete assemblies absorb atmospheric carbon leading to acidification and accelerated material degradation.

Students need a more complete understanding of science and the scientific method

Students need to understand the parameters and standardisation of coupled climate models as a means for understanding the basic building blocks of climate information driving design decisions. If you don't know what RCP 8.5 might mean for your building, then it is never too late to go back to school. If by chance you have thought about how RCP 8.5 might impact your building and you did not question the scientific validity of RCP 8.5, then you still have work to do.

In general, students need a more complete understanding of science and the scientific method. This includes formal modules in statistical data and inference. There isn't a design studio in America that doesn't start-off with some questionable litany of statistics. Those days are over. If we expect architecture to be more dynamic, then we should also train students to be able to identify cognitive biases, deterministic logic, stationarity in data models, and the boundaries and limitations to systems and non-systems. This may sound abstract, but these are critical skills for working as part of an interdisciplinary team.

In order to fully engage interdisciplinary teams, architecture students are going to need a more thorough understanding of where the social conscience of architecture meets the value chain of production. This means that students must engage economic decision making in everything from knowing the basics of real estate finance and risk management to being able to properly discount the future cost of carbon embedded in their material selections.

In this sense, students must not only be able to visualise the flows of energy and capital that flow through buildings, they must also articulate strategies for managing climate risks that impede the sustainability of these flows. Additional curriculum modules in everything from the basics of urban ecology to building microbiology and human health are complementary to the penultimate skills associated with a disciplined analysis of design processes that will shape the life and occupancy of a building in an uncertain future.

It is no longer sufficient to believe professional ethics will have any meaningful impact

The architectural academy and accreditation boards must embrace the requisite interdisciplinarity of climate change. Think of these scientific modules as deep extensions of existing professional practice and building science curriculum requirements. Yet, in pushing farther, we must recognise that environmental design is one part applied science and one part social behavior. As such, students must be equipped with the social science knowledge necessary to engage everything from racial and socioeconomic inequality and to the architect's role in disaster capitalism.

It is no longer sufficient to believe that professional ethics or a greater awareness of climate change will have any meaningful impact on the status quo. Architects need substantive knowledge and skills to address climate change. At the Tulane School of Architecture, we are going to change the way we educate tomorrow's climate leaders – one architect, one building, and one community at a time.