The need for sustainable architecture has been known for years, yet time and again the profession has ducked any responsibility, writes Bill Bordass
‘The Sleepwalking Profession’ – the print headline of the AJ’s leader in its ‘Wake Up’ Climate Change issue couldn’t be a truer description, though it may apply to all building professions.
In 1963 the RIBA published the first edition of its Plan of Work, including a Stage M – Feedback. Here, the architect would collaborate with client, engineers, quantity surveyor and contractor to study the building in use, its construction, and the management and performance of the project. In 1972, however, the RIBA removed Stage M because clients wouldn’t pay for it and the RIBA did not want to suggest that architects should do it for nothing. So society constrains what we need to do, but shouldn’t it have been made a professional duty instead? Surely it should now.
Most building professionals still know little about how their projects perform in use
It took 35 years for Stage M to return, as L2 and L3 in 2007, superseded in 2013 by a poorly fleshed-out Stage 7. Twelve years on, most building professionals still know little about how their projects perform in use. They remain happy to follow Design for Compliance rituals in spite of massive performance gaps, with energy use and carbon emissions commonly two or three times the design estimates. To me, ‘we were only following orders’ doesn’t look like discharging a duty of care to the public and planet. Do we deserve our professional status?
Twelve years – no, actually, over 50 – to do far too little. Now, as the AJ leader says, the IPPC gives the world the same 12 years to transform the energy system and limit global warming to the 1.5°C tipping point. We must save energy and carbon in a hurry, and do it well at the same time.
Buildings – the key to energy conservation
In 2007 the US assistant energy secretary, Andy Karsner, said: ‘In the 20th century … we built a really inefficient environment with the greatest efficiency ever known to man.’ It could have all been very different. Following the 1973-74 oil crisis, in 1975, the American Institute of Architects published a policy document A Nation of Energy-efficient Buildings by 1990. In 1979, exactly 40 years ago, the RIBA Energy Group produced a 96-page free book Buildings the Key to Energy Conservation, edited by George Kasabov. He and his research assistant Ian Hogan were paid for a year to put it together. Its total production cost would have been at least £250,000 today. Who paid? The then nationalised fuel industries.
The book included 12 pages of technical introduction (on buildings, energy scenarios, economics, comfort, controls and users) and 50 case studies of innovative projects inspired by the energy crisis, including passive measures, solar energy, mechanical ventilation, combined heat and power, heat pumps, heat recovery, and better and more user-friendly controls.
I provided one case study: the Hereford and Worcester County Hall. The brief for this, prepared in the three-day week of 1974, said: ‘we don’t want to send people home when the power fails’. This put passive design, daylight and solar shading on the menu, while the HVAC system combined seasonal strategies of mechanical ventilation, openable windows and emergency cooling – what we now call mixed-mode.
Five years after the energy crisis, most of these case studies were new buildings already in use or nearing completion. The rest were studies, refurbishments and energy-saving projects. Did things go faster then? Maybe, with the remains of the ‘can do’ wartime spirit, and building professionals in government helping things along. But 1979 also saw the Thatcher government take power, with little time for public service professionals or indeed professionalism, the public interest generally, or the nationalised fuel industries, whose research labs did useful building-related work on technology, comfort and energy, including post-occupancy studies.
So what now?
How can we make up the lost ground extremely rapidly? Current practice gave us Grenfell Tower and the performance gap. Let’s adopt some better principles and processes. Here are some suggestions:
- Professionalism Will the 2020 RIBA Code of Conduct contain an obligation to do Stage 7? How can you claim to be practising professionally, if you don’t understand the consequences of your own actions?
- Design for performance, not just compliance. All buildings should be procured like this – rather than drifting off design intent as they approach completion, they need to zero-in on in-use performance.
- Adopt soft landings so teams maintain the ‘golden thread’ from design intent to performance in use.
- Keep it simple and do it well Australian experience shows that better buildings are often simpler and cheaper: you make the most of what works, and don’t make things complicated with unnecessary bling.
- Benchmarking The UK has failed to invest in a good benchmarking system from inception through into use. Without it, how do you know what you are getting, and how can policymakers and the market value it?
- Learn from your experience Make better connections between practice, policy and academe.
- Publish the results Maybe we don’t need another 1979 printed publication – though something like it could well be useful. But we definitely need the right kind of internet resource, with resilience to keep it going in the public and professional interest and survive inevitable policy and economic ups and downs.
Bill Bordass is a building scientist, specialising in the technical and environmental performance of new, existing and historic buildings