Young architects want to learn sustainable design but face roadblocks, says new survey

Does the next generation of architects feel equipped to tackle the impacts of climate change through design?

That’s one of the overarching questions Dr. Terri Peters, an assistant professor of architectural science at Toronto Metropolitan University, hoped to answer through a 2022 survey of students at Canada’s 12 accredited architecture programs. 

“We wanted to understand if what we’re teaching in Canadian schools of architecture about sustainable design and climate change relates to what students expect to be taught [and] what they would like to be taught, and also how it connects to the future work they’ll be doing as architects,” Peters said in an interview with Make.Space.

The results of the first-of-its-kind survey in North America revealed some of the challenges young architects might face if they want to learn and embrace sustainable design. 

Terri Peters
Dr. Terri Peters is an assistant professor of architectural science at Toronto Metropolitan University. - Photo by: Digital Journal Group (DJG)

Key findings: There’s less sustainable design training than desired

An overwhelming number (82%) of participating students — as well as some faculty — strongly agreed that sustainable design training should be embedded in architectural education. 

That said, while 74% thought successful student design studio projects should address and work through sustainable design issues, only 37% said they think sustainable design is formally assessed within those projects.

“There’s a gap between what people who responded to the survey believe that they know and what they’re taught,” said Peters. “And what they would like to know and what they wish they were taught.”

Peters said respondents indicated they lack the confidence in their knowledge about basic climate change key terms and concepts.

For instance, among the 196 people surveyed, respondents provided 167 distinct definitions of sustainable design. But not one echoed the Brundtland Report that first introduced sustainable development, which defines the concept as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 

Peters thinks these varied definitions of sustainable development can be seen as a positive sign that people are thinking deeply about sustainability. However, she is concerned there is a disconnect between what architecture students are learning in technical courses, how they apply that learning, and how they are evaluated in design studio projects. 

She sees room for improvement in the type of sustainable design strategies that are taught as well. For example, in addition to learning how to sustainably design new developments, she suggested there should be more opportunities for students to practice approaches like adaptive reuse.

“Do we always want to plan buildings from new?” Peters asks. “Because most of our students graduating now are going to be doing renovations to existing buildings.”

The survey made it clear that many respondents are interested in climate change and sustainable design, and want improvements to the way these concepts are taught. 

Peters says enhanced sustainable design training could include more guest lecturers with deep knowledge of relevant topics, and field trips to see examples of high-performing, efficient buildings.

“We asked specifically, ‘To what extent do current teaching methods need to change to be able to incorporate sustainable design issues? Almost everybody thought they needed to fundamentally change [and] more than half thought we needed to make some big, big changes,” she said.

Student Confidence in key terms
74% of architecture students thought successful design studio projects should address and work through sustainable design issues, but only 37% said they think sustainable design is formally assessed within those projects. - Image courtesy Dr. Terri Peters

Next steps: More research in other jurisdictions and with different subjects

While this survey was carried out in Canada, Peters said she reached out to the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) who indicated they are not aware of similar reports in the United States.

“I’d be very curious to know if they have regional [variations] because they have different climate and extreme weather conditions in different parts of the country,” she says. 

Peters would also like to see future research focus specifically on architecture instructors and practicing architects. Instructors could share their perspectives on whether programs should be more prescriptive, as well as when and how sustainability concepts should be taught and evaluated, she suggests.  

“I hope the survey provokes some thinking about how we might teach something in technical or sustainable design courses and move [those topics] into our mainstream curriculum, just like we’re doing with other important issues in society like equity, diversity and inclusion.”

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