Michael Degani, ‘Dwelling in the Climate Emergency’

In this brief essay, I want to sketch how developments in architecture and design are exploring what it is to dwell in the climate emergency. Dwelling is a term derived from Martin Heidegger (1971) and thus has inevitably kitschy overtones, though a range of thinkers have worked to peel off his dangerous nostalgia for farmhouses and old stone bridges and retrieve the existential insight at its core (Malpas 2021; Harries 1998). Ultimately to dwell is to be responsive to the place and situation we find ourselves caught up in, in all its limits and possibilities. Or as Karsten Harries (1998: 209) puts it, sometimes “we dream of huts, sometimes of palaces, sometimes of intimate shelters that shut out the outside, sometimes of tents open to the forest and its animals.” In this way architecture is fundamentally ethical. It strives to capture what it is to be responsive to a given stretch of earth and sky, at a given point in history.

In the climate emergency, these strivings lead us away from finished forms and towards the ‘hidden abode of production’—of process and material. The built environment comprises nearly 42% of all global emissions (Architecture 2030). While roughly 27% of this figure comes from buildings’ energy consumption, their embodied carbon—that is, the 15% of emissions involved extraction, processing, transportation, and construction—is substantial.  A “quadrivium” (Jarzombek 2019) of steel, glass, concrete, and plastic burns copious amounts of fossil fuel across byzantine global supply chains. Building in this “oil vernacular” (Material Cultures 2022: 74) drives global heating as well as the myriad geosocial sacrifice zones of the Anthropocene—open pit mines, endless wasteyards, and cancer alleys. The architectural image of our time, Daniel Barber (2023) suggests, is “the sealed curtain wall tower in an overheated city with a struggling electric grid, in a context where heatwaves are managed exclusively by air-conditioning.” A tomb with a view. At end of life, its materials defy reuse or recycling, elaborately glued and preserved in a petrochemical baroque.

A growing number of architects and engineers have begun to wrestle with their status as a critical relay in this extractive economy. Through associations like the Carbon Leadership Forum, Architecture 2030, and Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN), to name just a few, they are attempting to rethink what it will mean to dwell in an era of climate change, and after the oil vernacular. As one engineer declared, “it’s absolutely outrageous that an architect goes out and buys locally grown tomatoes at the supermarket, gets on their bike to work and thinks they are an environmentally conscious person while designing a concrete or steel-frame building. Architects and engineers are the ones making decisions, so why don’t they engage with this?” (Hurst 2019). 

Weightless Ecological Modernism

To understand why, until recently, they haven’t, it is worth sketching out a bit of history. Operational emissions—the emissions required to light, heat or cool a building—have been improving since the 1970s. These technical advances were spurred by oil shocks and fears of energy dependence, as well as a growing environmental consciousness. But they were also rooted in military-industrial research around the “cabin ecology” of spaceflight, with its cybernetic regulation of inputs and outputs, exemplified in the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller’s “spaceship earth” (Anker 2010). Today spaceships proliferate—from the “spaceship in the desert” that is the UAE’s Masdar City (Günel 2019) to the various escape pods of the tech billionaire class. It is no coincidence that Elon Musk is a champion of both Mars colonization and electrical vehicles. Both are quintessential examples of a kind of weightless ecological modernism.

By the 2000s, there was a renewed recognition that our great many spaceships depend on externalizing the socioecological costs of their production (Brand and Wissen 2021). A version of this discussion played out amongst architects and engineers too (Architecture 2030). As efficiency rises, the embodied emissions of materials take up an increasing share of a building’s overall carbon footprint, and they are more damaging because of where they occur in time. Operational emissions may be larger in aggregate, but they are also spread out over the life of the building. Insofar as we must reduce atmospheric carbon now, in the next ten years, this initial burp of “upfront” construction emissions can no longer be politely ignored. New builds may be energy efficient, and, so the theory goes, that efficiency might pay off its upfront carbon investment after seventy years. The reality is that we are greenlighting, in the thick of a climate crisis, so many concrete boxes with high-emission petrochemical foam insulation that will be demolished in thirty.

For anthropologists, it would not be hard to render this problem in Bourdieuan or even Heideggerian terms. In effect, a new build may talk a good ‘sustainability’ game, but its body—the very materials of its construction—betrays a carbon-dense mode of dwelling in the world. Like our own unreflective habits, embodied carbon is in some sense the ‘deepest’ part of the building. And in a context of the climate crisis, it might even be said to be the ‘truth’ of a building. Crises are often tests where we are forced to see what we are ‘really made of,’ or in this case what buildings are really made of.

The Soil Vernacular

There was always another tradition of 1970s-era environmental thought running alongside that of spaceship earth. It included EF Schumacher, Ivan Illich, and second-order cyberneticists like Gregory Bateson. Anthony Galluzzo (2023) has given them the inspired name “Critical Aquarians.” The design wing of this tradition embraced what we might call a “soil vernacular,” emphasizing local, climatically appropriate materials (adobe, straw, cob, and hemp) and low-tech construction methods that sought to embody the principles of community and sufficiency (Narath 2024; Harkness 2011). Today, an increasing number of architects, designers, and companies are turning to this tradition, both as a critique of the oil vernacular, and as a way to repair some of its climate harms.

