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From the Earth Summit down: green action to the grass roots

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It's time to get serious about the environment. It seems fitting, with ever more freakish weather events hitting Europe, that on the other side of the world, in Johannesburg, a huge congregation of nations and speakers is meeting to discuss what many of them suspect to be one of the chief causes of global warming - unsustainable development. And many of the fingers are pointing at construction as the chief criminal.

After all, they argue,40 per cent of total energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are directly attributable to constructing and operating buildings;

construction accounts for a sixth of total freshwater withdrawals; and, including demolition, it makes up 30 per cent of the waste in OECD countries. Shocking stuff, certainly. But without carefully thought-through plans of action at the micro scale to reduce them, they do not cause enough of a stir to make a difference.

Things, though, appear to be changing. The design team's responsibility to ensure that sustainable profligacy is kept to a minimum appears now to be entering a new phase. Targets are on the way, with the Royal Incorporation of Chartered Surveyors urging professional bodies to produce codes in order to get more innovative thinking. The RIBA has responded already with president Paul Hyett's belief that 50 per cent of Continuing Professional Development should be in this area. Perhaps the institute should also rethink how it polices CPD at the same time. It is also talking about getting members to reapply every five years on the basis of their CPD.

More attention needs to be paid to life-cycle costs of buildings. Governments must dangle fiscal 'carrots'for the developers to jump at. And the message must be hammered home to clients that an energy-efficient building, as with a good looking one, can save you money.

Indeed, they can and should be one and the same.

But the strongest incentive for architects to look at how they maximise efficiency in the buildings they construct (if clients allow it) may yet be another financial one. The threat of litigation over sustainable issues may, sadly, be the ultimate catalyst for what is a responsible and sensible attitude on its own.

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