Royal Academy lecture attended by host of big names including Thomas Heatherwick and Simon Henley

Sturgis speech 1

Simon Sturgis delivering his speech at the Royal Academy

Architects should take a ‘hippocratic oath’ to do no harm to the environment, sustainability expert Simon Sturgis said at a lecture attended by a host of star names.

The former RIBA Stirling Prize sustainability advisor told an audience including Heatherwick Studio founder Thomas Heatherwick that the profession needed its own version of the ancient code for medical ethics given the built environment’s responsibility for 40% of global carbon emissions.

London Eye architect Julia Barfield, Henley Halebrown co-founder Simon Henley and former Green Party co-leader Sian Berry were also in attendance at Wednesday evening’s lecture at the Royal Academy, held for campaign group Save Britain’s Heritage.

Others in the audience included Victorian Society president Griff Rhys Jones, architect Sarah Wigglesworth, former deputy London mayor Nicky Gavron and the deputy chair of the Greater London Authority (GLA) planning committee, Sakina Sheikh.

Sturgis, an architect and the founder of consultancy firm Targeting Zero who is the former chair of the RIBA Sustainable Futures Group, likened the built environment’s damage to the climate to a nuclear bomb.

He said the process of the climate breaking out of the natural climatic cycle meant carbon emissions from the construction and use of buildings are now a “bigger existential threat than nuclear war, just a lot less obvious or immediate.”

“We are facing an existential crisis with climate change,” he said. “As it is slow moving it is not considered a priority in comparison with cost of living, Ukraine, Brexit, Covid. It is, however, going to have a vastly bigger impact than all of these combined.”

The comments come as the industry awaits the outcome of the public inquiry into Marks & Spencer’s controversial plans to knock down its flagship store on Oxford Street and replace it with a new block designed by Pilbrow & Partners.

The scheme, which was called in by communities secretary Michael Gove in June last year, has become a cause célèbre among climate policy hawks, with the outcome widely expected to set a precedent for future demolish and rebuild projects.

Sturgis speech 3

Attendees at Wednesday’s event included Heatherwick Studio founder Thomas Heatherwick and Henley Halebrown co-founder Simon Henley

Sturgis, who wrote an influential report for the GLA outlining the carbon impact of the proposals, described the scheme at the lecture as a “20th Century solution to a 21st Century problem”.

“M&S is a test case for [Michael Gove] and is symbolic of the decisions that need to be made to reverse climate change, reduce resource use, and spur architectural innovation,” Sturgis said.

He added that even if the application is approved, this case has produced huge public interest in favour of retention and reuse of buildings. 

Simon sturgis bigger

Simon Sturgis

“Developers will realise that clever refurbishment is a quicker and easier route to market, that is more popular, more resource efficient and achieves quicker planning approvals,” he said.

> Also read: The M&S Inquiry was a clash of world views

But he warned that the built environment needs to innovate much faster and with greater ingenuity, and that sustainability ratings were not the answer.

“We need a revolution in thinking,” he said. “We cannot continue to consume resources at the current rate. The extraction and use of new resources are the primary cause of carbon emissions. We need to move to a circular economic model where resources are continually reused.”

Industry initiatives to clamp down on embodied carbon include the ‘Part Z’ proposals which formed the backbone of the Carbon Emissions (Buildings) Bill which was introduced to Parliament in February last year.

The bill proposed amending building regulations to place mandatory limits on embodied carbon at the design stage of projects.

> Also read: Our Part Z proposals need to be a milestone on the road to net zero

Although the government withdrew its support for the legislation last November, it has wide cross-party support in Westminster, including from the Labour Party and a large proportion of Conservative MPs. The government said it will consult on the proposals during 2023 and 2024.

Part Z has been backed by architects including AHMM, Allies & Morrison, BDP, dRMM, Hawkins\Brown, Haworth Tompkins and Hopkins, as well as with RIBA and construction-sector heavyweights including Cundall, Laing O’Rourke, Mott MacDonald, Willmott Dixon, Arcadis, WSP and Arup.