In response to the climate emergency, this year’s AJ100 survey includes a detailed look at architects’ approaches to sustainability. The results shed new light on how the profession is tackling this critical issue
of AJ100 firms signed up to Architects Declare in 2019
While 77 per cent of the AJ100 signed up to Architects Declare, other findings indicate that the profession is still getting to grips with sustainability practices.
This is particularly the case with measuring the carbon performance of projects. Despite all the talk about net zero buildings, about one third (35 per cent) of AJ100 practices say they never measure the operational emissions of their projects and a further 43 per cent only do so occasionally.
Embodied carbon is measured never and occasionally by 35 per cent and 48 per cent of practices respectively, while whole-life carbon is measured never by 41 per cent of practices and occasionally by 43 per cent. More positively, a total of 16 per cent of AJ100 practices always or frequently measure whole-life carbon.
‘This shows how far we’ve all got to go,’ says Julia Barfield, managing director of Marks Barfield and a member of the Architects Declare steering group.
‘We all need to become carbon literate in the knowledge that the planet’s carbon budget is limited. We’re on a journey, and we need to act with more urgency. We need to keep on talking about it, keep on raising it, and keep on pushing. And, we need to bring our clients along with us, too.’
Sustainability expert Simon Sturgis of Targeting Zero finds it ‘extraordinary’ that a third of AJ100 practices never measure operational emissions.
He says: ‘There’s no excuse for not doing this, although I can understand why not that many are measuring embodied carbon and whole-life carbon, as that is much less familiar.’
But he sees this changing by necessity, with funders and major developers now considering carbon as part of their business plan, and with a new Greater London Authority draft policy, which he co-authored, requiring whole-life carbon assessments for all referable schemes.
‘There’s a commercial imperative to becoming fully conversant with carbon emissions, embodied carbon and responding to climate change. Some practices have already decided that to be successful in the 21st century, that’s the survival route to take.’
Asked whether they advocate retrofit to clients over demolition, 55 per cent of respondents said they did so frequently, with 43 per cent doing so occasionally. Larger practices are more likely to push for this – 14 of the top 20 practices report that they frequently advocate retrofit.
Survey respondents were asked what percentage of their built projects are designed to perform beyond Part L minimum improvement obligations. Thirty per cent of practices reported that they did so on 80-100 per cent of their projects, while 14 per cent of respondents only do so on fewer than a fifth of their projects.
The remainder of practices were evenly spread through the 20-80 per cent range. Again, larger practices are more likely to go beyond the minimum. Eight of the top 20 AJ100 firms are in the 80-100 per cent category and only three fail to go beyond Part L on more than 39 per cent of their projects.
Despite increased industry awareness of the performance gap, undertaking of post-occupancy performance evaluation is patchy. It is always carried out by just 4 per cent of AJ100 practices and frequently by 22 per cent. However, 26 per cent never do so and 48 per cent do so only occasionally.
More than half (52 per cent) of respondents always or frequently assess the human and environmental impact of materials for their projects, compared with 14 per cent who never do so. The knock-on effect of Covid-19 may well accelerate industry engagement with this critical issue.
Practices’ internal procedures also reveal a mixed picture. Nearly three quarters (72 per cent) have a specific approach to delivering sustainability that is used on all their projects. More practices are now ISO 14001-certified – 78 per cent, compared with 74 per cent the previous year.
But, while some 80 per cent of firms offer sustainability training, a shocking one-fifth of the biggest practices in the country don’t, roughly correlating with the same percentage that have not signed up to Architects Declare.
Bruce Tether is professor of management at the Alliance Manchester Business School at the University of Manchester and Research Director of the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre
Sustainability research is carried out by 68 per cent of AJ100 practices, with topics ranging from universal use buildings to nature recovery networks.
More practices now have a director of sustainability or equivalent – 67 per cent, plus an additional 11 per cent in a related role, compared with 62 per cent last year – and 77 per cent have a sustainability team. The team’s most frequent tasks are informal guidance, strategy, and design review, which was carried out extensively by 69 per cent, 59 per cent and 58 per cent of respondents respectively.
The tasks least undertaken by the sustainability teams of those surveyed were energy modelling, BREEAM assessments, and daylight modelling, with a respective 57 per cent, 53 per cent, and 46 per cent either never or infrequently carrying these out.
The survey also looked at specialist sustainability staff. Passivhaus-trained designers are employed by 40 per cent of those surveyed, and BREEAM and LEED-accredited professionals are employed by 26 per cent and 23 per cent respectively. Only 17 per cent of AJ100 firms employ WELL-accredited professionals.
Nevertheless, there are signs that practices are increasingly embedding sustainability practices in the way they work. Of the 77 per cent of AJ100 practices that have signed up to Architects Declare in the past year, many have since significantly addressed the way they work.
Allford Hall Monaghan Morris reports that it has rethought its approach to sustainability in order to address the RIBA 2030 challenge, and has committed to Life Cycle Analysis comparing every building it designs against net zero carbon design standards. The practice is also investing in a two-year research partnership with UCL investigating pathways to net zero carbon in complex mixed-use buildings.
Hawkins\Brown has also restructured its approach to sustainability, integrating the use of whole-life carbon analysis to meet zero carbon targets. Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios is aiming to have its buildings starting on site by 2025 capable of achieving net zero carbon by 2030, facilitated by the development of its in-house carbon tracker to calculate whole-life carbon, and proactive post-occupancy support. Weston Williamson + Partners has embarked on a six-month sustainability plan to review various practice and project approaches to sustainability.
AJ survey: Has Architects Declare been a success?
The AJ wants to know what you think Architects Declare has managed to achieve in its first 12 months.
AJ100 2020: Three-quarters of firms have signed up to Architects Declare