The Supernatural Design Collective wants architects to play a bigger role in curbing climate change.

A group of students are challenging their faculty and curriculum to do better.

The Ecology Action Centre is a leading example of good green design. - DANIEL DOMINIC
Daniel Dominic
The Ecology Action Centre is a leading example of good green design.

A group of Dalhousie architecture students is pushing for better green-design education from their faculty and the greater architecture community.

It's been four months since an informal meeting about environmental design principles (not previously covered in the university curriculum) led to the creation of the Supernatural Design Collective.

The summer's 36-person study group has now grown to include just over a hundred other classmates, academics and professionals within Dalhousie's School of Architecture, all promoting environmentally responsible architecture in study and practice through workshops, lectures and inter-university networking.

According to the United Nations, human-built structures account for about 40 percent of global energy use, while Canada's Environment and Sustainable Development Committee reports buildings emit 12 percent of the country's greenhouse gases. That's more than agriculture or waste.

Dalhousie architecture student and organizer Laure Nolte says she and her colleagues feel they aren't being prepared to design environmentally responsible buildings in order to combat their field's significant impact on the growing climate crisis.

In the current course content "sustainability seems like an optional choice instead of being integrated from the very beginning of the design process. I don't think we have an option to choose whether we want to be sustainable or not. We need to be demanding and advocating for architectural projects that weave regeneration and ecological design into projects from the beginning," says Nolte.

In just one semester the collective has drafted a manifesto which outlines its goals. It wants the architectural community to not only focus on sustainability, but to design buildings that actually involve and restore nature, and it wants to ensure that the character and health of neighbourhoods, and the needs of marginalized communities are taken into account in all design.

Nolte adds that the design principles the collective wants to see aren't just theoretical—they already exist.

In Dartmouth, for instance, NSCC's Centre for Built Environment was designed to positively participate with surrounding ecosystems. Interior and exterior living walls and green roofs use vegetation to naturally ventilate the building and help regulate temperature, while rain-capturing systems irrigate them and the surrounding grounds.

Buildings that weren't designed with the environment in mind can also be improved. Across the harbour the Ecology Action Centre recently used an office renovation to retrofit their north end headquarters. Alongside retaining the building character and improving efficiency, Solterre Design, the firm that worked on the project, estimates about 40 tonnes of wood were saved by opting not to rebuild. Unlike cement, wood and other natural materials suck up carbon, much like a forest, keeping it out of the atmosphere.

But Nolte says these are the exceptions; most existing buildings and developments in HRM don't do enough to minimize their environmental impact.

Halifax principle planner Kasia Tota says most of that choice is currently up to developers. "We've done some policy around green roofs and open spaces that will create better buildings, but in terms of actual sustainability of buildings themselves, we're limited in what we can require under the Land Use Bylaw." The city must work within the framework of the province's building code, which doesn't regulate building sustainability. The recently approved Centre Plan Package A encourages sustainable development, but doesn't incentivize it. Tota says there could be incentives included in Package B, which is still being drafted, for developers who design greener buildings.

Last week, the collective has met with Joseli Macedo, Dalhousie's dean of architecture and planning, who said she was she's pleased students are taking an active role in working to combat the climate crisis through their field. Not bad for a study group.