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Rab Bennetts on sustainability - Low-carbon expertise will re-establish architects as leaders

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked by concerned observers why architects so willingly gave up their traditional role as team leader or master builder. 

Aside from external appearance, most architects have been elbowed aside by quantity surveyors, project managers and contractors who may have good reason to see the profession as the weak link.

What’s worse is that the profession seems unable or unwilling to do anything about it. Now, with Paul Morrell’s recent report on delivering a low-carbon future, there is an opportunity for architects to regain their position, but to do so they will have to be at the top of their game.

Morrell’s is just the latest of several attempts to reform the industry, some of which have come perilously close to excluding architects. In 1994, Michael Latham wrote of the need for teamwork in a fragmented construction industry. In 1998, John Egan followed with an assault on outdated practices that had been abandoned long ago in other industries.

In 2009, Morrell was charged by the government with mapping out a low-carbon construction industry. His report calls for radical innovation in the design, delivery and operation of construction projects at all levels. Unsurprisingly, he holds out the prospect of economic stimulus based on restructuring the low-carbon economy, in which smart thinkers and integrated teams can thrive.

Morrell’s report has echoes of Latham and Egan, but this time it is driven by product not process – i.e. the urgent need to achieve low-carbon performance within a timetable. This well-defined objective should make his revolution more palatable to architects who reacted with indifference to process-driven reform.

Moreover, low-carbon is a proxy for better design. Energy-efficiency and other aspects of sustainability such as low embodied carbon and low waste underpin a new generation of buildings that not only have better environmental impacts but are also more pleasant to use, more productive and increasingly valuable compared to their predecessors. At an architectural level, low-carbon buildings are a synthesis of their structure, fabric, services and construction. It simply isn’t possible to design a low-carbon project without acknowledging how, say, thermal mass or solar gain affect its facades and the need for mechanical ventilation.

What this requires, of course, is integration between the principal design disciplines – architect, structural engineer and services engineer – and the contractors. But are architects going to grasp this opportunity to re-establish themselves as the leaders of the team? Or will they rely on the engineers to say what the U-values should be in the external facade?

Will those consumed by the imagery of iconic projects in the last decade find that they don’t have the skills to consider something that goes to the heart of the design, construction and operation of the building?

Although most engineers now offer sustainability as a core service, there is no one better placed than the architect to lead the integrated design process. It needs a collaborative approach and technical skills, but the low-carbon agenda is the catalyst for architects to reclaim the territory so casually given away over the last 30 years or so.

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