We expect our buildings to be tested, certified and badged to prove they are 'sustainable', but what about the people who design, build and manage the buildings? With the new academic year dawning, and with the first hints of growth in the construction sector, now is the perfect time to think about topping up your CPD. Melanie Thompson of Get Sust! puts forward some ideas of what, where and how to swot up on sustainability, and how to convince your HR department that it's worth it...

It's exam results season and the annual scrabble for university and college places is well under way. In years gone by this was also the season when busy Londoners were keenly anticipating the publication of Floodlight, the bible of self-improvement courses across the Greater London area. It was a chance to try out Tai Chi, have a go at brickwork for beginners, or begin an A-level or City & Guilds course – and if you were really lucky, your employer would pay!

Floodlight, founded in 1936, has moved with the times and is now national and web-based externallink instead of a printed directory, so there's no more annual scramble for copies at the newsagents. The breadth of courses on offer has not diminished, though. It's still possible to learn basic car maintenance or advisory advanced corporate taxation. (And yes, it still lists the 1970s staple, 'macrame', alongside 21st century courses in sustainable architecture!) But it has lost the key point about Floodlight of old – that it was an annual institution: a 'back to school' event for grownups.

These days professionals lack the once-a-year course-fest that Floodlight used to bring because we take our self-improvement as continuous/continuing professional development (CPD). True, CPD is on the annual review tick-list of most line managers and is an ongoing requirement for members of professional bodies such as RIBA externallink, CIBSE externallink and RICS externallink. But when time is precious and training funds are squeezed, it's tempting to focus CPD activities on headline topics such as changes to the Building Regulations, or learning new software updates.

Confidently sustainable?

Almost three quarters of respondents (73%) to the first NBS Sustainability Survey 2012 (.pdf, 1.14Mb) download (published in February 2013) said they have no sustainability-related qualifications. Fewer than half (47%) of the 500 respondents declared themselves to be 'confident' in their knowledge and skills of sustainable design. Only 12% said they're 'very' confident in their abilities. And at the other end of the scale, 15% specifically admitted to a lack of confidence.

Sustainability in the construction industry can hardly be regarded as novel these days, so why the lack of confidence and qualifications? One respondent to the NBS survey commented: "Education and training for sustainability costs too much and isn't very widespread."

Cost is one thing; but the suggestion that training and education in this topic are not widely available is surprising, to say the least. For who these days is not regularly bombarded by emails and old-tech paper fliers promoting conferences, workshops and seminars on a wide range of sustainability-related topics? And a quick scan through the UK's main courses website Prospects.ac.uk externallink (which lists some 55,000 post-graduate diploma, certificate, MSc, MA and PhD courses) reveals that of more than 1700 courses in the subject areas 'architectural studies', 'environmental science and ecology' and 'planning and surveying' there are around 600 courses with 'sustainability' in the title (I'm sure you will forgive me for only mentioning a few of them here!).

Rather than lack of availability, it's more likely that the problem is a surfeit of choice. All the professional institutions expect their members to participate in CPD activities. For example, the RIBA expects at least 20 hours of CPD and lists 10 mandatory topics in the Core curriculum externallink. CIBSE, on the other hand, encourages members to set their own CPD objectives. But all the institutions promote and run wide-ranging education programmes of formal, certificated courses, conference and seminars. Add to that the plethora of reports, publications and films... In fact, CPD is pretty hard to avoid!

Reputation, reputation, reputation

But when time and funding are scarce, it's more important than ever to make the right choice of CPD activity. This year's A-level students are being encouraged by the government to 'upgrade' to 'better' universities. That must be very frustrating for highly rated departments in non-Russell Group universities, which may well offer an outstanding educational experience but can't compete in the PR stakes with the 'best'. When it comes to studying aspects of sustainability in the built environment, factors other than conventional league tables come into play.

Although the professional institutions provide lists of accredited courses and copious information on CPD events, it can be very difficult to know what to study, where and how. Choices need to be made in terms of topic, length of course or event, quality or reputation of provider and, of course, cost – none of which are mutually exclusive. It really comes down to what you would like to achieve:

  • Technical excellence? High-profile research bodies such as BRE provide year-round CPD opportunities externallink through short events and conferences (such as the forthcoming INSITE13 externallink) – which can be an excellent choice for swatting up on the latest mandatory requirements, ground-breaking innovations and case studies of proven technologies – and longer-length courses (ranging from a new course in 'sustainable architecture' for 2013, to accreditation as a BREEAM assessor).
  • Hands-on challenges? Sometimes there's nothing quite like getting back to basics and working with materials at a practical level. The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) has been at the forefront of teaching practical sustainability skills externallink for 40 years (from hands-on straw-bale building to installing biomass boilers), but offers academic courses externallink too (some via distance learning).
  • Theory and best practice? Academic centres of excellence are the obvious choice for formal post-graduate studies (MScs and PhDs) but many also offer this high level of education in bite-sized portions. Oxford Brookes, for instance, has been running what is now the MSc Sustainable building performance and design programme externallink for 20 years. All the taught modules – including topics such as building physics and thermal comfort, and post-occupancy evaluation – can be taken as CPD courses, or contribute towards post-graduate certificate or diploma qualifications.
  • Tailor-made expert guidance? What could be better than peer-to-peer learning, either within your company or among professional colleagues?

Feedback from peers can be particularly useful when choosing formal training. NBS is currently running a survey among recent graduates to find out more about the coverage of new design techniques and tools such as BIM.

But another way to cut through the sea of course options is to base your choice on which training providers are busy walking the walk.

