How Emerging Practices Approach Sustainability in Architecture

The climate crisis has become a staple of the architecture discourse, with the field slowly acknowledging its contribution to environmental issues and seeking to reframe its values and approaches. However, there is an evident lack of commitment and consistency in addressing the matter and an absence of systemic change. Emerging practices, organizations and startups are carving a new architecture practice, slowly unfolding a paradigm shift beyond “green” add-ons and technical equipment. Addressing environmental issues on multiple levels, from policy and design strategies to materials and construction processes, the following are some of the actors reframing the profession’s relationship with sustainability.

Regional House Edeghem . Image Courtesy of BC Architects39186 Vacant Rooms installation by VAPAA CollectiveNorthampton International Academy by Architecture Initiative. Image © Luke HayesWasteland Exhibition. Image © © Rasmus Hjortshøj - COAST+ 7

Activism and Policy Making

Acknowledging that there is so much that architects can do individually, one design at a time, some practices are closely participating in sustainability-oriented policy-making, while other architects are coming together in organizations with the scope of catalyzing a systemic change for addressing the climate crisis. At the same time, with climate discussions usually accompanied by unappealing ideas of deprivation, of renunciation, architects have the opportunity to showcase and help develop solutions for a new way of living that doesn’t mean giving up necessarily, but rather change and evolve.


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39186 Vacant Rooms installation by VAPAA Collective
39186 Vacant Rooms installation by VAPAA Collective

VAPAA is a Finnish design collective that firmly believes in the profession’s ability to create and showcase future visions. “We have the tools needed for making the necessary societal change understandable and palatable to others,” says the team, but “architects have not taken on the challenge of becoming the visionaries in the era of climate change.” One of the founding signatories of the Finnish chapter of Architects Declare and a practice operating under a sustainability-oriented manifesto, VAPAA’s activity encompasses writing, designing installations, curating exhibitions, consulting for the ministry of environment for local-carbon building and participating in drafting local policy in line with climate goals. This very young collective showcases how moving towards a sustainable architecture requires addressing the issue incrementally on multiple levels, with communication and policy-making as one of the most important pillars.

New Materials 

Regional House Edeghem . Image Courtesy of BC Architects
Regional House Edeghem . Image Courtesy of BC Architects

With steel and concrete responsible for up to 17% of annual global emissions, there is a preoccupation not only for decarbonizing the production processes of these materials but also to reduce their use by promoting alternatives. At the same time, a series of emerging practices, design collectives and startups are addressing the growing concern around the high consumption of resources and low recycling rate within the construction industry by exploring the possibilities of bio-based materials and new construction methods. 

© Ketelhuisplein
© Ketelhuisplein

At the Dutch Design Week, a house created entirely from bio-based materials illustrated the scalability of circular design by incorporating 100 types of sustainable components, ranging from acoustic mycelium tiles to panels made of oyster shells to 3D-printed construction elements made of sewage water residue from treatment plants. The Exploded View Beyond Building, designed by Pascal Leboucq and Lucas De Man, is the result of multi-year research by design program of “The Embassy of Circular and Biobased Building” and the Biobased Creations organization, which enlist the collaboration of designers, entrepreneurs, policymakers, researchers and pioneers in the field of circular and biobased construction to find sustainable solutions for a paradigm shift within the construction sector.

Courtesy of BC Architects
Courtesy of BC Architects

Moving beyond experiments and temporary architecture, bio-based materials can form the basis of a new kind of architecture practice. BC is a hybrid studio comprising BC architects, BC studies and BC materials, entities operating at different levels towards low-tech, circular design. Through projects in Morocco, Burundi, and Ethiopia, BC architects developed their architectural approach informed by local materials and techniques, which the studio is now striving to implement in Europe as an upgraded vernacular. The BC materials project kickstarted an urban mining practice for the Benelux region, transforming earth from the excavation of construction sites into construction materials such as blocks, plasters and rammed earth elements. This circular design approach adds value to this component of the construction process, of which 60% goes typically to the landfill.

Alternative Design Approaches

Wasteland Exhibition. Image © © Rasmus Hjortshøj - COAST
Wasteland Exhibition. Image © © Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST

Material recycling and design for disassembly are two approaches aimed at reducing waste within the construction sector. Even though both require a systemic shift within the architecture field, individual endeavours bring about change, pushing for a reconsideration of architecture’s relationship to waste. One Belgian practice, Rotor, put its knowledge of material flows into practice by creating a spin-off company, Rotor Deconstruction, working to dismantle buildings and salvage components from large scale developments set for demolition. Adaptive reuse is another architectural approach with implictions for climate change and sustainability. Some practices like Architecture Initiative see retrofit as the default design strategy not only to reduce embodied energy costs and save resources but to preserve the architectural identity of the urban fabric.

Northampton International Academy by Architecture Initiative. Image © Luke Hayes
Northampton International Academy by Architecture Initiative. Image © Luke Hayes

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: New Practices, proudly presented by PERI. PERI’s Future Products and Technologies’ department researches disruptive technologies that have the potential to change the construction industry fundamentally. The aim is to recognize the signs of the future and to help shape this future. Through a methodical approach, PERI thus expands its core competencies and acts as a clear pioneer on the market. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.