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This week the AJ launches its sustainability microsite. This article offers an overview of the issues that are helping or hindering environmentally friendly architecture, and detailed case studies on the working processes of 15 very different practices are on www. ajplus. co. uk/sustainability The 15 practices under the magnifying glass (listed on the table on page 43) range from two architects to several hundred, with green clients and clients who are indifferent to sustainability. Some green tariff electricity, some carbon offset for travel, some promote cycling and some monitor their own energy use - not forgetting a practice pilates class and a practice allotment.

There are 14 architect practices and one engineer, Atelier Ten, for an outside view of the world of architects and for an engineer's perspective - the 14 haven't much good to say about engineers, apart from a small coterie, which includes Atelier Ten.

CHANGING CLIENTS Client engagement with sustainability is increasing, not fast enough for most, but evidently nonetheless. Some of this is driven by government, notably in social housing. However, having a sustainability statement doesn't necessarily follow through into a detailed understanding of feasibility, project budget priorities or what survives value engineering.

Some developers too are beginning to make a name for themselves for sustainability - Quintain and Countryside get the thumbs-up from PRP, for example. At conferences the delegate mix is broadening - it's not just the 'converted'. Legislation is seen as one of the few factors making a difference widely.

There's also the occasional pleasant surprise - the client who is pushing the architect in new directions. Practices that started out early in sustainability, such as ECD and Acanthus Holden - which back then found some clients thinking it was all a bit too 'sandals' - are deciding that now is the moment to try reasserting their sustainability commitment to prospective clients.

Some practices see the chance to add new sustainability services to their offering, such as PRP, ECD and Atelier Ten. John Gilbert Architects is considering trying to be more selective in its clients, focusing more on those 'prepared to go the extra mile' on sustainability. Jon Broome advocates the community-building aspects of self-build.

CONTRACTORS AND ENGINEERS If the client scene is noticeably improving, practices are more sanguine about contractors and engineers. Contractors are often seen as implacable stumbling blocks that can only be moved by legislation, a determined green client or some specific financial gain, such as making money from recycling site waste. A few smaller practices have been able to make a difference on site by cultivating a small set of specialist contractors and/or by getting very hands-on with sourcing materials and with work on site.

Services engineers too are obviously critical to sustainable design, and the difficulty of finding empathetic engineers is a common complaint - even of Atelier Ten, which is trying to recruit them. Where they can, practices are repeatedly using the same engineers from a small selection. One sign that an engineer is 'on side' is its fee proposition. If it is still paid on the traditional percentage of the value of the services kit, it is unlikely to be too much help with passive design - where you are attempting to reduce the amount of kit in favour of getting the building fabric to do more of the work. Engineers need to be thinking of themselves more as whole-building engineers. At least Bill Gething of Feilden Clegg Bradley (FCB) stands up for them. 'British engineers are the envy of the world, ' he says, and 'if you don't have good engineers you're probably not going to get a good building'. Nobody mentioned QSs, of course.

STRUCTURING DISCUSSIONS AND SETTING TARGETS Where there is more client ambition to pursue sustainability, it is not necessarily feasible. All the practices stress the importance of structuring early discussions and establishing realistic ambitions.

Even experienced clients may be newcomers to sustainability.

To help structure these early discussions, many of the practices have developed a checklist or matrix, often part-based on EcoHomes and BREEAM. Perhaps the most interesting is FCB's Design Matrix. For a start it fits on an A3 sheet, so it's not too formidable. Down the left is a long list of building-sustainability issues about energy, materials sourcing, transport, etc. Across the matrix are column headings for four different levels of sustainability: Standard (ie Building Regs); Best Practice;

Innovative; and Pioneering. You can put in what would be Standard, Best Practice, etc, for each measure and mark in the specific project's ambitions. A key use is being able to see all the sustainability ambitions at once, as a basis for discussion and for finding a balance to what should be pursued. For example, should the project really be trying something 'Pioneering' for measure X when for several other measures the project is hardly getting beyond 'Standard'? The point is to develop a shared understanding of the plan, set achievable targets and establish where the effort (and budget) should go. For this early project stage ECD stresses the importance of putting numbers on the targets where possible, particularly for energy.

REGIONALISM Lewes-based BBM Sustainable Design is exploring a modern vernacular based on local materials, though not restricted to traditional construction techniques. Why peg a timber frame if it's more efficient to bolt it? This regional expression is offered to clients, especially for the one-off houses they have been designing around Sussex. Duncan Baker-Brown of BBM is intrigued by the prospect of developing this approach if jobs come up further afield.

