To combat climate change, architecture needs a serious wake-up call

A collection of images showcasing different types of vignettes such as city skylines, beams, mountains and fields

Architecture, learn about “radical flexibility”Illustration by Martin Cole/Getty Images

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When the skies turned dark red across much of the Northeast last summer, thick and menacing with smoke from Canadian wildfires, many of us felt a deep appreciation for the thick walls and toughened glass of our homes. Architecture is partly reassuring because it generally does not change. However, in these times of rapid environmental change, change is necessary.

The tension between the need to build more homes and the existential threat of climate change means there is an increasing urgency to reduce the impact of construction on the environment. The idea of ​​stopping construction completely – perhaps even for a time – is no longer just a fringe conversation. It is fundamental to an exciting new movement in architecture called radical flexibility.

In fact, architects and clients alike are taking the entire process into their own hands and rethinking almost every aspect of construction. They question the life cycle of each material used to coat, cover and build their designs, as well as the surrounding landscape and biomes. For example, Pritzker Prize-winning architects Lacaton & Vassal advocate a “reuse-first” approach, seeking opportunities to repurpose and adapt existing buildings. Instead of demolishing old or dilapidated high-rise buildings, they first analyze what materials can be saved and then design from there. Their exceptional work in transforming a series of social housing projects in Paris that were scheduled for demolition into liveable, light-filled homes has inspired many architects to follow suit.

What would architecture look like if design began from a place not of imagination and unlimited abundance, but rather of economic and material scarcity? This is the question that Nigerian architect Tosin Oshinovo, curator of the upcoming Sharjah Architecture Triennial in the United Arab Emirates, will ask at this global event. For the exhibition design, Oshinovo is working with Milan-based architect Joseph Grima, who believes that today’s architects should be more aware of the impact of construction on global supply chains.

A collection of photographs, some in color, showing vignettes of buildings or buildings being constructed of steel and brick

Illustration by Martin Cole

They argue that designers can only begin to talk about the environment after they take the time to understand the entire process, from extracting materials from the earth to refining and shipping them around the world. Charlotte Maltier-Bart is an assistant professor of urban design at Harvard University and author of Stop new constructionIt is a book that begins with the idea of ​​a complete cessation of all buildings for one year. She suggests that by forcing people to think about design using only what exists, we might inhabit and care for those spaces very differently.

Realizing that massive waste doesn’t have to be part of the construction trade, many players are finding innovative ways to reuse and recycle. Instead of moving forward with traditional financing methods, developers and clients are beginning to trust the design process and, in some cases, consider sustainable construction methods and quality of life as measures of success, not just profit.

As part of the Phoenix Project, a project located outside London in East Sussex, environmental developer Human Nature is overseeing a construction site of 700 homes. Architecture and Material Cultures Practice is designing 100 homes with construction featuring precast concrete panels made from a carbon-efficient mixture of hemp, water, and lime that avoids petrochemicals and even absorbs carbon throughout its life. Practice Architecture recently completed the first “zero carbon” flat house; The Phoenix Project offers the first opportunity to test ideas on a large scale and intelligently integrates the construction process with local economies and, in the case of hempcrete, with the agricultural supply chain.

And in New York City, architecture firm SO-IL proposes a more expansive vision of what it means to build environmentally, focusing on quality and access to light as well as contributions to the city. The Brooklyn-based studio is collaborating with developer Tankhouse on three residential projects that challenge traditional building patterns and efficiency requirements from developers. Among the proposed features are room-like balconies,
Green spaces, terraces and balconies with natural ventilation.

Designers are also joining forces to target the significant waste resulting from demolition. Last year, Jaffer Culp and Evi Diamantopoulou of New Affiliates collaborated with Columbia University School of Architecture and New York City Parks to find ways to create community spaces from byproducts of the construction process, including “1-to-1.” “Mockups” are used to test materials and sell units. These expensive production models often end up in landfill, but with the pilot project being implemented by the new affiliates, they can instead be rescued from landfill and reused as greenhouses, barns or even classrooms within community gardens.

These and other initiatives are gaining traction and upending tradition at almost every stage of construction, bringing innovation and sustainable practices to the forefront.
As our environment remains unpredictable, with record temperatures and extreme weather, our new nature, and architecture too, must move away from fixedness and predictability. Ultimately, they must become more flexible and adaptable, creating resilience while coming up with new ideas for radical and hopeful reform.

Beatrice Galilei is a New York-based curator, co-founder and director of The World About, and author of Radical architecture of the future (Phaidon, 2021).

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This story originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of ELLE DECOR. Participate

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