Foster + Partners and RIBA clash over new climate report

Heating Up

Foster + Partners and RIBA clash over new climate report


New year, same arguments. In December 2020, Foster + Partners and Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) both withdrew from the United Kingdom-based climate accountability organization Architects Declare. At the time, Foster + Partners had come under fire from Architects Declare over its refusal to stop designing airports, claiming that renewables-powered planes would eventually negate the emissions from air travel and that airports could be designed to high sustainability standards.

ZHA withdrew shortly after Foster + Partners for similar reasons, after principal Patrik Schumacher faced complaints for criticizing climate activists who claimed that rapid economic growth and decarbonization were mutually exclusive goals. Although both Foster + Partners and ZHA were founding signatories of the group in 2019 alongside 15 other winners of RIBA’s Stirling Prize, they have not since rejoined Architects Declare despite the nonprofit extending an olive branch to the two later that same month.

Now Foster + Partners is at an impasse with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) over the latter’s new Built for the Environment report, which was assembled in conjunction with Architects Declare. According to Dezeen, Foster and ZHA are the only two of the U.K.’s ten largest architecture firms to not endorse the report.

The point of contention is the Built for the Environment report’s departure from the goals set by the Paris Agreement in regards to building sustainability metrics. Signed by 196 countries at the 2015 COP26 meeting, the Paris Agreement was a landmark effort to limit the global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels (something the planet is currently on track to far surpass).

In the Paris Agreement, the carbon emissions of buildings would be measured solely by the energy emitted—RIBA, however, wants to shift the focus to embodied carbon and the energy consumed over an entire building’s lifetime. The report also urges governments to focus on absolute emissions targets rather than on a per-occupant or per-square-foot basis, which are subject to carbon offsets (or, as the report describes, greenwashing).

However, Foster + Partners has declined to endorse the change, citing the potential for confusion among adoptees who would have to shift their emissions targets accordingly while amidst ongoing carbon reduction programs.

A spokesperson from Foster + Partners provided the following statement:

In the context of a sustainable agenda over the past fifty-four years and in the light of the recent COP26, we believe that the fundamentals of the Paris Agreement should be adhered to at all times in the pursuit of the goal of limiting a global temperature increase to no more than +1.5 degrees

At this critical moment we are concerned that the RIBA’s document ‘Built for the Environment’ proposes a deviation from the Paris Agreement by its call for a change from emissions-based to consumption-based as a basis for carbon calculations.  This could lead to confusion and at its worst might create an opportunity for some nations to rethink their current commitments to the Agreement. For this fundamental reason we have hesitated to endorse the RIBA report.

We are sympathetic and supportive of the overall objectives of the RIBA and Lord Foster has discussed this directly and constructively with President Simon Allford. We have followed this up with a letter setting out our concerns in more detail and offering assistance in amending, as appropriate, the relevant clauses in the report, taking a more holistic view of the process to enable change that is deliverable and sustainable in the long term.

According to Dezeen, RIBA president Simon Allford has reportedly been in conversation with Foster about the report and will further discuss the matter in a forthcoming “public forum.”

The Built for the Environment report was originally released on November 2, 2021, and actively encourages both governments and those in the design sector to reduce emissions, focus on both mitigation and adaptation to climate change, and center social justice at the heart of their efforts. At the time of writing, 248 developers, investors, architecture and engineering firms, asset management companies, contractors, and suppliers have endorsed the report.

ZHA, meanwhile, is still reportedly reviewing whether to sign on.