Blog from The Big One: architects join Extinction Rebellion mega-protest
The crowds included the Future Architects Front (FAF) and members of the Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN) who were out in force at the start of the four-day long series of protests outside the Houses of Parliament.
The event attracted more than 200 organisations who came together on the streets of Westminster in ‘a peaceful show of strength and unity’ to demand bold climate action from the government.
Speaking about its involvement ACAN, which was effectively born out of the April 2019 XR protests, said: ‘History shows that mass, sustained protest can work. That’s why we are showing solidarity with XR.
‘The built environment is responsible for about 40 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, that’s why it’s important that we, as built environment professionals, stand up and make our voices heard.
‘We are currently building new homes that will still need to be retrofitted in order to reach net zero targets, plus there are over 19 million existing homes that currently require it. We have no national regulation on embodied carbon emissions, and regulation around operational energy falls woefully short of what is needed.
‘The government can and must act with more speed and ambition to tackle our poorly performing, poorly regulated built environment.’
FAF founder Charlie Edmonds told the AJ: ‘It’s essential for architectural workers to agitate politically through direct action. Our current economy is explicitly oriented towards both social and ecological extraction.
‘Architects are effectively fossil fuel workers’
‘Architects, as such, are effectively fossil fuel workers and must organise en mass towards a just transition for the sector and for the wider political economy.’
The AJ is covering events throughout the day, including ACAN’s challenge to the government on retrofit outside the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
Anna Woodeson of Buckley Gray Yeoman with Seb Laan Lomas of Architype on the biodiversity March
Today’s demonstrations are wrapping-up across Whitehall and outside the DLUHC, where the AJ has been talking with architects and activists calling for the government to speed-up efforts on insulation, retrofit and more.
We’ve heard demands for better planning policy, the need to cut back on carbon and new builds, and a national push for Retrofirst. More importantly, we’ve heard how practices themselves have made changes, and what others could be doing.
The Big One continues until Monday, with groups such as ACAN due to hold more events across the weekend. Make sure to check back with us next week for a full write up from today’s events!
John Christophers, 63, a pioneering green architect who designed the UK’s first zero carbon home – a retrofit – says we need to tackle emissions from our existing homes, otherwise we’ve got no hope.
‘I think that the emissions from existing homes alone would blow the entire UK carbon budget. The government is only committing 1 per cent of the money that’s needed.
‘The role of the government at the moment, it seems to me, is to listen to the people, listen to our consciences, and to put the money in place so that the so that the communities can can do this work.’
Christophers added that leadership was also needed from the government in addition to funding, and that action was necessary now. Fortunately, the industry has made some progress, he told the AJ.
‘If we’d been doing this over the last 30 years, we would be in a totally, totally different place. For me, it’s not a sudden conversion, but I’m just so happy that the industry as a whole has really, you know, I feel it’s changing dramatically now and that’s fantastic that I don’t feel on my own. I’m feeling hopeful, I’m feeling very hopeful.
Rachael Owens, 34, an architect for Buckley Gray Yeoman, at THe Big One, 21 April 2023
Rachael Owens, 34, an architect for Buckley Gray Yeoman, which has offices in Shoreditch, Bristol and Madrid, is here with ACAN. She has been with the practice for five years, and has been its head of sustainability for the past year and a half.
She told the AJ: ‘We are calling for a number of things. We want a decarbonised built environment. We want ecological transformation and regeneration, and we want a cultural transformation as well.’
Owens said ACAN is working hard to circulate knowledge about circular economies, natural materials and retrofit within the profession – but insisted, ‘we really need the government to act much more quickly. So we’re calling for regulation of embodied carbon particularly, and also for a national retrofit strategy to be put in place by the government.’
Owens said the architecture and construction industry ‘needs to understand that it has immense power’, adding: ‘Every single one of us that works in the built environment has a big responsibility, but we can also make a massive change. And part of that is about upskilling yourself about talking to your clients.
‘But the other part is about trying to push the government to do more – and it’s those twin things that people in the built environment need to start doing more seriously.’
Brigitte Clements of LOKI at The Big One, 21 April 2023
Brigitte Clements, 40, who runs her own practice, LOKI Architecture in Primrose Hill, is here with ACAN. She told the AJ: ‘We’re calling for a huge emphasis on retrofit. We’re losing [around] 50,000 buildings per year just in demolition.
