Throughout my career in architecture, I have witnessed considerable evolution in my profession. I believe the most significant potential we have as designers of cities and buildings is to leverage our role as service providers and proactively work towards helping our clients move toward a post-carbon future.
Being a service provider is one of the noblest acts of what our profession can do. It is through our skills that clients can finance, market, advocate and eventually build the ideas we initiate, manage and execute. We have the potential to eloquently and impactfully influence our clients to make progressive decisions that benefit the environmental and social health of our planet.
Our training makes us uniquely positioned to help mitigate the effects of climate change with buildings that don’t emit greenhouse gases while building urban solutions that don’t rely on transportation driven by fossil fuel.
I began my career in the ‘90s, learning from the theoretical paper architects whose grandiose, unbuilt (and unbuildable) designs were partly fueled by the fact there wasn’t much work going around. Then the building industry took off, and the era of the “starchitect” exploded with iconic and expensive buildings vying for ever-taller heights, expense and luxury – often with little attention paid to reducing greenhouse gases. The first decade of the 21st century defined a new image of the master builder: a globally recognized superstar architect who had to curate a marketable image and personality as much as a signature style. Then came the global financial crisis of 2009, and our attitudes pivoted, if only slightly.
The ability to assume financial risk only became more conservative after 2009, even as the economy recovered and continued to grow while borrowing costs were at record lows. To stay competitive in this new economic reality, architecture firms amalgamated to harvest global markets and enhance the relevancy of their built portfolios when going after increasingly onerous procurement processes. Fees and margins grew increasingly tight, yet our services became increasingly complex and commodified. As we look ahead, our potential to regain leadership and value through a new era of providing design services remains strong, but only if we aggressively immerse ourselves in the emerging areas of CimateTech, PropTech, and the new growing economic opportunities of ESG.
Architects are not economists, bankers or venture capitalists, but we considered ourselves as influencers long before social media influencers began to influence. Therefore, we must influence our clients! Ultimately, we will measure our achievements by effectively leading our clients and our planet in tandem toward a post-carbon world.
There are many ways to achieve this, but through policy, advocacy and research, explicit action is required.
I will use a singular and small example of an architectural expression that struck me as a symbolic but highly instructive lesson that can help guide architects’ drive for change.
A small and modest post-war branch of a Canadian bank still operates at the corner of Toronto’s Eglinton Avenue East and Laird Drive. I’ve passed by this particular branch countless times before noticing a distinct architectural flourish that symbolizes everything that “was” and everything that “can be” when it comes to architectural design. While the source of fossil fuel has since become a slightly lesser-GHG-emitting natural gas, the primary architectural statement remains: As a banal example of modernist architecture, the building’s most distinctive design feature is its corner tower element, a chimney from the basement to vent the exhaust from the original oil furnace, with an illuminated sign with the bank’s identity hanging on the chimney — the building’s only architectural flourish located prominently at its corner and next to the main entrance.
What was once a mindless and innocent statement has become a symbolic reckoning: We must rethink how we manage, finance, and build our cities for a future without fossil fuels. And architects need to connect those dots for our clients: To design decarbonized buildings that no longer emit greenhouse gases.
Architects have tremendous opportunities to provide post-carbon design services that yield innovative, clear and practical solutions. We need to lead insightful design processes that are in lockstep with parallel changes to improve our built environment – changes that include policy, advocacy and financial mechanisms. Together, these elements will help mitigate our climate crisis and save our planet for future generations. OD