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Architects need to be energy fluent to get the best from engineers

Hattie Hartman
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Last week’s debate on energy literacy at Bristol’s Architecture Centre revealed conflicting views between academics and practitioners. Hattie Hartman reports

Last week Bristol’s Architecture Centre hosted an event on ‘energy literacy’ for architects, with the title ‘What does this mean for your practice?’ Chaired by Bill Gething of the University of the West of England (UWE), the discussion kicked off with the age-old question of how best to teach technical issues to architects. Is architectural education about teaching knowledge and skills, or about teaching ‘an attitude’? And where does energy literacy fit in?

What was surprising about the evening was the lack of consensus among the mostly deep green professionals and academics on the panel, which included Doug King of Doug King Consulting, Craig White of White Design, as well as representatives from Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, Max Fordham and Buro Happold.  While head of school Elena Marco and her UWE colleagues argued in favour of greater energy literacy for students, both King and White cautioned against a narrow focus on energy. It’s all about the people inside the buildings, they said. AHMM’s Craig Robertson took a more measured view, reasoning that it’s essential to identify the opportunities and constraints on a project early through a thorough understanding of energy literacy in order to critically appraise different design options.

Energy metrics remain a relatively new knowledge area for architects, though this is changing (AJ 30.5.13). In 2009, the RIBA published its Carbon Literacy Briefing, an informative 12-page guide to the subject as part of its Climate Change Toolkits.

More recently, the Zero Carbon Hub’s 2014 report, Closing the gap between design and as-built performance, uses the term energy literacy to describe the ‘as-built energy performance knowledge and skills [which must be] embedded within everyday activities for professions’ by 2020 if we are to crack the performance gap’.

So where does this leave us in 2015, just five years from the looming 2020 deadline?

Increased use of energy modelling by architects is one driver that is leading to better understanding. Both Sheppard Robson and AHMM are rolling out Sefaira software tools so that architects can test these issues at concept stage. More and more architects are undertaking Passivhaus Planning Package training in order to use this software as a design tool even for projects that are not targeting Passivhaus certification. Recognising the knowledge gap, the American Institute of Architects published An Architects’ Guide to Integrating Energy Modeling in the Design Process in 2012.

UWE senior lecturer Sonja Oliveira presented her preliminary research on  energy literacy among professionals, academics and students developed through interviews and focus groups. While energy literacy proved central to research faculty in this area, it was not a driver for most design faculty.  Students were found to be ‘a bit more savvy about it because they are increasingly aware of what it is that they don’t know and what they need to know’.

The most revealing outcome of the evening was a clearer understanding of where energy literacy sits within the overall sustainability debate. Not long ago discussions of sustainable building design focused primarily on energy and carbon emissions. Now broader issues such as health and wellbeing and green infrastructure form part of the debate. Energy literacy itself has become more nuanced and sophisticated.

My view is that energy literacy, or energy fluency at least, is one of many skills architects now need in order to get the best out of their engineers. UWE is to be commended for inviting practitioners to share their take on energy literacy and strengthen the often tenuous link between teaching and practice.

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