Can We Educate Architects to Design the Future?

Can We Educate Architects to Design the Future?

As a matter of urgency, professional institutes and course accreditation organisations must ensure archtiectural education is fit for purpose in the 21st century. Mainstreaming zero carbon must be part of the curriculum.

Kira Gould (Kira Gould Connect) comments on the B&C special issue EDUCATION & TRAINING:MAINSTREAMING ZERO CARBON. How can American architectural education respond to the challenges of climate change? Gatekeeper organisations have a major role: their leadership is needed to raise the standards for course accreditation to ensure that both students and teachers have competences to address social, environmental and climatic issues (NAAB).  Higher standards for licensure and entry to the profession (NCARB and AIA) will also drive changes in education.

Many urgent changes will need to happen within professional architectural practice, as well as well beyond it, if meaningful progress is to be achieved in meeting the Paris Agreement and other critical climate targets. Education is one of these areas. Ed Mazria and Lindsay Rasmussen (2020) of Architecture 2030 commenting on this Buildings & Cities special issue stated:

To meet this budget, global CO2 emissions must be reduced by 65% by 2030, and CO2 emissions completely phased out by 2040. The good news is, if we act quickly and responsibly, we can stay within the 1.5 C budget. We have all the tools, policies, strategies, products, and affordable renewable energy needed to do so.

Architectural education in the US has lagged on integrating climate and emissions questions into design, despite some shifts within individual departments and some innovative studios. At present, there is no requirement for schools of architecture to ensure competence in climate mitigation or adaptation. It is time for the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) to mandate educational criteria that are fit for the needs of the 21st century. In fact, many groups had exhorted NAAB to do so in their last round of changes (in early 2020). Marsha Maytum and Bill Leddy (2020) pointed out that a group of more than 100 educators and professionals signed the Portland Declaration which states:

Sustainability should be a major component of the NAAB program accreditation criteria. We strongly recommend that the principles underlying the AIA Framework for Design Excellence provide the basis for defining sustainability in this context. Those graduating from an accredited architecture program must be exposed to and demonstrate the ability to engage in: Design integration, Design synthesis, Building integration, Sustainability (as embodied by the AIA COTE Top Ten/Framework for Design Excellence), and Environmental stewardship values. Sustainability, climate action, and environmental stewardship must move to the top of the mission statement of NAAB. Urgency!  This is critical to the continuing relevance, influence, and value of architecture as a profession that serves society.

Unfortunately, the latest NAAB criteria review incorporated only minor adjustments to the conditions and procedures language to include environmental considerations in the architectural curriculum – but not substantive revisions to address climate competence in architectural accreditation requirements. Current sustainability and environmental requirements remain vague and ill-defined, making them easy to skirt or ignore.

Fionn Stevenson and Alison Kwok’s (2020) editorial in the B&C special issue provides insightful recommendations including: 

Built-environment institutions need to rapidly change their accreditation and validation requirements to ensure that educators, trainers and students demonstrate the specific and proven capability to deliver zero-carbon buildings within a negotiated sustainability narrative, including personal values and planetary limits.

In the US, this translates to the question of what AIA and NAAB are doing in architecture education to support a profession capable of providing clients and communities with zero carbon buildings and neighborhoods that support human health and equity.

In recent years, AIA has been engaged in a “big move” toward climate action. Its embrace of the climate imperative, creation of a Climate Action Plan, and its adoption of the COTE Top Ten Measures as the AIA Framework of Design Excellence -- codifying holistic design excellence, inclusive of resource, health, equity, and resilience considerations -- signified a turning point and accelerated the transformation of practice that has been under way for many years.

But the transformation of practice will also require a transformation of architecture education. For many years, in many schools, the discussion of environmental systems and the resource and ecological flows to which they relate occur in a few siloed classes, and rarely in the studio. We are leaving these graduates ill equipped for contemporary practice (and leaving too much education to the first years in practice). Elizabeth J. Grant (2020) surveyed recent architecture school graduates about their preparedness for practice and found:

[M]any alumni answered that they were insufficiently prepared for this aspect of their vocations. More specifically, new alumni felt uneasy about both their readiness to engage in environmentally sustainable design and their ability to address the preservation of existing building resources. This was often due to a failure to attain basic literacy in building science, envelopes, and systems, and a lack of engagement with renovation projects.

It is time for NAAB to provide leadership on climate action. This will require AIA members and the AIA and COTE itself to increase the pressure on both NAAB and schools to evolve. And perhaps pressure from other quarters will continue to grow as well. The US Federal government itself may need to ask NAAB (and other accreditation bodies for related sectors) to raise these standards as a matter of urgency. This pressure, regardless of its sources, is recommended and needs to occur across four fronts: embed sustainability in design; transform studios; teach collaboration; and retool the faculty for leadership.

