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BSA Members at COP26: Architecture’s Role in the Climate Crisis

BSA - December 16, 2021

The distance between Glasgow and Boston encompasses 3,000 miles and one ocean, but the connection between the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference and the BSA is stronger than you might think.

People stand around the Resilience Hub at COP26 - CambridgeSeven
The Resilience Hub pavilion – CambridgeSeven

This year’s conference, dubbed COP26 for short, was the first to feature a delegation of AIA architects.

“We’re really the only international organization of design professionals in the world that has the kind of commitment, infrastructure and expertise that can contribute to the UN’s work,” said Mike Davis FAIA. “The AIA has an opportunity to influence the programming and speak more specifically about what a decarbonized building sector looks like.”

Davis, who is Chair of the AIA’s Government Advocacy Committee, was one of the architects in the AIA delegation. Davis is also President at Bergmeyer, a Boston-based design collaborative, and was 2013 President of the BSA.

“One of the purposes of going was to tell the world we’re here, as an international NGO,” said Davis. “The main point … was to say ‘we are here’, see who else is in the space, and see how COP functions.”

The conference took place from October 31–November 12, 2021, lasting two weeks. Davis attended for the second week, splitting a delegacy with Julie Hiromoto FAIA, Chair of the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE).

Did he find that world leaders had an understanding of how the built environment relates to climate issues? “There was a clear understanding that buildings were part of the climate issue, but there wasn’t a lot of depth of understanding about what that meant,” Davis answered, before adding that existing buildings weren’t a big part of the conversation. However, he noted the role of sub-national governments, NGOs, and the building industry in meeting the UN’s objectives. “Ultimately, it’s going to be the industries, businesses, and professions themselves.”

A large globe floats above the conference space at COP26
Photo by Mike Davis, FAIA

As Davis, other COP26 participants, and anyone who pays attention to the news is well aware, climate change can no longer be ignored. This year’s release of the UN IPCC Climate Change Report struck a grim note and sounded the alarm for many as it warned of the dire consequences to come if conditions stay the same. Making infrastructural changes to solve a problem this big promises to be no easy task.

Davis has thought of a model to describe current conditions. “Buildings are part of a system—the market sector—that was created a long time ago to produce specific results, like creating an environment for people to have jobs and do specific work,” he explains. “The system … was not designed to produce external benefits like mitigating climate change. How do you get a system to do something it wasn’t designed to do?”

Davis has suggestions that have already been a part of the conversation, like creating incentives and regulations for businesses and other entities. However, he also emphasized the importance of what he calls architects’ “secret power”—persuasiveness.

“We’re very persuasive people,” Davis said with a laugh. “Our businesses imagine something … that doesn’t exist yet, and describe it so articulately and effectively that people want to do it. We do this all the time—this is our work. The mission for architects, as the thought leaders in this giant economic sector—six percent of our GDPs in the building sector—is to show people how a decarbonized built environment can look like. As a whole profession, as a whole market sector, we can really be part of that change.”

Incredibly, the links between the BSA and COP26 don’t stop with the AIA delegation. The “Resilience Hub” indoor pavilion, which played host to more than 150 events throughout the conference’s duration, was designed by CambridgeSeven, a BSA member firm located across the river.

An aerial rendering showing the interior of the Resilience Hub with group seating and custom graphics.
A rendering of the Resilience Hub – CambridgeSeven

One of the especially unique features of the pavilion was its fabrication, which was completed using only materials that could be found within 100 miles of Glasgow.

“[This] was a particularly challenging requirement, especially because this directive came only five weeks before COP26 was to open,” said Marc Rogers Assoc. AIA, Principal at CambridgeSeven. “Our solution was to bypass using new materials that would require lengthy documentation times and instead work with the contractor to fabricate the pavilion out of salvaged and re-purposed materials that would return to the construction industry when COP26 closed.”

The only new material involved in construction were the printed graphics that adorned the pavilion. Though the graphics can’t be recycled, they will eventually be repurposed and used to make handbags and other products.

A structure designed to only be used for a short time, the pavilion serves as a model for innovative and climate-conscious design.

“We were exceptionally conscious of the Resilience Hub’s potential for inspiring sustainable architecture globally … The visible structure and temporary nature of the Resilience Hub framework is a very clear example of how thoughtful design can take many forms.” said Rogers. “And we hope that the challenge of working with resources that are metaphorically ‘on hand’ can inspire other designers to take a similarly creative approach—not unlike cooking show challenges that allow chefs only four random ingredients to create a magnificent meal.”

People gather at tables for discussions at COP26
Photo by Mike Davis, FAIA

As awareness of the climate crisis grows and urgency increases, many are worried that world leaders aren’t doing enough. The beginning of the conference in Glasgow was marked by protests and marches that included tens of thousands. Despite the discord, Davis sees cause for optimism.

“One of the things that filled me with pride and joy was the US government’s presence. The Biden administration promised a new approach to climate change, and it sure looked like they delivered—they sent 13 Cabinet members, 16 US Senators, and a coalition of 24 state governments and 14 US cities,” said Davis, who says he often spotted household names like John Kerry and Pete Buttigieg walking the halls. “I was really proud of my country when I saw that our governments showed up the way they did.”

 

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