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Sustainability and the Architectural Education: Are We There Yet?



Norhati Ibrahim

Department of Architecture, Faculty of Architecture, Planning and Surveying, MALAYSIA

ABSTRACT: In the last two decades there have been active debates on the subject of architecture
education reforms to integrate sustainability. The general consensus is that change to address
the notion of sustainability is inevitable and every school is expected to attempt at making
meaningful contribution and progress towards this objective. However it is anticipated that
adoption of ideas and content of the sustainability agenda will differ according to the individual
schools of architecture due to the contextual forces determining its direction, the diversity of its
philosophy, pedagogical approaches and ability to adopt innovation. The paper reviews crucial
issues relating to adoption of sustainability in the architectural education, and later presents a
case study analysis on the architectural programmes offered at UiTM. The study reveals that
these programmes have elements to support the pursuit of sustainability integration. However,
there is a need to review the existing curriculum to significantly include aspects of sustainability
integration in the courses content and delivery mode. The study highlights the need to rebalance
the focus between artistic pursuit and development of skills with the more crucial educational
objective of instilling good values and fostering attitudes compatible with sustainability behavior
and needs.
Keywords: sustainability, architectural education


Architectural education has been recognized as one of the leading academic endeavor. With the
changes brought about by various forces such as social and environmental context in the last few
decades, this may not be the case in the near future. Architectural education has to change according
to time and demands to make it relevant.
The sustainability agenda for the architectural profession was formally initiated 15 years ago
with the release of the “Declaration of Interdependence for a Sustainable Future” by the Union of
International Architects (UIA, 1993). This proclamation was renewed in 1996 with the publication
of the blueprint of UIA / UNESCO ‘Charter For Architectural Education’. This asserts that
incorporation of sustainability elements in the architectural education is inevitable.
In response to the spirit of sustainability, many schools have begun to introduce and revise their
syllabus content to include technical issues and sustainable design approaches. Hence, the terms
such as environmental responsive design, energy conscious design and bioclimatic architecture has
become common and form part of the courses objectives.
Architecture encompasses both art and science disciplines. There is a lot of subjectivity when
discussing architecture. The architectural design process is complex as it does not arise from a linear
thought process or equation. It comes about from an iterative and elusive process of synthesis and
analysis guided by the power of reasoning, as well as calling upon the emotive and intuitive faculties.

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Essentially an architecture curriculum consists of 4 major fields of study – History/Theory,

Technology, Design and Professional Practice. Design is regarded as the uniting subject, where the
knowledge learned from the other fields is applied in simulated design tasks. The overall aim for
schools of architecture is to ensure the students receive a balanced education of these fields, as
their value judgement of multifaceted issues will influence their architectural design output.
The culture of architectural education has been heavily scrutinized, particularly owing to the
following characteristics uncovered from a recent survey (Salama, 2008):
a. High emphasis on advocacy, but low inquiry
b. Ambiguous criteria for students’ performance and success
c. “Research strategy shaped by low emphasis on developing or even critically examining current
theories of precedents”
d. “Emphasis is predominantly on form and artistic terms, still focuses on skill development and
superficially adopting fragmented pieces of knowledge on the technology, ecology, socio-political
and socio-economic aspect”.
Although most schools of architecture recognize the need to implement sustainable design,
environmental agenda continue to be regarded as a marginal issue. In a critical review on the
current status of the sustainability integration efforts by schools of architecture (Stasinopoulos,
2005), the author concludes with the following observation:
a. Most schools have yet to meaningfully embrace the subject of sustainability, whereby most efforts
appears sporadic.
b. The teaching of sustainability requires a change from the traditional method.
On the basis of this observation, this paper reviews issues relating to adoption of sustainability in
architectural education programmes.


