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‘Compulsory Christmas reading’ – architects welcome RIBA’s sustainability guide

Ukgbc climate 019
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Architects have welcomed the RIBA’s ‘ambitious’ new sustainability guide, launched by the institute to help the profession address the climate emergency 

The newly-published Sustainable Outcomes Guide outlines eight clear goals that practices of all sizes and scales can aim for, underpinned by specific design principles. 

The guide’s outcomes, detailed below, align with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and include net zero operational carbon, net zero embodied carbon, and a sustainable water cycle.

RIBA president Alan Jones urged all members to use the guide as a ‘matter of urgency’, adding: ’The time for warm words is over.’ 

It has been created to support the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge, an initiative to encourage chartered practices to achieve net zero whole-life carbon for all new and retrofitted buildings by 2030.

LTS Architects’ Anna Woodeson welcomed the guide, describing it as ‘Compulsory Christmas reading for the entire profession. Well-presented, easily digestible and necessarily ambitious.’

Jonathan Hines, Architype’s managing director, said the guidelines and the RIBA 2030 challenge were ’great foundations’ for designing more sustainably.

’We are delighted to see the emphasis on operational and embodied carbon and post occupancy evaluation and hope that all practices develop the skills and adopt the rigour required to design in this way.

’That requires significant investment in training, research and knowledge sharing - for example we spend around 10 per cent of our turnover every year to achieve that.’

’For most buildings, there is still an outrageous gap in performance in use compared to what is promised at design stage - we’d love to see that eliminated and is the only way the industry stands a chance of meeting zero carbon goals.’

ZEDfactory founder Bill Dunster said that while the guide looked ‘a very good idea’ he questioned why it had taken so long to produce. ’Whatever took them so long? We have been working to this agenda for more than 20 years.

’It would be really good if architects collaborated to solve this industry transformation, rather than the bitchy, ego-driven competition we see today.

’This would create economies of scale on key supply chain components that will reduce the cost and risk of delivery much faster than each practice re inventing the wheel.’

It would be really good if architects collaborated to solve this industry transformation rather than the bitchy ego driven competition we see today.

Jones added that current building regulations do not reflect the reality of buildings in use and ’hamper architects striving for better than the minimum’.

’I believe we must reconstruct our profession as the leaders of sustainable design teams if we are to combat climate change and meet the UK climate targets and our ethical responsibilities.’

He added: ’As architects we are guardians of the built environment. Thanks to our education and continuing professional development we are equipped with the tools to combine strategic ideas with performance and regulation, choice of material, construction and technology – from initiation to occupancy and use.’

The RIBA sustainable outcomes

  • Net zero operational carbon
  • Net zero embodied carbon
  • Sustainable water cycle
  • Sustainable connectivity and transport
  • Sustainable land use and biodiversity
  • Good health and wellbeing
  • Sustainable communities and social value
  • Sustainable life-cycle cost


Sian Moxon, senior lecturer and technology coordinator in sustainability at The Cass School of Art, Architecture & Design
The RIBA Sustainable Outcomes Guide is a welcome and timely document, which clearly and succinctly sets out sustainable design principles, and will help architects navigate existing design and measurement tools. Its inclusion of existing and residential buildings is especially important, as other strategic guidance often overlooks these significant areas.

Nevertheless, while environmental best practice remains voluntary, the government’s and RIBA’s necessarily ambitious targets will not be met. The proposal to embed this guidance in the Plan of Work sends the right message, but RIBA must also lobby government for its urgent inclusion in Building Regulations. It is vital that this is underpinned by training for practicing architects to ensure they are equipped to take a lead role in driving sustainability in the design team, particularly as the field becomes increasingly related to metrics. This should start in schools of architecture, where integrating these principles in the ARB curriculum is essential to support the Architecture Education Declares initiative.

Justin Bere, Bere Architects
This is, generally, an excellent guide with an excellent call to action by the RIBA President. Alan Jones is right; architects are equipped to take the leading role in the transformation. I would add that domestic energy use in the UK alone in 2018 was a massive 30 per cent of all UK energy use, including transport. If every single one of us architects in the so-called ‘developed world’ doesn’t take the initiative and solve this problem, scientists are telling us that we’re facing catastrophe.

However on page 19 the report contains some unhelpfully simplistic diagrams that confuse the issues of operational and embodied energy, and by putting them in opposition to one another (rather than aligned) the diagrams can encourage complacency, confusion and argument.

If our new buildings are going to last only 60 year then we’re leaving a disastrous legacy

The diagrams on page 19 are based on ordinary new buildings lasting just 60 years, rather than very high performance new and retrofitted buildings which ought to last a lot longer than 60 years. If the new buildings that we are creating are going to last only 60 years, including their massive elements such as foundations and walls, then we’re leaving a disastrous legacy. Most of the buildings we presently inhabit are likely to last at least four times longer than those diagrams show. So if the diagrams are changed to show ordinary buildings that last 3 or 4 times as long as shown, the end result is that the diagrams are almost exactly the reverse of what is shown, with an entirely different message. If you then do the diagrams for very low-energy buildings, the diagrams reverse again.

The important messages that should be made in this section are (1) to design for the permanence and adaptability of the elements in buildings that contain the highest embodied energy, (2) to drive down operational energy to the point that the building is a net producer of energy. By this means, a zero-zero building can pay back the energy that went into constructing a long-life, positive-energy building.

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