Who's wearing the Green Gown?

Just as fresh young graduates might scan the architectural press and awards such as the Stirling Prize externallink to see which projects and practices (and therefore potential employers) are top of the charts, so professionals seeking additional training can check out the further education providers who not only provide good quality courses but demonstrate sustainability in practice.

The Green Gown Awards externallink, established in 2004, set out to demonstrate the value of sustainability to society, the economy and the planet. Organized by the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUCexternallink and now with an international dimension via links with Australasian institutions, the awards place a particular emphasis on disseminating best practice. Each year, winners contribute case studies and videos on topics ranging from campus building projects (new or refurbishment) to campaigns to promote positive behaviour among students and out into the local community. The case studies externallink alone comprise a useful resource for built environment professionals looking for inspiration and informal learning.

Finalists for the 2013 awards were announced in July, and the selected organizations have until 13 September to prepare their final submissions, with the awards ceremony in November. While the well-known centres of sustainability education such as Nottingham University and University College London are represented on the list, it's also a chance for lower-profile institutions to shine – from Anglia Ruskin University's 'Climate change adaptation – Partnering to survive' and Blackpool and The Fylde College 'Saving the world one target at a time' to the University of Worcester's project 'Energize Worcester – Students drive energy efficiency in their homes with Green Deal'.

It would surely be easy to find a college within striking distance of most professionals' offices that is walking the walk as well as talking the talk. So what's stopping you?

Breaking through the barriers

What if ... you're worried you are too old to go back to school?

Of course classroom-based learning is not for everyone and is not even a factor for many professional CPD training events (the RIBA CPD Providers Network Roadshows externallink, for instance, are back for the start of the new term, starting in London on 5 September with an intriguing session on 'sustainable liquid roofing'). But there is no need to be worried about the age gap in UK colleges and universities these days.

"Our student intake is approximately 17 students [per course]," says Dr Paola Sassi, who runs the Sustainable Building Performance and Design programme at Oxford Brookes. "All students must have at least one year of work experience, but every year we typically have five students who are taking a mid-career break to learn what they did not have to opportunity to do at university. These mature students range from mid-30s to 60 years of age, with varying levels of experience."

And those who are willing to take this plunge reap the benefits.

"Graduates from our MSc programme typically end up taking one of three career paths: (a) they begin to provide sustainable design services within their architectural organization, (b) they set up as specialist consultants to other organizations, which may range from developers to architects, or (c) they become researchers and complete PhDs or are employed as researchers."

What if ... you think you already know enough about sustainability?

If you're a regular reader of NBS Sustainability then you will already know that you can never know enough! The basic principles of sustainable construction are well-established, but the government frequently amends the ground-rules (changes to Part L externallink, for instance) and research is constantly refining what is regarded as 'best practice'. Evaluating energy in use is set to be the next 'big thing' following the growing interest in the RIBA/CIBSE platform CarbonBuzz externallink, and will be a popular topic for CPD.

"We anticipate that one of our forthcoming guides, TM54: Evaluating operational energy performance of buildings at the design stage, will be very popular," says Carilyn Clements, CIBSE Director of Membership.

But even if you do know a great deal, there's always room for a refresher. Did you know, for instance that, according to the NBS Sustainability Survey (see above) almost a third of practitioners (30% of respondents) do not start considering sustainability until they have completed the preparation stages of the RIBA Plan of Work? A quick dose of targeted CPD can help most of us to shake off entrenched working habits.

What if ... your employer thinks sustainability is low priority?

Here, there are two possible angles of attack. First of all listen to the wise words of Lynne Sullivan OBE, co-founder of sustainableBYdesign, writing in the introduction to the NBS survey:

"Architects looking to skill up ... can be reassured that the market for low carbon goods and services is set to grow and ... providing knowledge and skills for sustainability is a way of future-proofing our business."

Then use a little lateral thinking (the hallmark of a 'sustainable' approach). The RIBA Core curriculum has 'Climate – sustainable architecture' as one of its 10 key topics and at least 20 hours CPD per year are required. Strictly speaking that could leave just 2 hours per year devoted to 'sustainability'.

But look closely at the detail of some other topics in the Core curriculum: 'Designing and building', 'Where we live' and 'Context and access for all'. Sustainability is an integral part of these. Add to this the analysis of what constitutes the 'core competences for sustainability' according to a report published recently by the College of Estate Management (CEM Occasional Paper Series Defining a profession: Core competencies for sustainabilityexternallink 2013). The report's author, CEM tutor Stephen Bickell, writes "[A]t present ... education and training providers deliver a bewildering array of products." His assessment lists the obvious technical skills in design, understanding benchmarking and use of assessment tools, but also includes the following, somewhat surprising, core competences:

  • Mindset:
    • Values, motivation and action
    • Awareness of core principles and themes
    • Communication and collaborative working
    • Systems and futures thinking
    • Leadership
  • Strategy:
    • Business case and strategy
    • Change management
    • Innovation.

Given that these are frequently seen in most managerial-level job descriptions, it's likely that an employer's general staff development programme could mean you are already participating in sustainability-related training!

Indeed, professionals often underestimate how much CPD is part of their day job.

"Some members overlook recording some of the things that they do on a daily basis which are still classed as CPD and contribute to continuous learning and improvement," says CIBSE's Carilyn Clements. Unrecorded CPD might include reading professional journals and technical manuals (CIBSE members have free access through the Knowledge Portal externallink).

So here's a challenge for the next month: blow the cobwebs off your CPD plan and make sure that 'sustainability' is at the top of the list of priorities. You may already be doing more than you think.