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ACAN EDUCATION – Interview Series VOL.2

SSoA Students for Climate Action

Claire Wilkinson, Eleanor Derbyshire, James Harrington, Michael Jenkins, Elin Keyser, Damien Poblete and Marian Alkali

ACAN Education has been interviewing a diversity of leading lights in the climate crisis and education debate. These interviews form an ongoing body of research and outreach for us as a group and it was deemed that the material was too good not to share and, importantly, the time for knowledge sharing is now. We can only create positive change together!

Students arguably have the most power in the climate crisis education debate. Even more so in light of the ongoing coronavirus crisis as it looks like universities will struggle to fill their courses as a result. Students pay for the education they receive and their opinion holds huge sway within institutions. ACAN Education approached Sheffield School of Architecture Students for Climate Action because of the amazing momentum developing within the group. They have become an exceptional example for other students to follow and are now even hosting their own lectures. Truly inspiring.

Back at the start of April we sent 5 questions to SSoA Students for Climate Action to answer. The questions were devised by the whole ACAN Education group and touched on key points of the debate. The fruits of these discussions have informed an RIBA article,to be published in Autumn 2020, and have become inspiration for upcoming ACAN Education Campaigns so stay tuned and enjoy.

Q. What are your personal thoughts on the state of architectural education at the moment? In relation to the climate crisis or more generally.

Students for Climate Action (SC). With specific regards to sustainability, we do not believe architectural education has fully grasped the idea of the climate emergency. Sustainable design in our experience is treated very much as a specialism. If future architecture students are to be equipped to design not only in response to future climate, but in mitigating further damage, even healing our already teetering biosphere, this attitude that sees sustainable design as non-mandatory has to change. Sustainable design should be a core element of any architectural degree, not something that can be picked or allocated based on the amount of spaces in an optional module.

A second point to note is the lack of teaching on the subject of evaluation. We are not provided the skills to properly evaluate our proposals. For example, is my facade actually preventing overheating? Without having the skills to test our design, are we really learning? or just green washing? Hopefully the upcoming curriculum changes currently being thrashed out by the RIBA will pick up on this.

Q. In your experience, what does environmental activism in (architectural) education look like? Or would you say you’ve not witnessed it yet?

SC. Activism happens within the confines of each university, through smaller groups, which in our experience are badly connected. It is a lot to ask of students who are studying full time to also engage with and create activist movements. Students are having to fulfil the responsibility of the university for promoting active change in light of the climate emergency – we feel that the university should be pushing sustainable agendas rather than us having to ask for them.

Though there does seem to be several groups popping up, what is disappointing is the lack of practices that seem to be actively engaging with activism. It seems to be business as usual for most practices. The ‘architects declare’ movement seemed to be going along the right track but how many practices have come together in large groups since the initial declaration? We believe that activism in architectural education will become more widespread when there is more evidence of it in practice for students to aspire to.

Q. Students can become expert in a specific topic easily, and tutors cannot be expected to have the depth of knowledge that the internet has. Does education need to become more of an exchange?

SC. We feel this is a two part question: whilst architectural education should be more collaborative and the antiquated relationship between tutor and student is not always conducive to generating well-equipped graduates/architects, the requirement for tutors/staff to be able to mentor students on sustainability-related topics (these being inextricable from design) is fundamental to educating students. As a student at an educational institution, this knowledge should be readily available, and not left to the student to seek out. It still amazes us how little emphasis tutors and students place on sustainability within their design work. More time can be spent choosing the colour of a brick than understanding principles of sustainability. Students should, to a certain degree, be the drivers of their own education, but tutors should be able to provide up to date, relevant guidance on such subjects. You wouldn’t ask a surgeon to guide a trainee in open heart surgery when they themselves don’t fully understand the procedure. Schools seem to get away with a lot when it comes to actually imparting knowledge on their students.

We strongly believe that sustainability should not be a specialism and will be vital for our careers as we try to combat climate change in the coming years. Also, we are paying £9250 a year for education with 6% interest on loans - We should be taught how to design sustainably which will be required by 2030 as set out by RIBA Sustainable Outcome Guide.

Q. There is a knowledge gap in managerial and collaborative skill sets for graduates. Do you think interdisciplinary live projects are the best way to give them real world experience?

SC. At Sheffield the three master’s courses (MArch, and two non-accredited courses in Architectural and Urban Design) join together to do a 6 week live project at the beginning of each academic year, the concept of which cannot be criticised. For the projects to help build managerial and collaborative skills the outcomes of the project need to be really clear, and the ‘return’ of the work needs to be balanced between what is gained by the client and what is gained by the students.

The Ecomod project in the USA is a great model for teaching students’ practical skills as well as managerial/collaborative – in order for architects to qualify with a full skill set (not just computer based) architecture schools need to introduce 1:1 building competency as part of the curriculum.

Interdisciplinary work should be higher on the agenda – for example it would be great to see more students working with engineering students. Introducing other disciplines into the design team would make it harder, for architectural students, to ignore the reality- would the design actually perform as envisaged? Ultimately it would be a mutually beneficial endeavour for students from each discipline and promote a respectful culture within the design team early on.

Q. The joint thesis is gaining popularity where it has been made available (Liverpool, Sheffield). Do you think it should be offered at all schools?

SC. Yes – the joint thesis celebrates the diversity of skills between different architects/designers as opposed to the individualistic ‘lone wolf’ worker paradigm that many students are indoctrinated with. Design teams always benefit from different members having strong skill sets in different areas which allows for more depth to be gained in architectural projects.

Current validation criteria isn’t set up to facilitate large portions of group work within our training, the universities can ultimately only teach to that.


We would like to thank the SSoA Students for Climate Action for the time they gifted us to respond to these questions. Find out more about their amazing work here. If anyone would like to join/contribute to ACAN and ACAN Education please sign up and let’s make change happen!



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