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Preparing architecture students for a net-zero future

TMU-backed research project surveyed students and educators to gauge their understanding of and readiness for the climate crisis
June 20, 2022
Department of Architectural Science professor Terri Peters stands against a geometrically shaped wall smiling

DAS professor Terri Peters asked Canadian architecture students and educators if they feel prepared for the new realities of climate change

What do Canadian architecture students need to know to engage with the new realities of the climate crisis and resulting global warming and extreme weather? This question was on the mind of Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) architectural science professor Terri Peters as she considered her approach to teaching the first-year Department of Architectural Science (DAS) course, Sustainable Practices. Awareness of the contribution of the built environment to the current climate crisis has brought new responsibilities for architectural curricula and educators to the fore.

“Students are very curious about the relationship between architecture and climate change,” said Peters. “They are invested in learning how architecture can connect to real world issues and challenges.” In line with Canada’s commitment, external link, opens in new window to ​achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, building industry professionals must engage with new sustainable design and building performance regulations. But are Canadian architecture students being prepared for this net-zero future?

To help answer this question, Peters launched the, external link research project with the help of architecture research assistants Jayda Brown (Architectural Science (Honours) ‘22) and Jana Stojanovska.

Jayda Brown, DAS graduate, smiles at the camera in front of a green hedge, wearing a blue hat and jacket

Jayda Brown, Architectural Science (Honours) ‘22, worked as a research assistant on the Climate Curriculum project

This TMU-based research project invited architecture students and educators to evaluate current climate change and sustainable design education priorities critically. “This project is important because as climate change continues to alter our environment, it affects how architects design,” said Brown. “Aspects of architectural design must adapt to ensure buildings are proactive to an unpredictable future.”

Funded in part by the university’s Internationalization at Home Fund (I@H), external link, the project involves three initiatives:

  1. A web-based survey of Canadian architecture students and instructors about their satisfaction with their sustainable design and climate change education
  2. A climate manifesto design competition for students across the globe
  3. A series of short online talks about ideas that matter to the community

1. Web-Based Survey

The I@H Fund allowed Peters to engage with researchers in Europe who developed the web-based survey used by the ClimateCurriculum project. The 19-question online survey asked architecture students to reflect on what they learned in school and how they see the current and future of Canadian architecture education in the context of the climate emergency.

Jana Stojanovska looks at the camera, standing in front of a tall green hedge

As a second-year architectural science student, Jana Stojanovska worked as the ​​Social Media and Communications Assistant on the ClimateCurriculum project

According to Stojanovska, "Support from FEAS allowed us to launch this initiative and share our results with dozens of Canadian universities and the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA), external link, opens in new window." 

Survey Analysis

  • One hundred ninety-six survey responses represented all 12 of Canada's accredited architecture schools. 
  • 38% of responses came from TMU, 22% from Carleton and 21% from The University of Toronto. 
  • 84% of responses were from students, including 58% from undergraduates and 42% from graduate students, with the remaining responses from educators.

Overall, survey results showed that while students will be required to have a greater understanding of the environmental impacts of architecture and know how to design net-zero buildings as professionals, there is a gap between what they know or are taught and what they need to know or should be taught. 

For example, when asked how confident respondents were about their knowledge of ecological resilience and regenerative design, only 36% chose 'very good' or 'good.' In contrast, 75% of respondents felt this way about their understanding of the impact of architecture on the health and wellbeing of humans and 52% chose these answers regarding their knowledge of embodied carbon. 

"The concept of embodied carbon is gaining traction," said Peters, "which is encouraging." However, the overall survey results did not show a uniform understanding of these terms across the schools.

"Students are intensely concerned about the climate change emergency and eager to obtain the knowledge, skills and competencies necessary to deliver a zero-carbon built environment," said Stojanovska. However, while respondents have strong opinions about the connection between architecture, climate change and sustainable design, the survey demonstrates that they feel these issues are not prioritized, evaluated or focused on in design studios in Canadian architecture programs.

The study results will be compiled into a peer-reviewed paper and disseminated in full in a report on the project website, external link, opens in new window.

2. Poster Design Competition for Students

The poster design competition invited students to submit a graphic or two-minute video about their ideas, vision or concerns connecting architecture and climate change. Seventy-four entries from 22 countries, including 65 posters and nine videos, were received. Competition winners will be chosen in late June.

3. Online Talks About Ideas That Matter to the Community

The ClimateCurriculum research project engaged students and educators in a constructive dialogue on what future curriculums could include. As the third project initiative, participants were asked to suggest topics for future short lectures that will take place later in the year.

"The architectural science programs at TMU are unique in Canada," said Peters. "Our programs allow students to deepen their sustainability knowledge as they progress through the curriculum and focus on architectural design, building science or project management." According to DAS professor and Chair Mark Gorgolewski, "The department is integrating increasing expectations for sustainability in its studios and courses. It also offers more specialized studios in the 4th year to give students a better grounding in these issues."

The, external link, opens in new window research project gave students and educators a unique opportunity to reflect upon and contextualize their learning about real-world issues. Peters sees this project as a potential starting point for new courses, workshops and initiatives in Canada's architectural design education.