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What should we do in response to COP21?

Sheppard Robson's completed Siemens HQ in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi

Five leading figures in low-carbon architecture set out the challenge that the Paris climate change summit presents

Sunand Prasad, former RIBA president and co-founder, Penoyre & Prasad 

The signs are that the Paris Climate Summit will do a lot better than the disappointing results of past Conferences of the Parties, by focusing on national offers of reduction rather than on international bargaining over quotas. However, the best likely outcome is to put the world on the path to reduce GHG emission by an amount well short of the emissions reduction target that is needed and was set implicitly in Copenhagen 2009: to keep global warming to no more than an average of 2OC, the upper limit for avoiding very dangerous climate instability.

The construction industry can make a real difference

The design, construction and property industry can make a real difference to achieving the further reductions so badly needed. The reduction scenarios on offer at COP21 are heavily weighted towards shifting of energy generation away from fossil fuels, towards renewables. Any engagement with energy efficiency and further demand reduction through how we use buildings and cities lags far behind, even though the use of buildings and cities is the biggest energy user. One reason for this is that these measures are not so easy to achieve through national policy.It takes the actions of millions at the local level. In fact reducing the waste of energy and making the same amount of energy do twice or four times as much for us can only be achieved by the actions of millions.

We in the architecture, design, construction and property industries can be most effective by stepping up our efforts to make building perform far better, and be easier to use. Poor performance, which has been shown to be widespread, must not be excused on the grounds that the client did not want to pay, or that the occupants don’t understand the systems. Whether technological, managerial, cultural or a mix of all, the best solutions will also make better business, while doing the right thing. All it needs is will.

Clare Murray, head of sustainability, Levitt Bernstein

The Paris Climate talks are already raising our hopes and expectations for the future, but before our dreams are shattered by agreements that fall short of the 2C target, we should take a long and hard look in the mirror (and by the way - the truth hurts).

With this year’s seemingly endless cull of green standards, regulations and initiatives, it is more important than ever that we act together to make changes from the bottom up. It is clear that this Government will do very little to assist us, so before it is too late, we must ask ourselves: have we done enough? Could we do more?

There will be limits to what we can achieve

As architects, we are well placed to push the boundaries of sustainable design beyond the standard tick box exercise, while encouraging our clients and consultants to do the same. We should ensure sustainability is on the agenda of every meeting to raise awareness and lift aspirations .There will be limits to what we can achieve on any given project, but as a minimum we should challenge ourselves to pick at least one thing that works for each development and do it really well – whether it’s to improve local biodiversity, use locally sourced materials or remove the need for air conditioning. A fabric first approach to reducing energy consumption is a must, it is cost effective and proven to work. We should also be making a habit of revisiting the places and spaces we design, with the lessons learnt used to improve our future projects. We have the free power of design to make our buildings more sustainable - so let’s start using it.

The unfortunate truth is that we shouldn’t hope for too much from the talks – it will take a lot of negotiation between the 195 countries to come to any sort of resolution, let alone one that is needed to prevent irreversible damage to planet earth. Ultimately, we are all empowered to make a difference – we should ask ourselves: have we done enough today?

Robin Nicholson, senior practice partner, Edward Cullinan Architects

It would be nice to think that you voted in the last election, in which case many will have voted this government into power. Since May, the Chancellor has preferred to listen to the climate deniers than the admirable Lord Deben who chairs the UK’s Independent Climate Change Committee.

UK leadership on reducing emmissions has gone

Whatever you thought of the Blair/Brown Governments they passed the Climate Change Act (2008) that committed the UK to reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 with legally-binding five year targets and the Climate Committee to report on progress. That Act and much that followed, including the Code for Sustainable Homes, the Zero Carbon Hub and ever-tightening building regulations made the UK a world leader. Since the election, this government has dismantled much of this and UK leadership has gone, along with all the business opportunities.

The 2009 Copenhagen COP was a disaster but this week COP 21 is meeting in Paris and there is some optimism. But given that buildings are anywhere from 37 per cent to 75 per cent of the problem depending on what you count, one might have thought that the industry, that we architects love to pretend we lead, would unite in changing our behaviour and finding (interdisciplinary) solutions.

