When the architect David J. Lewis agreed to become dean of the School of Constructed Environments at the Parsons School of Design in New York in 2021, his goal he says, was to “radically decarbonize the curriculum”—that is, to stop encouraging, through pedagogy, practices that hasten global warming. While devising ways to get the school to make climate its focus—a task akin to turning a ship around while it’s in port—he began teaching a course called “Architecture in the Age of Embodied Carbon.” Given the urgency of the problem, students were expected, according to the syllabus, not only to “learn what’s already known but to participate,” with original, independent research, “in the production of public knowledge of the critical role of embodied carbon in meeting global climate targets.”
Lewis is hardly the only educator working to make climate change central to architecture education. In interviews with deans and department chairs around the country, the phrase that comes up most is “paradigm shift.”
Nader Tehrani, who until June was dean of the Cooper Union’s Chanin School of Architecture in New York, talks about the need for faculty to unlearn much of what they learned in architecture school. “For too long, we’ve been teaching students how to integrate mechanical systems into buildings, when we should be looking at how to create building envelopes that reduce reliance on those systems.” To Kate Simonen, chair of the architecture department at the University of Washington in Seattle, what’s coming is “as profound a change as when Bauhaus and Modernism replaced Beaux-Arts.”
But much of that change is in the future. “In all likelihood, we are not preparing students well enough and fast enough to address the climate crisis,” says Megan Groth, who has taught professional practice at the two California campuses of Woodbury University. Groth and other educators say that it is difficult for schools—many with a large number of adjuncts and limited resources for curriculum development—to suddenly change course (and courses).
Yet many schools are trying. At Oklahoma State University, in a required fourth-year studio, students are asked to make their buildings as resource-efficient as possible. The objective is to “redefine the studio to integrate carbon footprint as the primary measure of performance,” wrote the four professors running the studio. As one of them, Khaled Mansy, noted, “Many schools introduce climate change in lecture courses. We believe that making it part of a studio has more impact.”
At the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, all 95 students in the second-year M.Arch. studio were asked to design a building (for the fictitious Civilian Climate Corps) near South Street Seaport in New York. In addition to the usual constraints, students were given “a carbon budget,” says Sam Dufaux, the assistant professor who devised and ran the studio. “And the carbon budget was zero.” That meant students had to address both operational and embodied energy to achieve net zero—without using remote offsets, according to Dufaux’s rules. Students generally integrated renewable energy, mostly solar and geothermal, into their designs, to zero out operational energy, he says. Embodied energy is a bit harder to quantify. So, Dufaux developed a simplified life-cycle assessment (LCA) tool to help students understand where the embodied energy in their buildings was coming from. “Mostly, this means that students could no longer use concrete as their main structural system and had to use carbon-sequestering materials, such as wood, to make the numbers work.”
Final review at Toronto’s Daniels school of architecture, where students were given a design project with a carbon budget of zero. Photo © Sam Dufaux
Dufaux thinks the studio has been transformative. “My observation is that, as soon as students begin to understand the consequences of their design decisions regarding CO₂, they completely change their attitude about how they think and talk about their projects.”
At Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Mark Lee, chair of the architecture program, says, “We are planning to increase the focus on minimizing buildings’ carbon footprints” in the second-year core studio. “Students would be given a carbon budget for their structural system. This would increase contact between the studio and structures classes, which are already having students think about material economy and structural efficiency.”
Lee is not alone. At the Illinois Institute of Technology, College of Architecture dean Reed Kroloff says that “environmental stewardship, including carbon mitigation, is woven through our curriculum. And it figures centrally in the curriculum revision we are currently completing.”
Some professors are asking students to roll up their sleeves. At Princeton, Paul Lewis offers a seminar in which students analyze conventional wall sections, then propose and build new ones with biogenic materials like bamboo, hemp, and straw. The idea is to explore the interplay between low-carbon construction and architectural form.
At the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design, architecture chair Winka Dubbeldam runs down a long list of climate-related initiatives, including federally funded research into minimizing the carbon costs of building with concrete. “Climate change is a very complicated situation,” she says. “It has to get our complete focus and attention.”
Simonen, who also directs the nonprofit Carbon Leadership Forum, agreed to become the chair of the University of Washington’s architecture department “after the faculty came up with a strategic plan to make climate a focus of our work,” she says, adding: “Even people whose research is in other areas see it as important.” But she concedes change won’t happen overnight.
“Universities are not only creators of knowledge,” she says, “but also repositories of knowledge”—which is why they have structures, such as tenure, that favor continuity over transformation.
Several organizations are helping schools expand their climate-change-related offerings. The National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) has revised its accreditation criteria to require schools to instill in students “a holistic understanding of the dynamic between built and natural environments, enabling future architects to mitigate climate change responsibly.”
Professor V. Mitch McEwen's students in Princeton's 1950s Jean Labatut–designed architecture lab. Photography by Sean Rucewicz Photo by Sean Rucewicz
And, each year, the AIA’s Committee on the Environment (COTE), working with the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), recognizes 10 climate-related student projects from across the country. A large number of winners have come from the architecture school at Clemson University in South Carolina, where Ulrike Heine, assistant director of the school, helps run a required second-year studio in which students develop COTE submissions. “The concept of sustainability is taught as an integral part in our graduate education,” she says.
Another source of outside support is Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. Working with the ACSA, the center awards prizes to educators who have created courses in “Architecture, Climate Change, and Society.” Jacob R. Moore, associate director of the Center, notes, “Our sense, borne out by the number and quality of the applications, was that there was a lot more individual, faculty-driven desire to teach about the social aspects of climate change than there were institutional opportunities to do so.”
Recent winners have included Hyon K. Rah, adjunct professor of architecture at the University of the District of Columbia, who created a course “in how we design, plan, and manage the built environment—from self-referential and siloed to more contextualized and systems-based.” The course is required of all undergraduate architecture majors at the historically Black public university.
Another winner was Woodbury University’s Groth, whose “Future Practice” course, she says, tries “to provide students with the framework and critical thinking skills to examine the role of architects within the climate crisis, beyond the technical skills of designing a ‘green’ building.” She believes this is essential because “designing a building with expensive, high-tech environmental systems that a real-life client will value-engineer out isn’t going to solve the problem.”
Despite all these initiatives, the University of Washington’s Simonen could be speaking for many professors when she says about her school’s curriculum: “While I am proud of what we offer, I believe we could and should be doing more.”