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ACAN Education helps map staff climate literacy in architecture schools

A climate literacy skills mapping survey has been released to architecture schools across the UK to help plug gaps in education and encourage critical thinking. ACAN has been strategic in making it collaborative, democratic, inclusive, digital and flexible.


The ACAN Education group has been working on co-developing a staff climate literacy skills survey, which maps the experience of architecture schools and their preparedness for climate literacy. Designed by a coalition of professional representatives from ACAN (Architects Climate Action Network), RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) and SCHOSA (Standing Conference of Heads of Schools of Architecture), the survey was released in March 2021 across SCHOSA’s network. The data gathered will be used as a starting point to making sure future generations of architects are equipped with the literacy and most effective tools to safeguard our earth.

The core aim of ACAN’s Education group is to improve climate literacy. Included in its members are the co-ordinators of the recent RIBA Schools of Architecture Skills survey, Fionn Stevenson and Mina Hasman. Stevenson is Professor of Sustainable Design, School of Architecture, Sheffield University. Hasman is an Associate Director, Skidmore Owings and Merrill. Here, they explain how the survey came about, why it is important, and how it differs to previous attempts to map the architecture curriculum.

“The survey came out of an idea I put forward at an ACAN architecture school tutor workshop in July 2020, where I explained that to be in a better position to support schools, a national mapping exercise was needed to understand the breadth and scope of both existing skills and shortcomings. We were aware of other calls from across the industry, for example in the international research journal publication Buildings and Cities, which recently examined mainstreaming zero carbon in education,” says Stevenson.

"I’m very conscious that the student voice needs to be a huge part of this conversation" – Fionn Stevenson, ACAN member

Stevenson has been involved in architecture education for 30 years. Over her career she has seen efforts to gather data on curriculum and climate engagement. In 2008 she co-facilitated a national skills workshop called ‘Designs on the Planet’ held over two years, co-facilitated face-to-face with 34 schools, but it was hard to manage and didn’t land. Her experience pointed to how a new approach was needed; one that was more collaborative, democratic, inclusive, digital and flexible.

A focussed working group of six people was set up to develop the skills survey, which importantly held representatives from across a number of professional industry groups. This more collaborative approach has been set up in the hope that the survey and education curriculum itself will become more democratic and inclusive as a result; breaking down barriers, presenting new opportunities and different approaches.

Mina Hasman, as an industry representative on this working group, has been developing a transdisciplinary ‘Climate Framework’ which involves ”uniting the industry and academia" in action. This approach is becoming increasingly adopted to forge more diverse and connected thinking. It is an initiative that has very much informed the RIBA's Climate Literacy Mandatory Competence Knowledge Schedule on which the skills survey is based, and one that other organisations such as CIBSE and IStructE are considering as part of their continuing education programmes.

Within this wider coalition, ACAN brings something unique and new to this table. Hasman says: “I think ACAN brings the collective voice of the next generation and perhaps more inclusively, of those who are not bound by what is not possible today, but leverage what must, in fact, be made possible for the future. It reminds official bodies of the impact of today's decisions on the much longer-term future – beyond the typical 3 or 5-year cycles that such organisations typically work with and in.”

The pandemic has encouraged digital agility and more awareness of injustices, so it was important that the survey was accessible and digital. The online form was designed to take just 15 minutes to complete, with 38 questions. Across three programmes (Stages 1 to 3), it lays out a series of sections – including Circular Economy, Energy and carbon, Ecology and Biodiversity for example – in which respondents can select one of three tick boxes: Awareness, Good Knowledge and Expertise.

The pandemic has encouraged digital agility and more awareness of injustices, so it was important that the survey was accessible and digital.

Instead of an audit, Stevenson and Hasman describe it as a ‘mapping’ – which is more flexible and open-minded to change, growth and learning. Heads of Schools received the survey with enthusiasm, and the format allowed them and their staff to welcome it easily into their own working practices and approaches. Some created a shared Google Sheet to include all staff and faculty into an open conversation, while others added new areas to expand it with further enquiry. “It is a skeleton, there to be fleshed out,” says Stevenson.

She hopes the open nature of the format will engage students too. “I’m very conscious that the student voice needs to be a huge part of this conversation. In the past when validation criteria were redeveloped, traditionally the RIBA just goes to the staff. We have a real opportunity to open up and involve students in this. Sometimes we as tutors think we are doing fine, but students don’t. We need to hear that, and request additional braveness from tutors to open themselves up to students and ask: What do you think?”

Stevenson’s work has always been focussed on architecture and education, and her passion in the environment started from a young age – a wilderness trip to look for wolves in Canada at the age of 18. Just a few years after she qualified, in 1985, she went into teaching, where she saw she could make a real difference. Alongside her professional work, Stevenson has also always been an activist; teaching women at Greenham Common how to build tree houses, occupying a nuclear silo in California, and more recently organising collective non-violent direct action to prevent street tree felling in Sheffield. ACAN was an opportunity to bring the two worlds together.

"ACAN reminds official bodies of the impact of today's decisions on the much longer-term future" – Mina Hasman, ACAN member

As well as the curriculum, the survey seeks to tackle wider issues in the architecture industry, such as its defensive mode of thinking. “It requires us to be very honest,” says Stevenson. “It’s hard for architects to be self critical when they are evaluating themselves; studio practice is based on defending what we are doing to others. This makes us as a profession not in the best place to be open to critical challenges.”

Similarly, Hasman sees learning and education as an integral part of the architecture profession. Joining ACAN gave her the opportunity to empower herself as an individual, to gain and share knowledge, resulting in collective agency and action.

“Throughout my career I have seen and continue to see the agency architects have in mobilising change and delivering something extraordinary. But they can only harness that agency if they believe in themselves and the power of influence they have – and that comes with knowledge. This is why I am passionate about education, as it leads to action – with confidence.”

A fully anonymous report will be released by the RIBA in late July, which will gather together the aggregated data alongside high level reporting. It aims to show where resources and skills can be shared and swapped, and how schools can successfully upskill for climate literacy. All staff and students are encouraged to read this report in order to get more involved.

The findings of the survey and report will be used to move into a second phase: skills sharing. The working group will encourage schools to plug gaps identified, with resources from other schools through skills swapping exercises. This will require schools to be willing to de-anonymise their results at a school level (not individual staff level) and to build a level of trust between schools that has not previously existed. Digital teaching has made this more possible now, avoiding the barrier of travel costs within constrained budgets.



This Toolkit is intended for everyone - tutors, students, course leaders, heads of schools and others - who wants to take immediate, ongoing and meaningful action towards a new climate education for architecture.

The Climate Curriculum Campaign, launched Autumn 2020

We are living in a climate emergency - the sixth mass extinction. As an industry we know we must de-carbonise fast, but the scarcity of carbon literacy in the profession is restricting our ability to act. Architecture schools could play an incredibly positive role in addressing this knowledge gap.

Students Climate Action Network, launched March 2021

StuCAN is a continuation of ACAN’s Climate Curriculum Campaign: seeking to increase climate literacy at all levels of higher education in the built environment.


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