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Hard facts about sustainability

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The AJ will wade through the greenwash to bring you the hard facts. Hattie Hartman explains how.

With this relaunch issue, we at the AJ aim to move the sustainability debate on and cut through the influx of greenwash which fills our intrays daily. Starting this week, we will publish CO2 emissions figures alongside cost data with our Building Studies (the first can be seen on the Bennetts Associates New Street Square Building Study on pages 34- 39). These units, such as kgCO2/m2/year, must become common currency in our understanding and judgement of buildings.

The Stirling Prize in early October showed just how far our understanding of sustainability has to go. The good news is that for the first time the RIBA required all candidates to submit a sustainability statement – a one-page form drafted by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ Peter Clegg. The bad news is that an AJ review of the submissions by the six finalists reveals a shocking disparity of information. In one case there was a gross inaccuracy in the key carbon emissions figure
and in another no carbon emissions figure at all. It is worth noting that the statements which accompanied the two British entries, the Young Vic (with Max Fordham) and the Savill Building (with Atelier 10) were by far the most thorough.

This suggests that energy efficiency is still discretely swept under the table when it comes to serious architectural debate. The AJ’s CO2 efficiency code will attempt to address this failing. We will make every effort to interpret a building’s carbon efficiency by comparing it against standard and best practice for a given building type and to explain the particular features of a given project which may influence its energy efficiency. Architects must go beyond simply listing a building’s green features, and must provide a quantitative guide to how environmentally friendly a project is.

My recent conversations with architects, engineers, lobbyists and policy-makers on the forefront of the environmental agenda have highlighted the complexity of this task, but we have to make a start and make the assumptions behind the numbers as explicit as possible.

Although it may not always be possible to compare like for like, and a lot of the buildings we feature are one-offs, we cannot shy away from reporting these statistics, and also from discussing what they represent.

Equally urgent is the need for systematic collection of post-occupancy energy consumption data. Design teams spend years seeing a project to completion, and then walk away without the benefit of a knowledge feedback loop.

Now formally recognised as Stage M in the RIBA Plan of Work, architects must urge clients to commit to the essential task of gathering feedback, even though it involves a rather thankless two-to-three year process of analysing meter readings and ongoing adjustments to building operations.

Architectural meaning, the genesis of form, civic mindedness and fitness for purpose may be more exalted topics for discussion, but there must be a new baseline of environmental responsibility. Publishing CO2 emissions figures represents a step in this direction.

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