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More British architects should make climate pledges

Hattie Hartman
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Only seven of the 61 practices who are UKGBC members have made climate pledges prompted by the Paris negotiations, says Hattie Hartman

The built environment is at the heart of the COP 21 discussions in Paris, with an entire day dedicated to buildings last Thursday. Paris’s mayor Anne Hidalgo and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg hosted 1,000 other city mayors on Friday, and the week also saw an all-day conference dedicated to Architecture, Le Climat de L’Avenir (The Climate of the Future) .

The UK is lagging deeply behind and has not been widely represented at COP 21, though Bristol mayor George Ferguson was actively promoting his city’s achievements as European green capital on several panels. In contrast with RICS, which is an initiating partner of the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, established by the French Government and the United Nations Environment Programme and launched last week, the RIBA was notably absent throughout the proceedings.

The best news lies in the various pledges and initiatives prompted by the momentum of the Paris conference

At the first COP day dedicated entirely to buildings, Ségolène Royal, France’s minister of ecology, sustainable development and energy, made an impassioned plea for all new buildings across the planet to be ’energy positive’, for an ambitious approach to energy-efficient refurbishment that would also serve to kickstart sluggish economies, and for the reintroduction of nature into our cities. That is not the same message we’ve been hearing from the the UK’s energy and climate change secretary Amber Rudd, though she has now been appointed as one of 14 ‘facilitators’ for the remaining days of COP 21, responsible for leading work on pre-2020 climate action along with Gambia’s environment minister.

On behalf of the RIBA, Lynne Sullivan of Sustainable by Design attended the Architecture, Le Climat de L’Avenir symposium – prior to the main summit – which was organised by the UIA and others at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine. Speakers included New Mexico-based architect Ed Mazria, founder of think tank Architecture 2030, Ken Yeang, Kjetil Trædal Thorsen of Snøhetta, and German architect Anna Heringer. Reframing the often-quoted statistic that the built environment is responsible for approximately 40 per cent of global carbon emissions, Mazria claimed the figure was closer to 70 per cent, while Ken Yeang reiterated his longstanding conviction that all architectural projects should start with a thorough understanding of a site’s ecology. Thorsen presented Powerhouse, a Norwegian partnership committed to refurbishing existing office buildings to be energy positive; one project completed last year and a second is on site.

The best news out coming of COP 21 lies in the various pledges and initiatives prompted by the momentum of the Paris conference. One example is the International Finance Corporation (IFC)’s EDGE certification, a user-friendly online tool for reducing energy use in the five most common building types in emerging economies: offices, homes, retail, hospitals and homes. This tool is worth exploring for any AJ120 practice working in these countries.

While the high-level government negotiations of COP 21 may seem remote to the everyday concerns of AJ readers, a quick look at the UKGBC’s climate pledge page focuses the mind. While more than 60 architectural practices are UKGBC members, only seven have responded to its call for climate pledges in the runup to COP 21. Congratulations to Architype, Bennetts Associates (founding member and UK GBC trustee), Levitt Bernstein, and Wilkinson Eyre, as well as Gregoriou Interiors and multidisciplinary consultancies Atkins and Pick Everard. Both AJ120 practices and smaller offices would do well to emulate Wilkinson Eyre’s lead. ‘We will put in a building evaluation fee for all jobs and will carry out a study wherever possible,’ the firm says. ’We will also adopt a policy of a minimum 5 per cent improvement on current Part L on all our projects.’ Is 5 per cent too much to ask?

Zero-impact and zero-energy buildings have been a frequent discussion point at COP 21, with energy-positive buildings also gaining ground. This echoes an ambitious pledge by Kevin McCloud’s HAB development company to deliver its first energy-positive scheme by 2018. HAB managing director Mike Roberts explains: ‘Two or three years ago this was a pipedream, but it should be an industry norm within five years for the slightly lower density schemes that HAB undertakes.’ And by energy positive, HAB also means plug loads. The company is exploring the possibility of direct current circuits – including LED lighting and all computers and screens – being fed directly from photo voltaic cells as a way to significantly reduce energy loads.

‘A call to arms for the industry’ is the real motivation behind HAB’s pledge, according to Roberts. ’We’ve already had people contacting us to ask how they can help. At the moment, there are too many people doing their own thing,’ he says. A case in point is AHMM’s significant sustainability achievements at Burntwood School, which scarcely received a mention at the RIBA Stirling Prize 2015 Winners Lecture last week. Sustainability need not be a headline, but best practice should be shared.


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