‘I had a project last year where I retained part of a house, instead of knocking it down, and that cost me as a developer £40,000. That’s a personal hit, and it doesn’t make sense, and it needs to change.’
The government needs to chaperone us into a better future
Clements said many architecture and construction firms are taking the initiative, but she called on the government to take the lead and ‘chaperone us into a better future’, accusing policy-makers of ‘putting profits in the hands of those that are actually demolishing buildings’.
She added: ‘We need some smart policy changes – clauses in the planning framework to help practitioners do the right thing.’
However Clements, who is ‘hugely optimistic’ about the green future of the industry, noted that since the first XR protests in 2019 the movement has grown, to include ‘regular people’ as well as radical activists.
‘Even a few years ago, when I was doing a project that focused on embodied carbon, nobody was really talking about it. But now, it’s on everyone’s tongue. So there’s a big shift in knowledge.’
Matthew Clubb told fhe AJ outside the DLHUC: ‘The financial case for retrofit needs to stand out on its own. [The government] needs to eliminate VAT. Though there are some reliefs on wall on installation etc, it needs to be across the board on everything.’
‘And we need to start counting embodied carbon. Around 60 per cent of the the carbon in a building comes from its construction phase. It’s mad that we’re not doing something about that.’
Immy Kaur from Civic Square at XR’s The Big One protest 21 April 2023
Speaking to the AJ before her speech to demonstrators, Immy Kaur from Civic Square said she was hopeful that the public were beginning to take notice of the built environment because of poor insulation.
‘It’s becoming really obvious to the public [in terms of insulation], that this is not okay.’
She adds that: ‘We don’t have the carbon budgets for this. We cannot keep being in a race to grab as many resources as we can, as quickly as we can.’
Housing: Retrofit fit for purpose! banner at XR’s The Big One protest 21 April 2023
Members of ACAN are due to speak outside the DLUHC at 12.30pm to call for action on retrofit and insulation.
Key figures are set to include Immy Kaur from Civic Square, John Christopher from Zero Carbon House, and Chris Procter from co-founded Procter-Rihl Architects.
Architects Declare (AD) signatories will also be at the protests. A spokesperson said: ‘AD fully supports The Big One and will be protesting alongside others. The latest IPCC report is a stark reminder that globally, governments are not doing enough – including in the UK.
‘[We are] focusing efforts to work with policymakers in 2023 to provide strategies for achieving more regenerative design. Our industry has solutions and must call upon the UK and global governments to do much more now, be ambitious and invest in those solutions. A net zero world with all it has to offer – less pollution, more biodiversity and improved social justice – is one worth fighting for.’
Zana Dean, co-founder of London-based Tread Studio is among those demonstrating outside the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) today.
Speaking to the AJ, she called for a mass retrofitting strategy to bring people out of fuel poverty and to cut down on carbon.
‘[It is about] getting it right the first time with a fabric first approach, with good ventilation, trying to bring down fuel costs, bringing people out of fuel poverty, and also making healthy environments for people to live in.
‘So what we want is mass, upscaled retrofit with suitable quality and standards, which is hard to achieve.
‘It’s time to aim for the quality and standards so that people’s actually quality of life improved as well as their fuel costs.’
Dianne Moyes, 76, an ex-geography teacher is protesting outside the DLUHC with XR Cumbria. Moyes said: ‘We just don’t feel the government really is listening. It talks the talk. But in terms of what it’s done, it’s pretty negligible.
‘I mean, we’re still building houses that aren’t zero carbon, after 13 years of this government. We should be building more in wood and natural materials. Making concrete and cement is very carbon intensive, but it often doesn’t get mentioned.
‘The steel industry in Europe is working hard to to develop greener ways of making steel. But we could be recycling so much more steel. It’s up to each sector. But you need an overarching government pathway so people can see it’s worth going down that route.
‘Because at the moment, [builders/developers] always use the cheapest ways. And we need government to make those old ways much more expensive.’
Picket lines got underway in Whitehall at 7am this morning despite the grey skies over Westminster.
Members of the public, community groups and architects continue to assemble outside major government departments to demand climate action this morning.
Expect the opening ceremony for The Big One to kick off around 11am, with speeches from XR members.