Intersecting zero-carbon goals with architectural heritage practices

Laura Coucill, Sherif Goubran, Tom Jefferies, Gary Boyd

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Are approaches to zero carbon development compatible with protected heritage in the built environment? Can UNESCO values be reconciled resilient urban futures? What will future zero carbon, or carbon negative, settlements look like and what can be learnt from built historic models and hypothetical urban ideals?

Since sustainability in architecture became mainstream, sustainability theory has become increasingly heterogenous (Guy & Farmer, 2001; Vandevyvere & Heynen, 2014) and the formal architectural results it produces are arguably increasingly homogenous. The authors report on the results of a transnational design studio between UK and Egypt, established to explore the relationship between heritage and sustainability and the production of future heritage in a global societal crisis.

Heritage assets in the built environment are both a problem and solution to the climate emergency. Changing weather patterns will accelerate damage and decay to historic structures and landscapes, but retrofit can displace original design values, notwithstanding tensions between conservation and performance policies (Ziedler, Hari & Bell, 2020: 4). This is a situation which reinforces that significant and effective strategies rely on connected, scalar, design-led, multidisciplinary approaches (see for example, Jefferies & Keeffe, 2011).

The Distributed Design Studio – a transnational project between Belfast, Salford and Cairo – has engaged architectural design thinking to re-evaluate decarbonisation strategies across scales, cultures, and climates to explore the value potential of zero-carbon and carbon-negative landscapes and architecture. Funded by the British Council, Queen’s University Belfast, the American University in Cairo, and the University of Salford examined the heritage-rich contexts of Northern Ireland, Egypt, and England. This spatial research enabled design questions to be explored through experimental and digitally infused co-production, alongside fieldwork focused on natural and constructed forms of heritage. Presentations of design research findings at COP27 highlighted the limitations of current decarbonisation strategies, and generated a shared understanding of local responses to global challenges, forming the basis of propositionally based themes that overlap.

The paper reflects on innovative approaches to teaching, design and research to remark on the potential of this method to equip graduates with the technical and design thinking skills needed, and enable design professions to radically reimagine the role of architecture, community, and technology through stakeholder engagement practices.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 05 Jul 2023
EventTowards an Architectural Theory for Sustainability: International Symposium - Lancaster University, Lancaster, United Kingdom
Duration: 05 Jul 202305 Jul 2023


ConferenceTowards an Architectural Theory for Sustainability: International Symposium
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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