Lynne Sullivan champions carbon literacy for all, in Government and in the RIBA. Bill Bordass demands we measure the often woeful performance of our buildings – do you recall the great Probe studies (1995-2002)? Paul Morrell in the Edge Commission report calls for the professional Institutions to collaborate on six key issues, especially climate change.

So what should we do? We should get political. We should measure the performance of our buildings and publish the results. We should stop designing all glass buildings and recognise that each elevation has differing means of reducing energy; and we should retrofit our existing building stock, fast.

Lynne Sullivan, co-founding director, sustainableBYdesign

To take COP21 seriously, the UK needs to commit to a 2050 delivery plan, to change the paradigm of business as usual and reward investment in services and products to deliver a low carbon built environment which is at present lacking, despite the Climate Change Act and UK Construction Strategy targets. The UN Sustainable Development goals include ‘safe, resilient, inclusive and sustainable cities’ - UK policy should be structured to achieve this.

The UK needs an energy strategy which does not rely on fossil fuels

Firstly, the UK needs an energy strategy which does not rely on fossil fuels – UK government policy should not subsidise gas and nuclear at the expense of renewable energy. We should implement the message from the government’s own thinktank that energy efficiency is the best buy for energy resilience – by prioritising the upgrade of our existing stock, minimising the energy demand of new buildings through maximising fabric energy efficiency, and tuning up our processes and quality control to ensure buildings perform as designed.

Built environment professionals individually and collectively need to take the lead in advocating and delivering long-life, loose-fit, low energy buildings and placemaking, and be able to demonstrate from built examples how comfortable, affordable, healthy environments produce near-zero emissions, affordable warmth and happier, more productive occupants whose burden on national health and social services is less.

Actions should include:

  • Redistributing tax revenue from the ‘big’ (energy company) carbon emitters to local energy efficiency delivery.
  • Redistributing fossil fuel subsidies to renewable energy.
  • All new housing to be 2050-ready, with planning and building regulations fit for that purpose including mandatory Fabric Energy Efficiency Standards .
  • Declarations of Performance in Use to be a requirement of any public funding for building, and compliance methods to be realigned to minimising the performance gap.
  • Energy Literacy to be a core requirement of professional competency and even taught in schools.

Jonathan Hines, director, Architype

I was hugely heartened by Lord Stern’s optimism in his pre-COP21 Ashden lecture last week. It seems that the world’s largest nations, including America, China and India are making good progress at home, and are ready to reach agreement at COP21. In this light I feel ashamed and frustrated at the gap between our Government’s rhetoric abroad, and action at home.

The UK will only meet international commitments, through regulation to reduce energy consumption in buildings, combined with massive investment in renewable energy generation.  

We were on, an albeit too slow, path towards improving both of these. Now the Government is rapidly reversing by reigning back on improvements in the building regulations, and drastically cutting support for renewables.

So, I propose massive investment in renewables, but at a scale where it is most efficient and effective – generally at a community or regional, rather than a micro scale. Not radical, simply good economics.

As architects we should focus on designng buildings that consume less energy

Then, as architects I propose we should focus on designing buildings that will consume a fraction of the energy they do now, and close the inexcusable performance gap that our industry so complacently accepts. Not rocket science, simply sound building physics. 

From Architype’s own work, and monitoring of our buildings over several years, we are absolutely confident that Passivhaus delivers thermal energy savings of up to 90 per cent whilst increasing internal comfort. It offers the industry an evidence based design tool, underpinned by a rigorous certification process. We also know Passivhaus need not cost more to build.

I would therefore urge adoption of Passivhaus into the building regulations for new build and retrofit, in clearly defined stages, over an achievable period say of 15 years, backed by good support and training across the industry. But why wait for regulation? Just do it! Not impossible, simply good design!




Readers' comments (2)

  • Robin is right you have to get political if there is to be a change. This government was not voted in by large numbers of architects, planners or engineers. The future of the planet for our children and grandchildren will be secured if we and they continue to make the case. Education and information to triumph over prejudice and ignorance.

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  • Fabric first is certainly the way to go with buildings, but we need to go beyond this thinking. Every opportunity to engage a client and end user should be taken to reduce carbon. Transportation to the building should be discussed as well as any food supplies embodied energy etc. Politicians have a 5 year view of life and so they do not have a sense of urgency. Each and everyone should push this agenda through home and work until the politicians catch up, meanwhile progress will be made.

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