Designing for a Changing Climate: Architecture Education – Blog by Scott McAulay

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Scott McAulay is co-ordinator of the Anthropocene Architecture School in this blog he writes about the urgent need for architecture education to respond to the climate emergency.

We have dangerously warmed our world already, and there was a time when many had the right to claim ignorance. For the past three decades, since the IPCC was created and climate negotiations began, this refusal to lower emissions has been accompanied with full awareness of the dangers. 

Naomi Klein in On Fire (2019) 

The climate crisis did not creep up on us, manifesting with the publication of the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5°C in 2018 or at the beginning of Greta Thunberg’s skolstrejk för klimatet: climate negotiations have been rolling for over thirty years alongside repeated warnings of the existential threat posed by climate change (Carson, 1962; Commoner, 1971; United Nations, 1987) and the nonresponse is damning. If we seriously intend to design places and spaces appropriate for a changing climate then education must begin taking the Climate Emergency seriously because – despite overwhelming evidence, it simply is not doing so. This cannot take the placebo-form of a declaration nor written policy but must manifest as emergency responses that demonstrate science is being listened to and acted upon accordingly. 

Design education

First, what is taught must be challenged and then readjusted appropriately: design education pre-Crisis” may have been subjective but the grief-inducing reality of the impacts of climate change are not. Crucially, curriculums delivered today do not prepare students to work in the context of climate breakdownthere is a knowledge gap in environmental literacy and knowledge of retrofit in Scottish architecture schools (McAulay, 2019), and though many solutions have existed for half a century, they are not taught. In response to the 1970s oil crisis, the New Alchemists devised the Ark in Prince Edward Island: entirely off-grid, self-sustaining housing that outperformed building codes of today (Mannell, 2018), yet precedents passed on to students today are typically of the modernist or starchitecture variety – perpetuating modern failings and their environmental shortfalls. We must implement and then surpass an evidence-based education: bringing in conservation, ecology, landscape, post-occupancy evaluation, retrofit and zero carbon design skillscreating holistic, intersectional, solution-based paradigm. 

Zero Carbon Design Skills

Concurrently, we must re-educate and upskill those who do educateThose teaching are not guaranteed to be environmentally literate nor in the possession of zero carbon design skills – many dangerously lack both. Taking the climate crisis seriously means making this a mandatory requirement of all educational roles and providing the necessary CPD for those in academic institutions immediately. At the same time, Climate Emergency Compliant education must be legislated: it must become illegal for any institution to provide an education that does not adequately prepare students to practice in a way that contributes towards a Carbon Neutral society. 

It has gone far past tinkering at the edges of businessasusual, and it is time we begin to act like the planetary house that sustains us is on fire. Personal small-scale changes may be well-intentioned but are a(n in)convenient distraction; the changes required to tackle the Climate Emergency are cultural, political and systemic – just 100 companies were responsible for 70% of global emissions since the 1980s (Griffin, 2017) after all. Succinctly put by Marcus Ford in Rethinking the Modern University: 

“so long as we educate young people into modern ways of thinking, we will continue to perpetuate the very civilization that is destroying the planet.” 



  1. Carson, R (1962). Silent Spring. United States: Houghton Miffin. 
  1. Commoner, B (1971). The Closing Circle. United States: Random House Inc. 
  1. Ford, M. (2019). Rethinking the Modern University. Available: Last accessed 13th December 2019. 
  1. Griffin, R (2017). The Carbon Majors Database: Carbon Majors Report 2017. London: CDP. Available at: 
  1. Mannell, S (2018). “Living Lightly on the Earth”: Building an Ark for Prince Edward Island, 1974-79. Canada: Dalhousie University Press. 
  1. McAulay, S (2019). Student Understanding of Sustainability in the Built Environment. Scotland: The Anthropocene Architecture School. Available at: 
  1. Klein, N (2019). On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal. Canada: Allen Lane. 
  1. United Nations (1987). Our Common Future. International: Oxford University Press. Available at: 

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