Everyone knows it: the climate is changing for the worse. We know that we – and our industries and governments – need to mobilize in the fight against it. Yet, as activist Greta Thunberg has famously helped in waking the world up to, we aren’t taking action fast enough by any means. That’s the reason a DesignMarch 2020 exhibition, held in Reykjavík this past week, made a plea of its own: ‘The Climate is Changing. So Must Architecture.’

‘The built environment is responsible for a significant portion of the causes of climate change and biodiversity loss,’ points out project manager Gerður Jónsdóttir. ‘As creative formers of the built environment, architects are not only in a position to make a difference, but have the responsibility to do so. Moreover, architects are trained to take on complex cross-disciplinary challenges and respond with amazing solutions. Climate change should be embraced as the ultimate design challenge.’

Curated by Baldur Helgi Snorrason, The Climate is Changing. So Must Architecture. was a collaboration between The Association of Icelandic Architects, The Icelandic Landscape Architecs Association and Green Building Council Iceland. Below, find our conversation with Jónsdóttir about the exhibition’s message and steps toward a more sustainable architectural future.

Climate change should be embraced as the ultimate design challenge

What role do you believe architects can play in making environmental progress?

The idea of the architect as someone that desires to make the world a better place has never been as relevant as it is now.  Of course, we must continue on our mission to create great architecture that improves the world in every sense.  But with the current climate crisis our role carries even more weight – now our beautiful, well-functioning, socially and economically feasible and pleasant creations must also be sustainable.

How does the exhibition envision the future of the built environment?

The exhibition envisions the future of the built environment as cities that are much more sustainable than they are now, both in terms of ecosystems and building technology.  Most importantly, the exhibition is a collection of pieces that have to reinforce one another as a sustainability composition that marks a beginning for further explorations and further development of sustainable solutions.

Can you name some components for a more sustainable architectural future showcased in the exhibition?

Concrete has been the main building material in Iceland since the early 20th century. We need to start to think differently about concrete because the carbon footprint for concrete is around 350-550 CO2/m3. In the exhibition we have ‘sustainable’ concrete – concrete where five per cent of the cement has been exchanged for pozzolans. That decreases the carbon footprint about 50 per cent, but the footprint for ‘sustainable’ concrete is 100-250 CO2/m3.

Cross Laminated Timber (CLT units) are also favourable in Iceland at the moment: more than 70 CLT houses have been built in Iceland the last couple of years. The CLT footprint is estimated -400 to 100 CO2/m3. In addition to that the exhibition showcases sustainable urban drainage solutions, green and inhabitable roofs, porous landscaping elements and energy efficient buildings.

The coronavirus has primarily illustrated how quickly societies and economies can adapt when the need is dire

The COVID-19 crisis has massively impacted the way we look at, use and share the built environment. Has this recent event influenced the outcomes of your research?

The coronavirus has primarily illustrated how quickly societies and economies can adapt when the need is dire. The climate crisis is much larger, requiring a much larger response.  But we have seen that change is possible. There are surely lessons to be learned from how COVID-19 changed our lifestyles and work environment. Those changes may have been temporary, but they did illustrate that we do not have to continue on the same path we were on before. 


Read more DesignMarch coverage here.