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Roundtable: Let’s get serious about sustainability

Roundtable overview

With the climate emergency dominating the news agenda, six AJ100 practices came together to explore how significant sustainability progress can be achieved by harnessing the power of collaboration, knowledge and a little bit of stealth, reports Isabella Kaminski

The panel 

  • Hattie Hartman, AJ sustainability editor (chair)
  • Stuart Eatock, managing director, ECE Architecture
  • Clare Murray, head of sustainability, Levitt Bernstein
  • Dan Flower, design director, HKS Architects
  • David Watson, associate director, MICA
  • Myron Sullivan, associate director, Pattern Architects
  • Melanie Perkins, partner, PDP London

Aj100 shard 040

Aj100 shard 040

Source: Theo Wood

Melanie Perkins, partner, PDP London

Architects need to collaborate and upskill to solve urgent environmental problems and play their part in tackling the climate emergency.

That was the main message arising from a roundtable on sustainability issues in practice, sponsored by EQUITONE.

The roundtable featured six AJ100 practices, several of which have been shortlisted or won the AJ100 New Member of the Year award. All are at different stages of their sustainability journey.

Stuart Eatock, managing director of ECE Architecture, acknowledged sustainability had not been a priority until recently at his practice, which instead had focused on design quality. 

‘I consider us to be sitting where a lot of small to medium-sized practices sit. We work really hard to deliver a decent building for commercial clients. There would be the odd exemplar project [rated] BREEAM Excellent because it was a school or a planning requirement. But across the practice there was a lack of knowledge, a lack of understanding from the top, right the way down.’

For us, the journey is about the design process. How can we get architects to inherently change their process 

Eatock said even the mention of sustainability caused some clients to switch off. However, a sustainability group set up around a year ago has helped raise internal awareness of issues, such as a building’s carbon emissions.

Levitt Bernstein has taken the approach of hiring in expertise, appointing Clare Murray as its first head of sustainability five years ago.

Murray said that some staff, as in other companies, are more interested in sustainability than others. ‘The difference is we have one person who can be targeted either to showcase what we’ve done – to bring out those case studies – or to talk more in-house and give the CPD and training that we often look for. That’s my role. It falls on me to make the change for everyone and to bring everyone on board behind me.’

One thing all the practices have in common is that they have signed Architects Declare, a formal acknowledgement that there is a climate emergency, which incorporates 11 pledges to help the industry respond.

Eatock said he was excited by the recent swell of interest in climate change and wider sustainability. ‘It’s a real opportunity to make a big difference. It seemed to be ramping up about ten years ago and then crashed. A second opportunity is rising now.’ 

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Aj100 shard 152

Source: Theo Wood

Stuart Eatock, managing director, ECE Architecture

Collaboration emerged as a central theme during the discussion. For Eatock, the most important Architects Declare pledge is to share knowledge and research freely in order to pool resources.

Eatock described how his practice had spent a year drafting an internal spreadsheet on key sustainability issues that its architects should be thinking about. But he feared that this was reinventing the wheel. ‘There are probably a hundred versions of these out there. There are practices that are light years ahead of us, where sustainability was embedded in their DNA 30 years ago. If we really want to accelerate, we have to share.’

There was a general feeling that improving internal databases and sharing knowledge externally would help companies benchmark their existing performance and provide a level to aspire to. Several participants said they would like to see a central, authoritative repository for this information to raise the bar among the whole industry. The importance of learning that could be accessed on demand was also highlighted. 

Murray acknowledged there were commercial confidentiality issues to address, but said knowledge sharing was essential to meeting the 2030 Climate Challenge recently adopted by RIBA. This sets ambitious targets for the operational energy, embodied carbon and mains water use of buildings.

There are practices that are light years ahead of us … If we really want to accelerate, we have to share 

Dan Flower, design director at HKS Architects, said his practice’s US office was already engaging with the American Institute of Architects’ version of the 2030 challenge, which had inspired an internal system of identifying ‘top’ projects to improve performance. While still at an early stage, he said the company is trying to give the concept ‘more global importance’. 

David Watson, associate director at MICA, said the new pledges and metrics available to architects have helped break down the sustainability challenge in a way that BREEAM has not – and they are easier to communicate with clients.

