In 2013 architects face uncertainty in volumes of work, but steadily increasing demand for more sustainability in outcomes, i.e. built environment projects that deliver economic and social value, and minimise environmental impacts.
The UK coalition government reiterated in 2012 that the background to a number of policy initiatives affecting sustainability in the built environment is the Government's Carbon Plan published in 2011, which highlights the crucial role of energy efficiency in meeting the 80% greenhouse gas emissions reduction target for 2050. In the 30 years between 1980 and 2010, whilst UK GDP has doubled, final energy use in the UK has remained broadly at the same level (with domestic space heating and hot water use being responsible for some 25% of the energy total), but to meet 2050 targets it is generally accepted that for buildings we need to halve the demand, double the efficiency and halve the carbon in the fuel supply.
For architects, reducing energy demand in both new and retrofit projects will be a key requirement for sustainability in buildings, but we will also need to design other complementary strategies to achieve sustainability in a holistic sense. In the domestic market, the consumer desire to save money, reflecting concerns about spiralling energy costs and insecurity in the job market, is driving increased interest in energy efficient homes, but also there is now a substantial body of research demonstrating that corporate clients recognise the value of 'green' buildings. This is because they have been shown to add value in rental returns and valuations, and in 'brand association'.
Architects looking to skill up for sustainable outcomes for their projects can be reassured that the market for low carbon goods and services is set to grow, and that the synthesis of environmental, social and economic requirements for buildings in the design and delivery of projects is our natural territory. Providing knowledge and skills for sustainability is a way of future-proofing our business, and sustainable outcomes are set to be an increasing requirement through planning, building regulations, and through voluntary benchmarking systems such as BREEAM, and LEED. Taking steps to provide leadership within the practice, and making a commitment to understand and benchmark business impacts as well as project impacts, are important first steps. Beyond that, practices need to consider how day-to-day activities within the practice can be geared to more sustainable outcomes – for example, knowledge management and practice CPD and training programmes can be geared to distinct relevant themes. In the recent RIBA Guide to Sustainability in Practice 2012 which I authored, we suggest grouping knowledge resources/ CPD under eight simple headings: Climate Change, Resources, Transport, Ecology, Business, Community, Placemaking and Buildings. 'Resources' would include Energy, Water, Materials and under each of these themes there is a potential wealth of knowledge and information which could be of practical use in the daily work of specifying and detailing, which could have a profound impact on eventual operational energy use, embodied energy, limitation and management of waste and water.
Supporting individuals in the practice who have some specialist knowledge or software proficiency in these areas, and encouraging those who wish to develop it, is important for a changing ethos, and using office visits, staff reviews and CPD/discussion sessions helps encourage change as part of a collaborative process.
To move in a more sustainable direction, the practice either needs a sustainable project or makes the choice to upskill sufficiently to differentiate itself in the market with its ability to deliver one. If the practice has one client who demands exemplary sustainability on a project, then this can be used to cascade knowledge in the practice, to forge alliances and develop relationships with other project team members who bring specialist knowledge, e.g. environmental engineers/ ecologists/ BREEAM consultants. In this way, feedback and lessons learned can inform skills investment and resource planning. To upskill, a practice needs to understand what can help them design sustainably, and the 'Green Overlay to the RIBA Outline Plan of Work' provides a number of valuable prompts. From the earliest stages of design, considering the impact of massing, orientation, glazing percentage, fabric specification, ventilation, daylight levels and renewable energy strategies can make a big impact on building energy consumption, and this requires knowledge, skill and, ideally, integrated software tools. There exist some excellent standalone packages, and increasingly it is possible to integrate environmental design studies with BIM-platform software. This allows architects to test their concepts against stretched environmental targets and building performance outcomes before any design 'fixes', and also to have a more informed dialogue with the project engineers.
Real performance of buildings (and their occupants!) is an area of increasing interest since EU legislation demanded that certain classes of public buildings publicly display their actual energy use in the form of a 'Display Energy Certificate' (DEC), implemented in 2008 in the UK. Previous pioneering work in the mid 1990s for the ECON 19 Energy Consumption Guides had identified benchmarks of real energy consumption for different office types, and surveys of real buildings showed the wide variations between designed energy performance and actual. Over the last few years, a growing number of property managers and landlords have committed to monitoring real versus designed energy performance, and the RIBA have supported the development of an anonymised database (Carbon Buzz) to highlight the 'performance gap' and produce valuable data. Whilst some element of the 'gap' is attributable to the way people use buildings, it has been shown that design and design tools can contribute to the shortfall in performance, and architects can expect increasing scrutiny from clients in this area. One way for architects to minimize their possible contribution to the performance gap is to develop a better understanding of the real performance of their building projects, therefore encouraging clients to invest in monitoring and feedback programmes (even where they do not wish information to be made public) is an important step to addressing and learning from the consequences of the whole life performance of their designs.