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NEWS FEATURE

How do we get from architects declaring to architects delivering?

Sustainability round table 112
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Building a sustainable practice has to begin with your own staff, said winners of the AJ100 Sustainable Practice of the Year Award at a recent panel discussion. Isabella Kaminski reports

Creating an internal culture of sustainability is key to being a sustainable practice, argued Steven Rankin, associate director of Architype, this year’s AJ100 Sustainable Practice of the Year. He was speaking at a panel discussion last month, hosted and supported by AJ100 headline partner Roca at its Roca London Gallery in Fulham.

‘Where does sustainable design sit in your business?’ he asked. ‘We see it as something that doesn’t at all sit at the edge of our practice.’

Also at the event was Tom Dollard, head of sustainable design and associate partner at Pollard Thomas Edwards (PTE), which won the award last year. He said his practice had spent a lot of time educating staff specifically on environmental sustainability. ‘I find social and economic sustainability comes naturally to architects,’ he added.

The biggest difference we can make is the first few meetings … we can make really big decisions about a project and how it might evolve

A quarter of PTE’s CPD training relates to sustainability, and nearly half its architects have been on the Green Register’s construction course – a short version of the Passivhaus designer certification. Its office also has prominent Display Energy Certificates and monitors its indoor air quality so staff get a feel for their own building environment. ‘Hopefully [this culture] builds to every member of staff realising it’s their responsibility,’ said Dollard. ‘It’s not just mine.’Dollard also stressed that sustainability can be fun. Twice a year its staff undertake post-occupancy evaluations of their buildings during a city cycle tour where they catch up with residents and users. 

Ian Goodfellow, partner at Penoyre & Prasad, which won the Sustainable Practice award in 2014, said getting ISO 14001 accreditation helped his practice set up environmental management systems which it then used to approach external projects. And it also affected the kinds of conversation the practice could have with clients and helped get buy-in from them.

Sustainability round table  122

Sustainability round table 122

Source: Theo Wood

Left to right: Tom Dollard, Steven Rankin and Ian Goodfellow

Undoubtedly a practice’s most significant environmental impact is through the buildings it designs. All the award-winners said they considered sustainability from the very beginning of a project.

Rankin said architects were in a strong position to talk to clients about their options at the earliest stage. ‘The biggest difference we can make is the first few meetings and setting the right brief. We can make really big decisions about a project and how it might evolve.’

He stressed the importance of feeding these decisions into site planning, because a building’s orientation and positioning can limit or maximise the available sustainability options.

Dollard said implementing an environmental management system for projects and checking them throughout the process should not be a specialist job.

‘You’ve got to make the architects responsible for it,’ he said. ‘Delegate it to the teams. Give them checklists, guidance and tools to do it.’

Rankin said he learned more about how buildings are put together during his Passivhaus course than in seven years of practice

He added that it helps to use concepts architects already understand. ‘Architects are good at understanding rules of thumb and if we can break down software working into diagrams you can communicate those messages,’ he said. But figures are ultimately unavoidable. ‘I think that’s the future of architecture; we do have to engage more with physics and numbers,’ he said.

There was a lot of praise for Passivhaus. Goodfellow described it as one of the few areas of building efficiency research to have produced rigorous and not-too-complicated methods. Rankin said he learned more about how buildings are put together during the two weeks of his Passivhaus designer course than in seven years of practice. 

The speakers emphasised the importance of refurbishment and retrofit as a more sustainable option than new build. Goodfellow stressed the importance of a circular-economy approach to materials which considered recycling and reuse rather than buying new. 

Goodfellow added that embodied carbon was ever more important as UK buildings gradually become more energy efficient. Dollard acknowledged that embodied carbon was ‘notoriously difficult to measure’ but said frameworks such as that developed by the UK Green Building Council were invaluable.

But ultimately, a holistic approach to sustainability is required that goes beyond the technical: ‘Create environments that delight,’ he said.

Isabella Kaminski is a freelance environmental journalist 

Top tips from the AJ100 sustainable practice panel

Recruit smart 
Seek out people with experience in different specialisms and fields. Induct them properly, use their expertise and follow their individual interests. 

Communicate
Get better at talking to engineers, contractors and others about sustainability. Pass on knowledge, including information gleaned from post-occupancy evaluations.  

Start early 
Initial sustainability meetings with clients can help set clear priorities, expectations and options. 

Embrace software 
Tools such as Passive House Planning Package and Sefaira can be useful for early assessments of energy use, performance and embodied carbon.  

Continuously improve 
Monitor all your finished projects to learn lessons for the next ones and keep training up to date as the field is progressing quickly. 

Comment

Hattie Hartman, AJ sustainability editor and chair

Hattie hartman b&w

Every practice must establish a simple and robust approach to sustainable design. 

I was nothing short of astonished that over 100 people turned up at 9am in the depths of Fulham for our recent AJ100 breakfast workshop: How to be a Sustainable Practice?  We had a highly engaged audience that stayed the course for a 90-minute discussion and lively Q&A. This reflects an enormous thirst among architects for strategic guidance on how to implement better sustainable practices. 

Sustainability is a journey, not an overnight fix.  It requires constant focus and monitoring and it needs to be central to a project, just like costs. 

The important role of a green ‘office culture’ was clear, but the more significant impacts lie in delivering sustainability in projects. Allies and Morrison was highly commended in this year’s AJ100 sustainability award for developing its own bespoke toolkit. One shortcut is to hire in senior expertise. Another is to harness the enthusiasm of younger staff and commit resources to annual training.

We already have many tools. Almost a decade ago (AJ 2.9.2010), the AJ published a series of sustainability ‘matrices’ by building type in association with Max Fordham. A simple A3 table lists sustainability measures and plots them across varying levels of ambition: minimum standard, best practice, innovative and pioneering.  These measures (and associated costs) can then be revisited with the client and project team throughout a project. 

The RIBA’s Sustainable Futures Group will be launching an update to the plan of work in the autumn, which keys actions to each stage of the design and construction process. 

Think of it like exercise. Some people like rugby, others prefer yoga. Every practice – large or small – must find what works for it and invest resources in establishing simple but robust systems that keep sustainability at the front and centre of every project. And then just do it. We all have a responsibility when it comes to the health of the planet. 

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