Sustainability Education: Can Sustainability Be Taught? Should It Be?

The Architects’ Journal recently published an article pitting five competing views of teaching sustainability against one another. The opinions come from a range of backgrounds, including engineers, tutors and landscape architects, and discuss how architecture students should be taught to design in a sustainable way – or if they should be taught this at all.

The competing opinions are telling in the issues that they highlight, demonstrating how complex the issue of sustainability has become, and how it fits into the wider context of architectural education.

Read the different reactions to the issue of sustainability in education after the break
Austin Williams, director of the Future Cities Project and a lecturer at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou begins the discussion with the controversial view that sustainable design should not be taught in universities. According to Williams, the topic of sustainability is becoming accepted as a mantra which “undermines critical engagement and replaces it with blind loyalty”.

Knox Innovation Opportunity and Sustainability Centre - image 1

Knox Innovation Opportunity and Sustainability Centre / Woods Bagot. Image © Peter Bennetts

He highlights the number of diverse institutions which are embedding the sustainability ‘mantra’ into their courses, and asks “are students being educated, or indoctrinated?”

Next up, director of RESET development Blanche Cameron provides the polar opposite view: “If we want livable 21st century towns and cities, we need to train our future built environment professionals to integrate soil and vegetation into every site”, she says.

Cameron’s view is one rooted in urgency, caused by the rapid decline of the natural environment. She warns that “unless we adopt a deeply rooted restorative approach, we may just end up fiddling while Rome burns.”

It is unfortunate that there is no further discussion between these two contributors, as they seem to ignore the grounds for each other’s opinions. How would Williams dismiss the urgency with which Cameron believes we need to act? Conversely, how would Cameron respond to the accusation that her ideal for education is a form of indoctrination?

The next three contributors all share a common theme: that to achieve truly sustainable design, we need holistic thinking and collaboration across disciplines. Doug King, an engineer specializing in building performance argues that ”today’s students, architects and engineers alike, must be challenged to apply their creativity to jointly solving real-life problems.”

This opinion is then echoed by Sergio Altomonte, associate professor and course director at the University of Nottingham, who says that “education for sustainability must facilitate multidisciplinary dialogue between different professions”, and landscape architect Tim Waterman who believes ”every architecture programme should be paired with its landscape architecture complement.”

This reflects a growing concern that architectural education in the UK is too rigid to allow architecture students to work in a cross-disciplinary way. Earlier this year, a report found that architectural education forces students to be ‘generalists’ rather than allowing specialization. This in turn has lead to the Architects’ Registration Board (ARB) in the UK to promise a review of the effectiveness of architectural education.


Stott, Rory. “Can Sustainability Be Taught? Should It Be?” 09 Aug 2013. ArchDaily.

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