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‘Architects need to learn from the way buildings are used’: Interview with UKGBC boss Julie Hirigoyen

Julie hirigoyen
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PROFILE: As the UK Green Building Council nears its 10th birthday, Will Hurst spoke to chief executive Julie Hirigoyen about accusations of corporatism and whether the political climate is a threat to sustainability 

The boss of the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) certainly had a baptism of fire on taking up the role. Shortly after joining the built environment charity in April 2015, Julie Hirigoyen witnessed a swathe of flagship environmental policies watered down or axed entirely by the incoming Conservative government, including the scrapping of the Green Deal and the Code for Sustainable Homes and major reductions in subsidies for solar power. 

Since her arrival, Hirigoyen has been primarily focused on making the case for greener buildings to businesses as opposed to lobbying Whitehall in the style of her predecessor Paul King, a former campaigns director of the World Wildlife Fund. Even so, it must have been a massively dispiriting start given that the UKGBC was instrumental in the creation of many of these flagship policies which had then gone on to win widespread support across the industry.

‘It’s not been a good few months for the policy context,’ she tells me with considerable understatement at the UKGBC’s newly refurbished office in London’s Building Centre. ‘It’s not an encouraging or uplifting experience, but it felt good that I had this agenda that was member facing and about supporting our businesses.’

Market momentum will ensure there is progress regardless of the political leadership because climate change poses very serious risks to business

So who exactly is Hirigoyen? What is the point of the Green Building Council and how is she shaking it up since her difficult start in the job? And why does she think architects have a ‘moral and professional responsibility’ to properly evaluate buildings in use?

Born in Versailles to a Basque father and an Irish mother, Hirigoyen moved to the UK aged 12, bringing with her a passion for nature and the environment that she’s had from her youngest days. I confess I had initially assumed her surname was Japanese before discovering it originates from the Basque Country, where it is apparently as common as ‘Smith’. Over here of course it’s a different story.

‘It’s such a good, unusual surname that I didn’t change it when I got married,’ she says.

Julie on Julie 

Julie hirigoyen cu

Favourite building in the UK My home in Kensal Green, north-west London.
Favourite building in the world Empire State Building in NYC – especially since all 6,514 of its windows were changed in a major eco-renovation in 2011 cutting annual energy use by $4.4 million!  
Last book you read Traction Man to my four-year-old son at 6.15 this morning. 
Who is your hero? My late brother Martin, a craniofacial surgeon who founded the charity Facing the World in 2002 to improve the lives of disfigured children around the world. He contributed more to society in half his life than most people do in a lifetime. 
Best ever holiday Costa Rica – jungle, biodiversity, surf, cloudforests, zipwires, whales, volcanos … 
Most memorable quote from a film ‘It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.’ – Christian Bale as Batman, in Batman Begins
What would be your desert island item? A family photo album.

After completing an MSc in environmental protection and management at Edinburgh University followed by a scholarship programme with Jonathon Porritt’s Forum for the Future, she helped to found Upstream, a sustainability consulting practice providing strategic advice to big players in real estate. The firm was sold to Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) in 2007 and Hirigoyen stayed with the business, rising to become JLL’s UK head of sustainability, the role she occupied before joining the UKGBC.

The organisation she now runs is a registered charity whose mission is to ‘radically improve the sustainability of the built environment’. It aims to do this by lobbying government and by supporting and challenging its own members to raise their game through sharing of knowledge and best practice. A decade old next month (it was launched at EcoBuild in February 2007), the UKGBC now boasts 430 built environment businesses and organisations as members, including 61 architects ranging from 5th Studio to Foster + Partners. Members pay an annual subscription fee in return for this plus benefits such as training and development and valuable business networking opportunities with other members. 

But many architects, including some notable sustainability pioneers, are not members, and some complain that the UKGBC is neglecting broader areas of green design, such as sustainable urbanism, and that its approach is altogether too corporate, a perception perhaps heightened by Hirigoyen’s own background in big business.

We have micro businesses of three people right up to FTSE 100 organisations, so we aren’t just trying to represent the larger corporates

It is certainly true that the organisation’s top tier Gold Leaf membership (annual fee £15,000 plus VAT) is dominated by large players like Aecom, Atkins, the Royal Bank of Scotland and even the eyebrow-raising Heathrow Airport, although it does also include smaller players such as Atelier Ten and Bennetts Associates.

But she rejects the criticism that UKGBC is run by or for multinationals, and points out that sole practitioners can join for less than £300 a year.

‘We want representation from members all across the chain,’ she says. ‘We have micro businesses of three people right up to FTSE 100 organisations, so we aren’t just trying to represent the larger corporates. 

