Tackling climate change holistically

Sara Grahn, architect and partner at White, has been invited to discuss climate change and the environmental resonance of design at the London Design Biennale Summit. We took a few minutes with Sara to hear her views on the role architecture has in addressing climate change.

What role can design play in addressing major global issues such as climate change and sustainability?

Everything is dependent on design! Your everyday needs are dependent on the way your city is designed. Do you drive a car to work or is your city designed so that you can cycle or walk to work? Is there a biodiverse park nearby or do you have to travel far away to enjoy nature? Is your home heated with oil or is it solar powered? Can you easily meet with other people or do you have to bridge physical borders to get to them.


The goal must be a well-designed architecture that supports our everyday lives as well as human well-being and human growth. The pre-requisite for that is an ecology in balance. To achieve that we must re-think the way we design, re-do and re-cycle our cities to transform our physical environment into a liveable, robust, resilient and sustainable future.

Do architects need to lead the way in tackling the climate-change crisis?

Yes. As architecture is a very slow design field, a long-term and holistic way of thinking is embedded within the practice. A holistic, inclusive way of tackling climate-change is the only way forward. As architects, we deal with the relation between form, function and performance. Instead of finding the optimal answer to the demands defined in one randomly chosen moment, we can see beyond the finished project and map the entire breadth of future possibilities. Ultimately, the result is architectural designs that can be loved by generations and adapted to new uses over and over again.


A socio-ecological integrated design, where robust structures and good connections support integration and optimisation of human and ecological exchange. That’s the framework which will provide diversity and adaptation over time for an attractive, liveable and resilient urban life for people, now, and in the future.

What are you doing at White to make buildings carbon-neutral and how achievable is this?

The holistic approach is the key to achieve an ecology in balance. The long-term goal is to design buildings to have a positive climate impact. In Sweden and at White we have long-standing expertise in designing energy efficient buildings through a combination of passive and active strategies. The use of modern wood structures is one way forward to carbon-positive architecture. It also provides a unique opportunity to create sustainable and beautiful buildings.


As the actual construction process accounts for a very large portion of a project’s climate impact, it is important to ensure the building’s longevity and that it can adapt to new uses over time in a resource efficient manner. An architecture that manages materials, energy and resources within the planetary boundaries while belonging to the larger eco-cycle; an architecture that works in harmony with the ecosystem, today and for future generations.

To what extent can sustainable architecture help consumers develop sustainable lifestyles?

If you take away the hope from humanity, people withdraw from the democratic society. That removes the last thing we have, because we all want to contribute to a better world. As architects we must lead the work on how to build cities that instil hope. Hope for a slightly better future where our human needs and dreams are in focus, but where the care for the planet is made equally important. The simple reason is that a globe in balance is the fundament of our needs.

What are the design limitations for creating sustainable architecture?

We are handling a series of very complex processes in the search for a sustainable architecture which puts demands on new ways of working. The design answers are to be found in creative interdisciplinary collaborations. This is hard to achieve and the risk of sub-optimisations instead of a holistic approach is one of the limitations we must overcome. Short-term return-on-investment thinking is another. Long-term quality is still considered too expensive. Expensive from what perspective? If the actual life-cycle cost and life-cycle analysis were considered in all calculations and design-decisions only sustainable architecture would be built.

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