Architects should sign a ‘Hippocratic Oath to save the planet’
Architects should take a “Hippocratic Oath” to do no harm to the environment, a leading industry expert has said.
Simon Sturgis, a former sustainability advisor to the Royal Institute of British Architects, said that technical designers should make a pledge similar to doctors.
Under the ancient code, doctors have to swear to uphold medical ethics. The code originated around 2,500 years ago and was named after Hippocrates to require new physicians to swear to heal gods before starting their occupation.
At the Save Britain’s Heritage annual lecture earlier this month, Mr Sturgis said that architecture had not moved on enough in a century compared with other industries and was too reliant on materials made from fossil fuels.
Mr Strugis is an expert in net-zero and said that buildings account for around 15 per cent of global carbon emissions and architects should consider their role in protecting the environment.
‘We need to show much more imagination’
Referencing the Hippocratic Oath, he told the audience at the Royal Academy of Arts: “First, do no harm. I suppose I’m saying that is what we need to do. We need to have something like the Hippocratic Oath, where we promise to do no harm to the environment.
“We also need imagination. We need people to show much more imagination, whether it’s architects or developers, local governments, the GLA or whoever it is on a national level. We need to show much more imagination with construction and with the design of buildings.”
Under the current code of practice, RIBA says that those working in the industry must act with honesty and integrity and consider the environmental impact of any projects. However, they do not have to swear an oath.
Mr Sturgis, who has also advised parliament and the World Wildlife Fund, went as far as likening the built environment’s damage to the climate to a nuclear bomb. He said that the impact of climate change meant that the construction and use of buildings are now a “bigger existential threat than nuclear war, just a lot less obvious or immediate”.
“We are facing an existential crisis with climate change,” he said. “As it is slow moving it is not considered a priority in comparison with the cost of living, Ukraine, Brexit and Covid. It is, however, going to have a vastly bigger impact than all of these combined.”
‘Refurbishment is quicker and easier’
Mr Sturgis also entered the debate around Marks & Spencer’s controversial plans to knock down its flagship store on Oxford Street and replace it with a new building.
He wrote a report explaining the carbon impact of the proposals and described the plan as a “20th-century solution to a 21st-century problem”.
The scheme was called in by Michael Gove, the communities secretary, in June last year, and Mr Sturgis said the outcome would set a precedent for future building projects.
“M&S is a test case for [Gove] and is symbolic of the decisions that need to be made to reverse climate change, reduce resource use, and spur architectural innovation,” he said.
He added that even if the application is approved the case had prompted huge public interest in keeping existing buildings.
“Developers will realise that clever refurbishment is a quicker and easier route to market, that is more popular, more resource efficient and achieves quicker planning approvals,” he said.