Sustainability embodies the concept that human is able to consciously contribute towards meeting
the needs of the present generation, while ensuring that the needs of future generation is not
compromised. The concept is interdisciplinary in nature, which demands participation from every
level of the community, aiming at maintaining a balanced ecological, social and economic system.
There have been a number of efforts to define sustainable architecture since the introduction of
the term ‘sustainable development’ in the Brundtland Report (World Commission on Environment
and Development, 1987). Design approaches in support of sustainable architecture are ‘green
architecture’ (Vale & Vale, 1996), ‘environmentally responsive design’ and ecological design’ (Yeang,
1998). Vale (1999) for example proposes six green design principles which are conserving energy,
working with climate, minimising new resources, respect for users, respect for site and holism.
Sustainable architecture echoes the concept of ‘sustainable development’, targeting on the
architectural issues. Sustainable architecture covers the tri-domain of social-environment-economy
parameters. There are differing opinions in the placement of priority between these three aspects.
From an environmental inclined view point, Ray-Jones (2000) sums up sustainable architecture as
“a thoughtful and well considered use of energy systems to make buildings that are more conducive

Sustainability and the Architectural Education: Are We There Yet?

to human use and comfort, without generating pollutants or borrowing the earth’s resources for the
future generations.” While others with a social stance, put social dimension forefront when suggesting
that sustainable architecture is regarded to encompass the design and managing of sustainable
human settlements which deal largely with creating appropriate human settlements configurations
that optimise (not maximise) the consumption of resources, and managing resource extraction and
waste disposal in a manner which does not deplete or degrade the environment.


The direction of architectural education is influenced by the needs of its key stakeholders namely,
the professional and industry needs, as well as the needs of the university offering the course. The
professional and industry needs can be observed from the requirements set by the profession
accreditation bodies as well as the state of the architectural practices that receive the students.

3.1 The Accreditation Bodies

Like other professions, the education and practices of architecture are subjected to accreditation by
its professional bodies. The accreditation process is crucial to maintain the society’s trust on the
profession. At tertiary level, architectural programmes are accredited to assure the society of the
quality of architects produced, and this mechanism reconciles the differences between the education
and practices. Nowadays universities seek for accreditation or validation as part of their marketing
strategy to gain reputation and promote their programmes.
There are several professional accreditation bodies that award local, regional and/or international
recognition. In Malaysia the Board of Architects (LAM) is responsible for determining the standard
for entry into the architectural profession and the accreditation of architectural programmes. LAM
established the Council of Architectural Education Malaysia (CAEM) to regulate all matters relating
to architectural education. It awards recognized programmes with LAM Part I and Part II
Optional international accreditation that schools of architecture in Malaysia are likely to consider
• The Commonwealth Association of Architects (CAA)
• The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA, 2003)
• UNESCO-UIA: an international architectural education accreditation body. A collaboration
between the International Union of Architects (UIA), the world-wide association of architects,
with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
Each of these organizations set their procedure and criteria for accreditation. Due to similar
accreditation objectives, the criteria set by each organisation do not differ much.
In its accreditation document, UNESCO-UIA, an international architectural education
accreditation body, set “a satisfactory balance between theory and practice” as its first qualitative
criteria (UNESCO-UIA Council for the validation of architectural education, 2002). In terms of the
expected breadth of capabilities that an architecture student needs to acquire, UNESCO-UIA
identifies design abilities, knowledge, and skills to fulfill an architect’s role as generalists who can

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co-ordinate interdisciplinary objectives. UNESCO-UIA endorses teaching based on project realization

as the principle teaching method. This approach places students under the direct and personal
guidance of lecturers. This method provides “a synthesis of knowledge, aptitudes, and attitudes”.