‘More and more of our work is trying to represent the priorities of organisations which are either lower down the supply chain or smaller in size and more innovative in nature.’

A weakness in this argument is of course those Gold Leaf members, who receive such benefits as promotion on the UKGBC website, an in-depth sustainability review of their firm’s performance and direct access to the charity’s policy team and to Hirigoyen herself.

No doubt aware of this perception, she is planning to make Gold Leaf membership more democratic by linking its subscription fee to annual turnover to reflect standard membership fees.

Another initiative she says should benefit SMEs is a new ‘innovation lab’, a programme bringing together a number of different members to tackle a particular sustainability challenge.

‘We need to accelerate the identification of breakthrough solutions and move beyond incremental change,’ she says. ‘The lab is a bit of an experiment so it’s as much about the collaboration as the end result.’

‘It’s in the architect’s gift to challenge and educate the client. We have to break out of the vicious cycle of blame’

Following our interview it transpires that the innovation lab will be headed by ‘lead partners’ Canary Wharf Group, Land Securities and Marks & Spencer, but Hirigoyen’s point about SME benefits arguably still stands. She is plainly a pragmatist rather than a tree hugger, and believes sustainable development must involve social and economic as well as environmental progress. Economics rather than politics will save the world from the worst effects of climate change, the argument seems to go.

But surely the political climate should be a major concern given the recent actions of the UK government and especially the election of Donald Trump as US president? In this context, shouldn’t the UKGBC renew its focus on influencing government?

Hirigoyen admits that these events have been blows but remains convinced that the economic appetite for green power and technology will only continue to grow.

‘Market momentum will ensure there is progress regardless of the political leadership,’ she says. ‘That is because [climate change] poses very serious and challenging risks to business.’ 

She also seems optimistic that the UK government’s underlying commitment to radically cutting carbon emissions will put it back on the right path, and points to Theresa May’s ratifying of the Paris agreement on climate change in November.

‘What we really need to see now is some of that put into practice through short and medium term policy priorities,’ she says. ‘That lack of clarity for businesses is something we’re most concerned about.’



UKGBC’s offices

So what should architects be doing? Hirigoyen would like more ‘mainstream’ practices to join the UKGBC for a start, but she also advocates architects leading from the front by challenging the brief and – crucially – learning from their successes and failures post-construction.

‘There isn’t a single magic bullet,’ she says, ‘but the architectural profession has a moral and professional responsibility [to ensure] the way that buildings are designed is seen through to practice. That is probably one of their biggest challenges. There is a real imperative to understand how buildings perform in use … and lessons need to be applied to new projects. 

‘It’s in the architect’s gift to challenge and educate the client. We have to break out of the vicious cycle of blame where one party is blaming the other all the time, you know saying: oh we could do it but we’re not doing it because you haven’t asked for it.’ 

The retrofit of the UKGBC’s own office by architect Barr Gazetas and Sturgis Carbon Profiling is something of a case in point. The 160m² scheme achieved the lowest embodied carbon footprint ever recorded for an office refurbishment in the UK, and will now become a testbed through a post-occupancy evaluation and ongoing surveys of employee satisfaction.

Hirigoyen, by all accounts, acted as a single-minded and decisive client on the scheme, so she is certainly practising what she preaches albeit on a small scale. Given 2016’s seismic global events including the Brexit referendum result, she will need every ounce of these qualities to keep both the UK government and the built-environment sector on track. 

Barr Gazetas Architects’ refurb of the UKGBC office in numbers

Ukgbc office

  • 139 kg CO2/m² – embodied carbon footprint 22% below a comparable ‘standard’ fit-out and the lowest ever recorded in the UK (SCP database, WRAP database)
  • 48% decrease in carbon emissions from lighting
  • 99.4% of construction waste diverted from landfill
  • 98% of original fixtures and finishes reused or repurposed

Photography by Anthony Coleman

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • John Kellett

    "‘We have micro businesses of three people right up to FTSE 100 organisations, so we aren’t just trying to represent the larger corporates." Interesting London-centric view. Anywhere else in the UK a micro business is a one person business, by the time it has grown to three it is an SME. In Northamptonshire a three person architect's practice is a large practice.
    ‘Architects need to learn from the way buildings are used’. Again an interesting London-centric view. That is what architects (outside London) do and have always done. That is how the business of architecture operates, designing with end-users, discerning the 'needs' from the 'wants' through subtle 'education'. The biggest hurdle that 'green' and 'sustainable' design has to overcome is the 'corporate' approach to accounting, whereby the initial 'capital cost' governs everything. Not even architects have the power to change that, without help!

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