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Don’t blame architects for climate change

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We need the right planning and regulatory framework in place before the profession can help achieve a zero-carbon built environment, says Chris Medland

Cmedland

Following publication of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, sustainability in the built environment has rightly been the topic of discussion in the press and social media. There have been claims that architects should do more and carry some guilt for the current situation.

But to suggest architects are to blame comes from a position that overstates our influence. The view of the architect as the lead professional in construction, particularly in relation to homes, where architects only have a significant degree of authority over a tenth of new homes built, is a long way from reality.

For example, it is planning policy and building regulations that form the framework for standards within which the vast majority of new homes are built. This framework was severely weakened by the abolition of the Code for Sustainable Homes and further undermined by the scrapping of the Zero Carbon Homes plan. Further, a 2015 Written Ministerial Statement stated that: ‘Local authorities would only be able to require energy performance standards higher than Building Regulations up to the equivalent of Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4’.

This was implemented at a time when there were plans for Part L 2016 and an update to the Planning and Energy Act 2008. Either statute might have brought forward stronger regulations, but neither has happened, as the government’s sole focus has become Brexit.

Since 2015, outside London, housebuilders have successfully challenged both local planning policies and planning conditions related to energy standards in new homes. The net result is that in practice, the current performance requirement on new homes is typically less than it was six years ago. Even the most progressive of councils can only condition that ‘new build residential development should achieve reductions in COemissions of 19 per cent below the Target Emission Rate of the 2013 edition of the Building Regs. 

These are currently the most stringent council requirements. What was previously set as a minimum standard has become the maximum standard enforceable.

What was previously set as a minimum standard has become the maximum

In view of the government’s target of constructing 300,000 new homes a year and 1 million new homes in England by 2022, we are at the start of housebuilding boom and, unless things change quickly, a worsened environmental disaster. We know what we have to do, but first we need to get the framework in place that means we can do it.

Thankfully, expert organisations like the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) and the Centre for Sustainable Energy are working with planners, sustainability consultants, legal experts and local authorities to push for higher standards while remaining on the right side of the law. There are historic legal precedents, such as the Merton Rule, that may help councils to seek more robust policies and specific energy-related standards within developing Local Plans.

And there are many frustrated local authority officers around the country who are pushing councillors to be brave, non‐partisan, and to work together to do what is required.

Then there is London. With devolved powers and through the London Plan, the London Mayor is able to set much more ambitious design standards for new homes. Local authorities around the country will be able to enforce such policies once their current legal position has either been challenged successfully, or the government updates policy. Until then, architects and other construction industry professionals have an important role to play at work but also as informed members of the public.

On each project, working with our industry colleagues and specialists, we can make a difference to sustainability: we can improve the 10 per cent of new homes we have a measure of authority over.

With regard to the 90 per cent, our authority and influence as architects are limited. As part of the electorate, however, it is not. All three of my nearby local authorities (Chichester, Waverley and East Hants) are holding consultations on their Local Plans in the coming months. As informed members of the public we can respond to such consultations in the same language as the council’s officers and can call for real progress towards the carbon reductions required by the 2008 Climate Act.

Make design standards an issue they can’t ignore, explain the context to your neighbours, friends and family – make the politicians understand that the devil is in the detail and that sustainability will win them votes. Then we will see rapid change.

Chris Medland is director of One World Design Architects

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