3.2 Architectural Practices

As a key team player in the building industry, architects are in the position to promote positive
ideologies such as sustainable architecture to the clients and other built environment community.
This makes the choice and behaviour of architects in conducting their practices an essential aspect
to promoting sustainable development. Despite having said this, it is important to note that operating
in a commercial world and in a global economy, architectural practices are tempted to adapt
themselves to societal values and demands in order to survive. This asserts the suggestion that the
process of embracing sustainability depends to a large extent on the readiness of the community as
a whole. It is inevitable that human’s perception of and behaviour towards the environment will
affect how well the environment is safeguarded. Although much has been said about how architects
can and should strive to promote sustainability, eventually the final endorsement to adopt an idea or
otherwise usually rests on the client.
Several authors have noted that although many architects acknowledge the importance of
sustainability, sustainable practices amongst architects are still few (Franz, 1998; Ibrahim & Abbas,
2001). Surveys on architects’ attitude towards sustainable architecture revealed barriers to sustainable
practices including lack of knowledge, lack of opportunity and lack of sense of personal responsibility.
The view is that the success of realizing sustainability must take into consideration technological
(knowledge, information and skills to produce sustainable design) and social perspectives (attitude,
behavior and commitment).
In the local scene, a 2001 survey on the Malaysian architect’s attitude and perception on
sustainability (Ibrahim, 2003) reveal a significant degree of complacency among the local architects
in responding to sustainability. This is partly attributed to the multi-faceted nature of the architectural
disciplines itself which demands a multitude of complex considerations such as design concept,
structural stability, buildibility, building materials specification, environmental control, interaction with
other professionals, building technology, legal responsibility etc. The attitude and intention of those
involved in the design and building activities, namely the architects, clients, project consultants,
contractors and project managers are crucial towards realising sustainable architecture.
The preceding paragraphs assert the role the architectural education system could play towards
nurturing and fostering an environmental attitude amongst future architect.


There have been many discussions on the subject of curriculum transformation in response to the
sustainability agenda. In the USA, a conference was held in August 2001 that brought together
architectural schools from across the country with the overriding purpose of charting a three to five
year plan for a comprehensive transformation of architectural curriculum so as to address the
sustainability agenda (Second Nature, 2001). The programme was initiated alongside and builds on
the substantial and innovative foundation developed by others over the past decade. These include

Sustainability and the Architectural Education: Are We There Yet?

projects such as EASE at Ball State University, Vital Signs at University of California, Berkeley, the
work of the Society of Building Science Educators (SBSE), the work of the Association of Collegiate
Schools of Architecture (ACSA) and American Institute of Architects – Committee on the
Environment (AIACOTE).
At this platform, the concluding comment made by the Director of Programs on the changing
architectural education was:
Transforming architecture education means focusing on how to teach as well as what is being taught. Teachers
need to expose students to the best ideas, exemplify commitment in their own work and expand the boundaries
of the discipline and the profession. A primary requirement of moving architecture education beyond
architecture is an understanding of design that goes beyond buildings. Central to this new vision is the
conviction that architects are generalists, although this is often masked by the necessity of specialization.
(Second Nature, 2001: 3)
The conference recognizes that there is no one strategy towards adoption of ideas and content
of the sustainability agenda due to the diversity of schools in terms of their philosophy, pedagogical
approaches and ability to adopt innovation. The following are the gist of crucial findings from this
conference (extracted from Second Nature, 2001: 4):
General recommendations
• Need to move architecture beyond architecture, design that goes beyond buildings
• To focus on how to teach (delivery method) and what is being taught (content)
• Conviction that architects are generalists, although this is often masked by the necessity of
• Change general approach: link Curriculum, the Campus and the Community.
Recommendations on curriculum elements
• Transform the curriculum
♦ Introduce strategies to integrate sustainable design concepts in all areas, History/Theory,
Technology, Studio and Professional Practice
♦ Create symposia at architectural schools to address the cutting edge ideas and developments;
♦ Develop a course for all students on the idea of the Campus as a dynamically integrated
sustainable community connected to a larger community.
• Transform studio teaching
♦ Find workable methods to breakdown the usual differentiation of the studio and the lecture;
♦ Work on real life problems at different scales either on the campus itself or in the community
at large. Begin studio with urban and regional-scale problems;
♦ Develop ecological footprint exercises and faculty training. Develop an icon for the eco-
footprint to use on all projects similar to the use of the compass north arrow. Develop
layered drawings to include Geographic Information System (GIS) information; and
♦ Bridge the major disciplinary division in design training, using a three-dimensional approach
solving problems, addressing the issues of beauty, performance and ecological simultaneously.
[extracted from Second Nature, 2001:4]

Similarly, draws from a survey conducted on the attitude of architects and designers towards

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sustainability, Franz (1998) recommends that architectural education focuses on inculcating appropriate
attitudes amongst students through the following:
i. Making the design students aware of their own and others’ attitudes and how they can influence
ii. Give the students the opportunity to form an appreciation of themselves as role models in society
with an increased ascription of responsibility; and
iii. Students allowed to develop a detailed knowledge of the range of issues associated with
sustainability as well as appropriate strategies for its implementation.