On a windy spring day this year, I gathered with about thirty builders, botanists, students, retired school teachers, and entrepreneurs to tour the “Flat House” of Margent Farms. Just north of Cambridge, designed by Paloma Gormley of the London firm Practice Architecture, the three bedroom house is essentially built from hemp grown right on the property. The structure is comprised of prefabricated frames of UK sourced timber infilled with shiv (the inner woody pulp of the hemp plant) mixed with lime. It is clad in shingled panels of hemp’s fibrous exterior mixed with sugar resin from agricultural waste and thermally pressed. The result is a frankly stunning sensorial calm, regulating humidity, temperature, and air quality without any mechanical ductwork. This “truth to materials” model joins earth and world in a way that might speak to Heidegger’s poetic sensibilities. Looking out over the windswept farmland, the owner remarked to us that using the shiv for the infill and its exterior fibers for the cladding was “kind of like putting the plant back together.” 

At the same time, the structure is a machine for fighting climate change. Growing thick and tall on Margent’s field, the hemp crop sucked carbon out of the air. Packed and pressed, that carbon is now safely sequestered in the dwelling.1  At the end of life, it will be available to be mulched and placed back in the hemp fields as fertilizer. Its model of “farm to building” thus seeks to realize a regenerative architecture that, at scale, can act as a net carbon drawdown. In short, where the oil vernacular turns on the radical externalization of its environment, the soil vernacular sutures. 

Hempcrete wall and window of Norwegian style “stilt house” hut on Margent Farms, a companion student project to Flat House. Photo by Author.

Supply Threads

Tenuous and delicate, these regenerative threads are always at risk of getting severed by the political-economy of extraction. One example is the increasing popularity of mass timber amongst developers, which slots into existing construction techniques and can create beautiful, chalet-like skyscrapers. And yet like biofuels, carbon reporting on mass timber often does not account for the emissions associated with land degradation (King and Magwood 2022: 71). Moreover, even if there is net carbon drawdown, there may also be deleterious effects on biodiversity—razing old growth for plantations is to literally miss the forest for the trees. A true “decolonization of buildings” begins with soil health (Reversing Climate Change 2021). And it must be buttressed by a holistic approach to ecological accounting, which is vulnerable to everything from carbon reductionism to outright manipulation. 

In this spirit, supply chains (or perhaps ‘threads’) are key to making ‘natural building’ more than a series of bourgeois vanities or hippie homesteads. Material Cultures, the research arm of Practice Architecture, has worked with stakeholders in Yorkshire to model a “circular biobased construction” economy with detailed analyses of carrying capacity (Islam et al. 2021). Others have proposed to manufacture housing material from agricultural waste streams such as pith, stalk, or coconut husks, as Mae-Ling Lokko has explored in Ghana (Lokko and Eglash 2017). Since 2016, the Lower Sioux Indian Community has operated a hempcrete farm and manufacture facility on its land to provide housing for its own tribal members, part of their “commitment to sovereignty and self-determination” (Nelson 2024). Getting the materials right involves breaking the hegemony of global supply chains, and the voluntaristic model of individualized pledges to ‘do better’ they enforce.

This challenge is sharpest in the question of retrofits. It is widely recognized that ‘the greenest building is the one that already exists.’ One logical conclusion, however, is a moratorium on new construction, an idea recently proposed and publicly debated by ACAN (2023), and challenging to an industry whose raison d’etre is to build. I have come to think of this as architecture’s ‘writing culture’ moment. In truth, the term covers subtle proposals for democratic control over what gets built and for whom, and for a more collaborative culture that blurs the boundary between architect, engineer, and public. Rather than tectonic Randian heroes who will their vision into being, at least some architects are reconceiving themselves as “spatial therapists” (Minkjan 2019), “caretakers or repairmen” (Alter 2022) or even “ancestors” (Architects Declare 2024).

Taken together, these shifts in construction and materials sketch out a particular vision of what it will be to dwell this century. It competes with any number of others: from fully automated luxury communism, to green growth, to climate fascism. Each visiondreams of what it should build, whether underground titanium bunkers, glass domed islands, or timber skyscrapers. Critical Aquarianism too has its own architectural cosmograms—a ‘hempen homespun’ is one such. But so are existing buildings in the oil vernacular, perhaps just lined with pith, bathed in clay paint, and clad in biogenic fiber. They might take our weightless ecological modernism and help bring it back down to earth.


  1. Concrete manufactures like to point out that such materials will eventually emit at the end of life if they are burned or left to rot in the landfill. Yet this misses, as discussed above, the important time value of using such materials; emissions avoided now are worth more than those avoided later. Moreover, given the decay rate of atmospheric carbon, temporarily stored carbon, past a certain point, is a net drawdown (King and Magwood 2022: 48-50). 

Michael Degani is Assistant Professor of Environmental Anthropology in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, and Juliet Campbell Fellow in Social Anthropology at Girton College, researching energy, infrastructure, and design in Africa and beyond. He is the author of The City Electric: Infrastructure and Ingenuity in Postsocialist Tanzania (Duke University Press 2022), an ethnography of a national power grid.


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Alter, L. 2022. “This anonymous manifesto outlines how architects can design for degrowth.” Treehugger. 9 August. https://www.treehugger.com/anonymous-architecture-degrowth-manifesto-6375359.

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