Embed sustainability in design

One significant challenge is the current pedagogical separation between design topics and technology topics. Elaine Gallagher Adams (Savannah College of Art & Design and architectural practice LS3P) says “Many schools still debate whether sustainable design curricula should be introduced as a separate course or integrated into studios. We believe that it should be integrated into every single course and studios.”

To achieve this pedagogical transformation, a top-down approach is both necessary and desirable. Vivian Loftness (Carnegie Mellon University and a current member of the AIA Board of Directors) has been a vocal advocate for adjustments to the NAAB requirements that would support the integrated practice and fusion of performance and design considerations to address climate change. In the last round of NAAB criteria considerations, Loftness recommended a new subsection that would specifically address Environment, Resilient, and Regenerative Design Ability, referring to both quantitative and qualitative considerations. She also recommended that studio and quantitative courses work in collaboration and in a demonstrated strategic sequence: “These two changes would act as a critical pull for NAAB programs to end the academic divisiveness between ‘design’ and ‘technology’ that exists.”

Studios: the core of architectural education

Among the most meaningful changes that NAAB could make are those to the studio requirements. Studios demonstrate the competence of integrating key issues. Clear guidance from NAAB about the depth and breadth of studio topics is currently lacking. Requirements are needed to ensure the breadth and depth across semesters (in much the same way that NAAB guidelines ensure coverage and scope from lecture courses). Studio requirements should be more rigorous and address a range of social, environmental and construction issues as noted by Green and Sergeeva (2020) in "The contested privileging of zero carbon: plausibility, persuasiveness and professionalism". This would improve the linkages between lecture courses and studios, which is also a critical step in developing competencies.

Ulrike Passe’s (2020) “A design workflow for integrating performance into architectural education” demonstrates what is possible to achieve in a graduate level studio course designed to meet carbon neutrality within the context of other sustainable strategies, including strong emphasis on passive strategies. Passe concludes, “A design studio can allow exploration and integration of complex social, cultural, environmental, and technical considerations. The presented workflow process for the architectural design studio shows it is feasible to create significant changes in student capabilities for the creation of low- and zero-carbon buildings.” 


Another grave disconnect from real-world practice centers on collaboration. All design disciplines need to work together to ensure that ecological literacy and carbon awareness are central to placemaking and design at all scales. While students need to do individual work and develop their own thinking in school, that need not preclude learning to work collaboratively (and across disciplines).

Malini Srivastava’s (2020) “Cooperative learning in design studios: a pedagogy for net-positive performanceprovides a new studio pedagogy “in which cognitive diversity is foregrounded by means of shifting away from individual ownership of work and towards groupings of works and students.” This creates a useful model for students to “learn skills related to quantification of performance measures and develop capabilities to transform existing buildings to be net-positive contributors to their communities.”  More needs to be done to encourage cooperative and collaborative learning and thinking of this nature. The accreditation of courses should require demonstration of this including some quantifiable performance measures of collaborative exercises (and some portion of those across disciplines).


Stevenson and Kwok's (2020) editorial highlights one of the challenges within architecture schools: the capabilities of faculty and what they are willing to teach and how. At present, there is nothing in the NAAB criteria that references anything about faculty having to demonstrate competencies, particularly for a range of social, environmental and construction issues. As a matter or urgency, NAAB needs to change this.

A key question is how to enfranchise faculty members in the transformation and ensure their knowledge and skills are updated. The Society of Building Science Educators (SBSE) Summer Workshops have been helpful for some junior faculty, but these are still a self-selecting group. The AIA’s Framework for Design Excellence would be useful for faculty and schools to provide a baseline. But a broader approach that connects with other disciplines is needed. Using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a reference point – as some large architecture firms are beginning to do in their own climate action goals – could be a promising leverage point that would also help architecture schools strengthen needed connections with allied disciplines and others. It might also be fruitful to have some of the firms (of all scales) who are leading in this area take a more active role in helping to support and upskill faculty in US schools of architecture through partnerships and guest teaching opportunities.

Significant change is needed on all these fronts if schools of architecture are to have a role in transforming profession, providing students with appropriate competences, and serving the needs of civil society.


American Institute of Architects (n.d.) Framework for design excellence.

Green, S. D., & Sergeeva, N. (2020). The contested privileging of zero carbon: plausibility, persuasiveness and professionalism. Buildings and Cities, 1(1), 491–503.

Maytum, M. and Leddy. B. (2020). Transforming US Architectural Education and Professional Practice. Buildings and Cities.

Mazria, E. and Rasmussen, L. (2020). Academia’s critical role in climate change. Buildings and Cities.

Passe, U. (2020). A design workflow for integrating performance into architectural education. Buildings and Cities, 1(1), 565–578.

Srivastava, M. (2020). Cooperative learning in design studios: a pedagogy for net-positive performance. Buildings and Cities, 1(1), 594–609.

Stevenson, F., & Kwok, A. (2020). Mainstreaming zero carbon: lessons for built-environment education and training. Buildings and Cities, 1(1), 687–696.

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