This section presents the Architectural Programmes offered at the Universiti Teknologi MARA as
a case to assess the readiness of sustainability implementation at a university in the Malaysian
context. The architectural programmers are run by the Department of Architecture, Faculty of
Architecture, Planning and Surveying.

5.1 Programme Background

Objective and mission statement: The Department of Architecture at the Universiti Teknologi
MARA was established in 1967 with the aim of training graduates at semi-professional and professional
level, to meet the manpower needs of the nation in the architectural field and the building industry.
Its mission statement underlines the concerns to produce competent architectural graduates who
are innovative and sensitive towards the environment through integrated and balanced learning.
Programme structure: The university offers two (2) full-time architectural programmes: the
Bachelor of Science (Architecture) and Bachelor of Architecture (Hons.). The study period is four
and two respectively. The programme is subjected to the university policy that demands syllabus
review to be conducted every three years. Teaching modules have been progressively improved and
the curriculum is continually updated in order to keep pace with new technologies and challenges.
The latest revision was conducted in 2005. Through the years the overall structure have not been
subjected to major transformation, adhering to the traditional studio-based system.
The curriculum: Part I / B. Sc. (Arch.) programme emphasises on developing architectural
skills among students. The curriculum design for Part II / B.Arch. programme is the continuation of
the previous knowledge gained from Part I. The syllabus focuses on producing competent graduates
that integrates the aspects of science, technology and culture in design. Ultimately, the goal is to
produce a well rounded individual with a high sense of social responsibility and high self-esteem and
confidence. All these make a sound foundation towards creating an architecture that cares not only
for the current generation but also the future generations to come.
Apart from academic excellence, the University emphasises on students’ involvement in other
activities such as sports and community, as well as other forms of self development. To achieve this
several additional non-core subjects are made compulsory for all students in UiTM, such as Third
Language, Islamic Studies and Co-curriculum.

Sustainability and the Architectural Education: Are We There Yet?

In line with efforts to gain validation from RIBA, the department has regrouped the courses
according to the theme recommended by RIBA – Design, Cultural/Context, Practices and
Emphasis is on the Design subjects whereby the Design courses account for 38% and 40% for
the B. Sc. (Arch.) programme and B. Arch. (Hons.) programme respectively. The design studios
culminates with a comprehensive design task that places the student as the centre of the design
process. The project is self generated and each student is to work independently, efficiently and
effectively in carrying out and completing his/her thesis project, with close supervision by lecturers.
Detailed descriptions of each course were studied to observe if sustainability design issues are
in built into the curriculum. It is observed that descriptions on sustainability integration are limited to
Studio courses and a few Architectural Science and Environmental subjects. On the overall the
emphasis is on developing skills and technical knowledge. Environmental responsibility is generally
covered in the final year subject for B.Sc. programme, and at the beginning of the B. Arch programme,
under the Sustainable Design subject.
The teaching method: Generally the approach outlined in the syllabus describes a traditional
teaching method namely, lectures, tutorials, studio projects, practical training and academic visits.
However the department encourages innovation in course delivery, which depends on efforts and
creativity of individual lecturers. In the past there are numerous efforts by studio coordinators to
plan out learning activities that involve participation with the community and outside organizations.
However, often there are missed opportunities as this potential remained unexplored when such
tasks are undertaken by lecturers who are less inclined towards change. On the overall, the traditional
teaching practices still prevailed and the overall view on architecture as primarily an art-based
profession persists.
Research culture: The future of the Department is in line with the Faculty’s and UiTM’s vision
that focuses on excellence in terms of students, teaching and research, in preparation to be a World-
Class university. As a more aggressive measure to tap research opportunities in the area of built
environment, the faculty has set up its own research centres. The Department is slowly but steadily
migrating its mindset from a teaching to a research based department. The Department sees itself to
fully embrace the research culture in a very near future.
The quality of academic staff is vital to the successful operation of a university. Compared to
other architectural department in the country, the Department has the most number of professionally
registered architects serving as full time academic staff. About 30% of the department lecturers
specialize in environmental studies. Seven of the Department’s full time lecturers hold Ph.D. in
varying areas of expertise such as Sustainability, Buildings Performance, Design Process, Behavioural
and Cultural. The University is continually making efforts to collaborate with other organizations
within and beyond UiTM boundary.