John Gilbert in Glasgow sets out a regional response informed by climate. It's relatively wet and windy in Scotland, with longer days but lower sun. He stresses, as does neighbouring practice MAST, that with fuel costs rising, affordable warmth is a neglected concern that is returning. Weathertightness is crucial, and the climate shapes the approach to renewables. For solar energy he uses solar thermal where possible, but much of the focus is passive, for example, employing a frameless glazing system to glaze in the rarely used balconies found in so much '60s and '70s public housing. Some of these balconies now include 'solar' drying cabinets, as well as prewarming air for stack ventilation systems.

The practice has also been pioneering the use of geothermal energy in two social housing projects, drawing water by heat pump system from disused mines for hot water and underoor heating.

KNOWLEDGE AND LEARNING A few practices have someone in the role of knowledge manager.

Most practices' systems not only address sustainability - but often the amount of learning and new information in embracing sustainability has triggered new developments in systems. There are a variety of ways to learn both as individuals and a practice:

Formal or informal? : often the biggest question, without a universal answer. Formal systems get information collected in a planned way, made available in standard, accessible formats.

They produce results, but this top-down approach may not fit with the ethos of the practice, or tap the enthusiasms of individuals, especially new staff who may not push themselves forward. But go much more informal and you risk live projects taking precedence over the philanthropic task of passing feedback to others. The broad picture is that practices are still seeking the best formal/ informal balance, but feel the need to get more serious, and organised, about knowledge management.

Libraries: increasingly disappearing due to cost and concerns that online information is more up to date (often true). Some practices with green sections to their libraries are in transition, gradually inter-ling green into the mainstream - a reection of their practice.

Green Teams: Associated Architects has the clearest example of a green team. In the three years since the practice 'decided that sustainability was something positive to emphasise with their more commercial clients', this practice has been working on culture change. Registering for BS 14001 is one formal method of embedding sustainability in every project. Another is using the green team both as an organisation for collecting and researching information to make available via the practice intranet and at least one team member acting as sustainability mentor to every project.

Specialist researchers/developers: sometimes employed to accelerate progress and to pick jobs no one normally has time for within projects, for example by Atkins and PRP. They work both for projects (for example getting up to speed on geothermal energy), and for practice housekeeping, such as establishing the carbon footprint of the practice. At Atkins, Jolanda Putri is also developing e-learning packages for sustainability self-instruction.

Personal research: to help tap individuals' enthusiasms, practices such as Feilden Clegg Bradley and Atkins have a fund to which staff can apply to finance a personal research project - that, of course, benefits the whole practice.

EcoHomes: largely because of EcoHomes' enforcement in social housing, several practices have someone trained in EcoHomes assessment, sometimes a green team member or specialist researcher/developer. But generally this expertise is used to help structure discussions with clients and to appraise projects in progress in a more systematic way. Rarely is the assessor used to formally assess the practice's own projects. Only ECD is offering this as a commercial service (through ECD Project Services).

CPD and beyond: often staff are encouraged to explore and present aspects of sustainability. Much of this still happens at lunchtimes, plus the occasional seminar, but Jestico + Whiles has gone further. It takes a morning monthly and, rather than a session for all, groups focus on chosen topics of interest, for example geothermal energy or ETFE cushion roofing.

Intranets: there is no consensus on how best to use intranets.

Are they top-down (instructive) or bottom-up (sharing) or both?

Usually a bit of both, the harder part often being to encourage people to contribute. You may have heard of Wikipedia ( http: // en. wikipedia. org), the online encyclopedia structured so that individuals can contribute directly online. FCB has implemented such 'wiki' software on its intranet to encourage people to contribute direct to screen, without the filter of sending material to an intranet-minder. A neat idea. As Gething says, 'It stands as good a chance as anything of working'. And there's a bit of 'encouragement' - you will be asked to talk about the 'wiki' contributions you have made during your annual review.

SPECIALIST SERVICES In a few cases practices are developing specialist services based on sustainability such as ECD Project Services, which includes EcoHomes Assessment. PRP has started PRP Environmental Services which includes costing expertise, to advise on development feasibility. PRP has also started a more radical subsidiary, PRP ZedFactor, working with Bill Dunster. Atelier Ten has started l'Atelier, providing engineering strategy advice and help with Regs-compliance.

ACCREDITATION Seeking formal sustainability accreditation is another response to the changing client scene. Generally it is the bigger practices that have gone for BS 14001 (Environmental Management Systems) accreditation - Associated Architects, Atkins, Jestico + Whiles - while PRP is getting there. FCB has looked but decided there would be too much box-ticking on top of what it is doing already.

In Scotland both MAST and John Gilbert Architects are accredited under the RIAS scheme. (See boxes on BS 14001, opposite, and RIAS accreditation, on page 41. ) This feature concludes next week with an investigation of: delivering projects; product choice; recycling; engaging with the supply chain and green-practice housekeeping.

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