“As Australian architects, we can address climate change” – Caroline Pidcock.

Sep 7, 2021
  • Article by Caroline Pidcock

Following the release of the latest IPCC climate report, ADR reached out to AIA 2021 Leadership in Sustainability Prize joint winner and Australian Architects Declare spokesperson Caroline Pidcock.

A prominent advocate for sustainable development, Pidock explains how architects and designers can help prevent catastrophic climate change.

As the IPCC AR6 Synthesis report clunked into our inboxes last month, the reality and terror of what we are potentially facing became very real. 

Imagine if you were about to board a boat, and you were told that everyone on board had to work together to do everything they could to help the ship get through the coming storm and then there might be a 50 per cent chance of avoiding destruction and making it to the destination… I suspect you might not get on.

What happens when you are on the boat with no way off, and you are told the same information?

I am hoping the majority of people would want to urgently make those efforts together as their life depends on it. 

So here we are, on Planet Earth – the only Goldilocks planet that has been just right for human habitation in the known universe – being given this same advice.

As the Australian Climate Council notes, this report shows: “There is a narrow path to avoiding climate catastrophe, but only through immediate, deep and sustained emissions reductions. This may be our final warning.” 

I don’t know how anyone can go on in their lives without taking a big check on what they can do to help, where their agency lies and how they can best use it.

So what can we architects do? How can we create a paradigm shift in our behaviour and work, so that we can become catalysts towards the regeneration of the planet?

Here are some ideas to help.

First the good news. As Australian architects we have a number of advantages to make the most of. They include:

Architects are not just creative designers of built environments. We are also storytellers and importantly story-makers. We are able to help imagine and create the thriving living future we need, and bring people along on this journey. This is our special gift, and one that is really needed right now.

Working in Australia, we have access to the best and most powerful renewable energy in the world. This means that we are able to power our buildings, materials manufacturing and transport with zero emissions.

While we can contribute in part, we also need the political will to move out of fossil fuels and make this happen – fast.

Importantly, as citizens in the democracy of Australia, we have the right and the agency to advocate for and demand better regulations and representation. While these muscles are very underused at the moment, we need to develop them quickly and put them to use.

So, specifically – what can architects do? 

1. Firstly, I would recommend joining the Australian Architects Declare movement.

AAD is where people interested in this have signed up to help make things happen, and are gathering, creating and sharing resources to enable everyone to achieve on their declarations.

2. If you have not already done so, make your practice carbon neutral.

This includes switching to 100 per cent accredited green power, completing a carbon audit of your practice, reducing where you can and offsetting what you can’t. 

3. Prepare a Sustainability Action Plan (SAP) for your practice.

This will help you identify all the issues you will need to address and opportunities you can realise as you move your practice to become the catalyst for change it needs to be.

Again, information about how to do this, and some help in doing so, is available on the AAD website.

4. Work out how to make all the buildings you design achieve net zero emissions.

This should include addressing both operational and embodied carbon.

Operational carbon concerns the CO2 emissions resulting from the building’s operation once complete.

To ensure this can achieve net zero (or better) you will need to:

  • Switch to all electric. No more fossil fuels like gas,
  • Make the building envelope as energy efficient as possible to ensure optimal natural comfort with minimal energy input,
  • Use only efficient lighting and appliances throughout, 
  • Design the building so occupants can intuitively and easily use the building efficiently,
  • Install onsite or near site renewable energy supply (such as solar PV panels, wind turbines or other) or connect to 100 per cent accredited green power.  

5. Consider embodied carbon.

Embodied carbon is a relatively new concept for many architects in Australia. There are some great resources helping identify what this is about and how we can design to deliver zero emissions on the AAD website.

In short, ideas to consider in order of impact include:

  • Don’t build: This is not often the answer when an architect is brought in, but a good question to consider up front,
  • Retain existing buildings (with their valuable embodied carbon) and adapt for a new life,
  • Build less: Consider how much space is really needed and use good design to work harder to provide the required amenity,
  • Dematerialise: Remove materials that are not absolutely required,
  • Build smarter: Lower the carbon in the system by simplifying the structure and construction and choosing low carbon materials,
  • Leverage the supply chain for lower carbon materials in all areas.

Embodied carbon that cannot be designed out of the project, will need to be offset with accredited offset programs. These will ensure the carbon is removed from the world in other credible ways.

6. Learn about Connecting with Country and find ways to implement in your practice and projects.

We are privileged to have the longest continuing culture still alive in Australia. Our traditional custodians know a lot about how deeply connected we all are with Country and that we are indeed part of nature not separate to her.

We need to relearn how to care for Country, then, she will care for us. So much of what is wrong with the world today stems from our disconnect from nature and the idea that we are here to tame and control nature.

As climate change ravages every part of the earth right now, the evidence of how wrong this is is clear and the opportunity to try another way is open.

8. Advocate and exercise your agency as the privileged citizens of this democracy called Australia.

Ideas we need to support include:

  • Better regulations to push and support us to ensure our work is the best it can be. Find out about what is happening with building codes and planning regulations relevant to your work and contribute to making submissions for what should be done.
  • Good politicians at every level of government, who are going to provide leadership to take Australia forward and support good ideas as they emerge. Find out what the people who are asking for your vote plan to do about climate change, and only vote for those who can and will take urgent action to support the future we need. Gas lead recoveries are definitely not part of this.

9. Share what you are doing with others to both inspire and help them in their journeys.

A rising tide raises all boats, we all need all the help and support we can get as we undertake the major changes that need to happen.

This is an urgent call for action that more and more people across the globe are hearing and heeding. While Australia lags behind politically at the moment, we have many bright and creative people wanting to be part of a better global future.

You have a chance to be part of this important movement. Come and help create it. 

Or as NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus said in a tweet on 3 September 2021: “Holy shit people, buck up and have some courage. Instead of saying, ‘we’re doomed’ at the early climate floods and fires, rage against the fossil fuel industry and the politicians who take their bribes. The fossil fuel industry isn’t permanent. Let’s end it!”


Caroline Pidcock is a Sydney architect, a prominent advocate for sustainable development and the director of Pidcock.

In addition to her own practice, Pidcock is an ambassador for the Al Gore Climate Change and 1 Million Women initiatives, a member of the Beyond Zero Emissions Advisory Committee and Member of the AIA Climate Action and Sustainability Taskgroup and Chair of the AIA Environment Design Guide Advisory Group.

In 2021, Pidcock was jointly awarded the National AIA 2021 Leadership in Sustainability Award and in 2019 the AIA NSW President’s Award.

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