Zumthor thinks he ‘can only do so much’ to protect the environment – but there are plenty of ways architects can effect policy change, writes Hattie Hartman
After the recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, many harked back to wartime mobilisation as the only effective way of mitigating climate change. That same week, Bloomberg’s Stirling win sparked controversy about whether the ‘greenest ever’ office building should be lauded as Britain’s best building this year.
The convergence of these two events sparked a lot of self-reflection about what architects can and can’t do to address climate change. Last week, Peter Zumthor told Dezeen that ‘the issue was on his mind but that he didn’t feel he had much power to make a difference’.
In fact, there is much that architects could do. Several current initiatives are potential game-changers and offer architects a way to become better informed and effect policy change.
The London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI) was launched last year by environmental engineer Elementa Consulting. It is a voluntary network of more than 250 built environment professionals (including over a dozen architectural practices) who have collaborated to develop proposals to revise London’s energy policy.
LETI’s first 18 months have seen remarkable success. Several of its recommendations have been incorporated into the draft London Plan, the London Environment Strategy and the GLA’s Energy Assessment Guidance documentation which forms part of planning applications. These include updating superceded methodologies, prioritising fabric energy efficiency and a requirement to calculate and minimise unregulated energy consumption (this means all plug loads, including IT).
The draft London Plan also includes a pioneering reference to embodied energy: all schemes that are referred to the mayor must calculate whole-life-cycle carbon emissions and document how they have been reduced. Architects are ideally placed to lead here, scrutinising the choice of materials in a building. Hawkins\Brown recently developed H\B:ERT, a free-to-download embodied carbon calculator which plugs into a Revit model, and can be used to identify big wins early in design.
In another bold step, the GLA has adopted LETI’s Be Seen policy, whereby all major developments must monitor and disclose their energy performance for five years.
1,000 UK buildings are certified Passivhaus, with an equal number in the pipeline
LETI member and Levitt Bernstein head of sustainability Clare Murray says the idea that architects lack the technical knowledge to contribute to such policy development is a myth, adding: ‘Only a well-designed building where all disciplines work together can get us to zero carbon.’ Topics such as embodied carbon, zero carbon buildings and Part L are fundamental to architects’ work.
In my decade of writing about sustainability for the AJ, rarely have I seen so much passionate expertise gathered in a room as at last month’s launch of LETI’s 2019 workstreams held at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. This was not just another panel discussion, but rather an active workshop for brainstorming ways forward.
Reassuringly, LETI is not a lone voice. An updated sustainability overlay to the RIBA Plan of Work is underway. Last month, the UKGBC launched an Advancing Net Zero campaign and is setting up a cross-industry task force to push this agenda. As of September, more than 1,000 UK buildings are certified Passivhaus, with an equal number in the pipeline. And the Better Buildings Partnership has launched a Design for Performance initiative, which asks its members to commit to verifying performance in use. Key players in UK property are signatories.
Woefully though, those involved in LETI and these other pioneering initiatives are in a minority. We now need the bulk of the industry and the architecture profession to remove their heads from the sand and join them.