5.2 The University Agenda

UiTM intents to increase its student numbers. The Department of Architecture intents to increase
its student intake especially at the Part I level. UiTM encourages collaborative and business linkage
efforts, and supports internationalization initiatives. These are positive agenda that open opportunity
for sustainability practices to blossom.

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UiTM was awarded the ISO 9001:2000 Certificate from Lloyd’s Register Quality Assurance
(LQRA) for all aspects of teaching and learning in 2004. The Department’s quality in terms of its
procedures and managing the programme is well maintained as it is subjected to two quality audits:
(1) external Surveillance Audit conducted twice a year, and (2) internal audit, conducted every 6
months, or as deemed necessary by the faculty.
Now with the recent move by the government to make university programme auditing and
adoption of Outcome Based Learning compulsory, the quality of the education system in UiTM is
expected to be enhanced, and the overall approach of the teaching and learning processes made
more transparent.

5.3 Accreditation Bodies

The architectural programmes in UiTM are amongst the first to be accredited by the local professional
bodies (LAM) with Part I and II recognitions, since 1982. In the past the criteria for accreditation
are vague, relying strongly on the value judgement of the approving visiting panel. The tendencies
were to place strong emphasis on the students technical ability and skills. LAM’s recently released
revised accreditation criteria (LAM, 2008) is seen as a very positive move towards a structured and
transparent accreditation process.
The university conducted a RIBA exploratory visit in 2006 and currently the proggramme is
now under consideration for a RIBA full validation.

5.4 Government Standing and the Malaysian Society

The Malaysian government supports the world sustainable development agenda whereby in 1999
Malaysia became a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol 1997 (Malaysia Institute of Nuclear Technology
Research 1999). Signatories of the Kyoto Protocol are committed to strive to reduce greenhouse
gas emission. Several major national policies have made sustainable development as its prime
objective; The Outline Perspective Policy 1 (OPP 1) (1971-1990) and 2 (OPP 2) (1990-2000),
developed from the National Economic Policy (NEP) and the 8th Malaysia Plan 2001-2005 (Economic
Planning Unit 2001a), reasserts the national environmental policy introduced in the Third Malaysian
Plan 1976-1980.
The government’s concern for environment is positive, initiating serious efforts in embracing an
energy efficiency agenda. This poses a new challenge for architects and the building industry and
community as a whole.


This paper identifies aspects of sustainability adoption in the architectural education. This forms a
basis to analyse the current state and readiness of the Department of Architecture, Faculty
Architecture, Planning and Surveying to pursue the sustainability agenda.
The study reveals that the architecture programmes offered in UiTM have the necessary
ingredients to champion pursuit of sustainability in architecture. The growing number of environmental
experts and research activities in the Department are signs of the Department’s future inclinations
towards sustainability sensitivity. However obstacles to the integration as observed in past studies

Sustainability and the Architectural Education: Are We There Yet?

conducted overseas (Franz, 2005) are apparent. Currently inclusion of sustainability aspects are
fragmented relying heavily upon individual efforts of lecturers that are familiar and inclined towards
the subject matter. There is a need to review the existing curriculum to significantly include the
worthy aspects of sustainability in the courses content and delivery mode.
The open ended approach of describing the studio delivery mode may not contribute well towards
sustainability. The study highlights the need for the architectural education system to place emphasis
on fostering attitudes compatible with sustainability behavior and needs.


The author acknowledges appreciation to members of the department who contributed to the
preparation of all department documents that this paper has made reference to.


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