Climate Emergency and Built Environment Education

Leonard Zhukovsky /
Leonard Zhukovsky /

Fionn Stevenson explains why rapid change is needed to redefine education and training. Students need to be able to access and understand existing principles, methods and solutions for carefully defined, problem and evidence-based learning. The built environment disciplines and their corresponding institutes / regulators must radically update their professional validation criteria for their education programmes now and more closely define the key competences that professionals must have.

The Challenge

The 2018 landmark report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2018) warns there is now just 11 years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5 C, to avoid catastrophic drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. The UK Committee on Climate Change Progress Report 2018 (CCC, 2018) shows that temperature adjusted annual direct emissions from UK buildings in 2017 rose for the second successive year, by around 1% relative to the previous year. Urgent and unprecedented changes are therefore needed in built environment education to reach zero carbon targets as well as reduce negative environmental impacts, which are both affordable and feasible.

At the same time technology-driven futures in education related to artificial intelligence, BIM (Building Information Modelling), robots and online learning need greater emphasis on inclusivity, BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), gender and access issues. Technology innovations in built environment typically take 30 years to embed – we don’t have that time available in this climate emergency and the solutions are already available. Instead, we need to rapidly change educational approaches to help students to be able to access and understand existingprinciples, methods and solutions for carefully defined, problem and evidence-based learning.

Changing Values

Most professional institutions (based on 19th and 20th Century thinking) have an anthropocentric set of values, which is precisely what has got us into this climate and biodiversity emergency in the first place. Educational and professional values need to have a much stronger eco-centric focus, so that we co-steward our community, resources and planet together with other species that have already evolved to do this automatically as part of their sustainable ecosystems. Equally we need to move towards education that promotes citizen and species co-production of the built environment together with professionals as co-designers.

New Professionalism calls for professionals to do the right thing, develop trusting relationships, with open and honest collaboration, and reflect upon performance in use through feedback. It requires the humility to openly learn from mistakes, to challenge assumptions and standards, be honest about professional ignorance and understand contexts and constraints. It asks professionals to create lasting value and keep options open for the future (Bordass and Leaman, 2013; RIBA, 2019). Much of this has not been captured by most countries’ current built environment professional validation criteria which set out the curricula principles and standards that higher education programmes leading to a professional qualification must adhere to. Educators and professional training programmes need to respond to all of the above-mentioned principles and adopt a slow and inclusive design approach to ensure natural and social flourishing. The first step is having the appropriate understanding, knowledge and skills. It then becomes much easier to change professional work routines (contracts, responsibilities and duties) and take appropriate responsibilities for outcomes.

Beyond this, Howard Liddell and Sandy Halliday, from the international Gaia Group, famously applied a new Hippocratic Oath for the built environment professional: “Do No Harm” in the world’s first Sustainable Building Design Accreditation Scheme for the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland ( This was pioneered in 2004 with individual designers evaluated on the actual performance of their built and occupied projects against six core principles:

  1. Designing for Effective Resource Use
  2. Minimising Pollution
  3. Supporting Communities
  4. Promoting Biodiversity
  5. Creating Healthy Environments
  6. Managing the Build Process

This excellent scheme provides a useful model for the rest of the world to consider and adapt in terms of genuinely evidencing sustainable design standards.

Where does the responsibility lie for redefining education and training in terms of these combined values? Is it with the built environment professional institutions, the licensing bodies for professionals (where they exist) or is it with the higher education programmes associated with these disciplines? In many countries, the built environment professional institutions must provide the leadership for this to happen and not stymie change. They can achieve this by radically updating their professional validation criteria for their education programmes now and more closely defining the key competences that professionals must have. This would be followed by significant changes to education programme curricula through a 1-year review followed by a 2-year implementation (develop changes, implement them). We have no time to wait. The risks by not acting presently not only endanger the planet but are likely to marginalise professionals as they will lack the necessary skills.

Promoting a new understanding

Built environment education operates within a nexus of humanities, technology and design. There is now an imperative to create professionals with breadth and sophisticated team-working capabilities as well as depth of specialist knowledge and skills (so-called T-shaped professionals). Pioneering joint or triple accredited programmes such as combined architecture and engineering already exist and provide some useful models. However, these are in the minority when arguably they should be in the majority.

Validation Criteria for professional education programmes must signal the need to demonstrate socio-environmental feedback skills and sound evidence-based understanding related to the critical building science principles and processes that inform any application of technology and design in the built environment. Equally, design studios need to re-orientate towards an eco-centric approach involving citizen/species co-design and co-production through the development of far more ‘live projects’. This approach would allow students to move away from current ego-centric, individualistic and unresponsive “imaginaries” towards problem-based learning and outcomes that work through collaboration and teamwork in the real world. This urgent need for radical change also requires educators to do some serious soul searching and to challenge the institutions that currently govern their curricula.


Bordass, B. and Leaman, A. (2013) A new professionalism: remedy or fantasy? Building Research & Information, 41(1), 1-7.

Committee on Climate Change (2018) Reducing UK Emissions: 2018 Progress Report to Parliament. London: Committee on Climate Change.

IPCC, 2018: Summary for Policymakers. In: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.)]. Geneva: World Meteorological Organization.

RIBA (2019) RIBA: Code of Professional Conduct. London: RIBA.

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