In this exclusive extract from Sustainable Buildings: The Client's Role, we we highlight how a client's commitment to sustainability is crucial to the long-term impact of a project.

As the client for a project you have a key role. Your aspirations and vision should drive the project. It is your brief and your building. Your level of control during the project, for example in selecting designers, choosing construction approaches or deciding finishes, is in part determined by how it is delivered – that is by the procurement process. For example, using a traditional contract gives you more control and higher financial risks; design and build gives greater cost certainty but removes some of your control. Nonetheless in all projects you can provide leadership and ensure that you agree the directions that the project is taking. It is important always to ask for explanations of the impact of major decisions on long-term sustainability.

A commitment to sustainability must permeate the entire project if it is to be effectively achieved and there are some general 'rules' for you to use that will influence decisions in the right direction.

Embedding sustainability starting at the earliest stage

  1. Decide what you want to achieve in terms of sustainability. State your position clearly from the outset so that everyone involved understands and 'buys into' a sustainable approach.
  2. State clearly your vision and goals for the project, taking your sustainability ambitions, including your intention to reduce lifetime costs, into account.
  3. Review the energy costs of your existing building with the help of cost consultants or your client advisor and consider how to reduce this – especially by cutting down energy inputs as far as possible.
  4. Test options to achieve your goals to see whether you actually need a building project.
  5. Start a strategic cost-benefit analysis to review the benefits and value of a sustainable project and incorporate these into your business case.
  6. Develop your criteria for sustainability success. Consider things such as annual carbon use, waste and recycling during construction and use, occupant comfort, food miles for your catering services.
  7. Establish ways to monitor performance using, for example, regular checks, surveys, zoned metering and visible displays indicating energy use.
  8. Communicate enough to be sure that your team is aligned with your vision throughout.
  9. Canvas others involved, such as funders and senior board members, and make them aware of the economic case for a sustainable building.
  10. Find out about incentives and grants that may apply to your situation.
  11. Start to familiarise yourself with the legislative context to assure yourself that your team members are up to date.
  12. Decide if you can set your targets above the minimum requirements, for longer term benefits.
  13. Create or agree a statement of need and a strategic brief, stating the general sustainability targets you wish to incorporate, e.g. BREEAM, Code for Sustainable Homes level, etc., with help of specialist advice if needed.

Team collaboration during and after the project

It cannot be emphasised enough how much a successful building project depends on collaboration between you – the owner and/or user – and your team of designers and constructors. Shared knowledge and expertise of all team members, including you, in a holistic approach is the key. This includes a commitment from your team to communicate progress iteratively using a Soft Landings approach.

Get things right at the start

As with all complex projects, your early decisions are the most important. For example, those about location, orientation and scale are irrevocable. Others, such as how to construct and service the building, get progressively more difficult and expensive to change over time. Resist the temptation to rush into it.

For the best outcome, the client should at all times:

  • Ensure that aspirations of all stakeholders are aligned and that they are kept informed
  • Consider location and transport issues as part of the building project decisions; the journey to work and delivery miles can be large sources of CO2 emissions and contribute to the carbon footprint
  • Understand the user role beyond the design decisions phase: managers and users are key to meeting design targets. Try to have users represented from the start as part of the 'client', demand-side, team even if they are not part of your organisation
  • Keep it simple: complex buildings and control systems are harder for users to manage and often perform much less well than design predictions
  • Seek expert advice and ask as many questions as you need to – it is your building. Organisations such as the BRE, the PassivHaus Trust, Usable Buildings Trust or AECB as well as your design team, can offer advice about standards, accreditation or grants as well as about design principles.

Whatever the procurement process, goals must be fully communicated as control passes from one part of the team to another, or a 'gap' can occur through which the sustainable design intentions can disappear and get lost. A process such as Soft Landings to help follow through sustainable concepts must be built in or results are less likely to meet expectations. As Soft Landings incorporates a commitment to monitor performance in use this affects both the team interactions and the actual design and needs to be factored in as early as possible.

About this article

Extract from Sustainable Buildings: The Client's Role externallink by Joanna Eley.

To order a copy of this book, please visit RIBA Bookshops externallink.

RIBA Publishing copyright April 2011