Becoming an Architects Declare signatory has made MICA reconsider all aspects of its practice, such as using quarterly checks to monitor progress. Watson added that while it was fine to showcase exemplar projects in-house, improvements had to be more systematic.

Myron Sullivan, associate director at Pattern Architects, said his practice had not taken any specific steps as a result of declaring a climate emergency because it was ‘already on the journey’ to become more sustainable. The firm – which specialises in stadium design, often in hot climates – tries to avoid building ‘white elephants in the middle of nowhere’, and has to make difficult compromises between energy efficiency, lighting and user experience.

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Aj100 shard 108

Source: Theo Wood

Clare Murray, head of sustainability, Levitt Bernstein

But it still has work to do to fully embed sustainability into its practice. ‘Sustainability is one aspect of everything I do,’ said Sullivan. ‘We have silos of interest. How can we make sustainability percolate through all the different interests?’

One problem, he noted, is that it is difficult to monitor how a building is used in practice. ‘We lose connection with the client, with the owner. The operation of the building becomes someone else’s problem. That’s always been a struggle.’ 

Murray would like to see incremental, lasting improvements to the fundamentals of architectural practice, such as a clear grasp of the relationship between the amount of glazing and overheating. 

She noted that simple changes to default designs, such as window size, would make a big difference to energy use. ‘If you have the confidence and the knowledge, you can do a lot by stealth without anyone even noticing. A client wouldn’t say ‘make the windows a bit bigger’. No one will question it because its inherent in your design from day one,’ said Murray.

‘For us, the journey is about the design process. How can we get architects to inherently change their process so that they grasp a concept and do it well so that they don’t have to think about it the next time they do it?’ she said.

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Aj100 shard 084

Source: Theo Wood

Dan Flower, design director, HKS Architects

The need for education and upskilling cropped up repeatedly during the roundtable. 

Watson felt that certain key skills that would have been assumed to have been taught at university or earlier in practice are lacking, and practices are trying to fill the gap through lunchtime CPD programmes. This, he added, was particularly a problem for small and medium-sized practices that may not have the resources to employ a specialist on every subject. 

Murray acknowledged that architects cannot be experts on everything but added it was still vital to upskill the profession to design more sustainably and be aware of key issues when dealing with consultants and clients. 

‘Although we’ve got a lot of keen people in the office, if they haven’t had training as part of their architectural education they are starting from zero.’ They might not realise, for example, that when they face a building south and west it retains more heat. ‘It’s not a reflection on them, it’s a reflection on the system,’ said Murray. And taking on board new ideas, she added, can be tough later on in your career. 

Melanie Perkins, partner at PDP London, agreed, saying more experienced architects can sometimes be dimissive because they don’t like to feel ignorant. ‘We’ve always had people in the office who are passionate and committed [about sustainability] but it sits a bit separately. Sometimes that knowledge feels a bit difficult to access.’ 

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Aj100 shard 112

Source: Theo Wood

Myron Sullivan, associate director, Pattern Architects

There were several suggestions about delivering information on sustainability to a modern industry, including TED talks and podcasts. 

Perkins noted that timing is important: ‘You have set CPD times during the year but architecture is a long process. One year you might not be remotely interested in a particular subject because you’re not dealing with it. So it’s about being able to access it when it suits you in your project cycle.’

PDP London is also trying to find more subtle ways to increase awareness ‘rather than bashing people who are less interested over the head with it’. Internally that means office discussion groups, staff forums or quizzes. And externally it might mean awards for clients that make for good publicity. ‘Lots of people could do with being more tantalised and educated. It’s about learning more without having to say they don’t know,’ said Perkins.

Perkins added that it was important to embrace the enthusiasm of new graduates. ‘More young people talking about it can filter upwards. Especially if you have people at the top who are quite dismissive, that has a massive impact on how much people, who are genuinely interested, can get involved.’ 

Flower said architects must unite as an industry to advocate for wider change and influence government regulation on design and construction. He would like clients to be more demanding too, to improve quality and boost investment in the sector. ‘We have to mature from individual action to collective action so you get that systemic change.’

Eatock agreed: ‘There was a time when sustainability was a competitive venture – and that time has passed.’

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