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Three things architecture practices can do immediately to help combat climate change

Hattie Hartman

There is no time to lose – the profession quickly needs to get to grips with a more sustainable architecture, says Hattie Hartman

Last month Architects Declare (now at 750+ signatories) hosted an all-day event on how to make good on its 11-point pledge, and the young activists behind the Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN) continue to meet fortnightly to push their campaigning agenda forward. 

Everywhere I hear young architects venting their frustration with ‘business as usual’ and with sluggish responses from their practices. The current well-intentioned initiatives are heartening, but those committed to driving change must not lose sight of immediate climate wins. Here are three things any practice can do right now. 

1. Comment on the current Part L consultation

The consultation is open until 10 January. Surprisingly few architects participated in the UKGBC’s recent briefing on the proposed updates to Part L, which will lock in the standard for new homes until 2025. 

Given the recent spike in awareness about the urgency of climate change, the proposed revisions to Part L reveal a curious lack of ambition and no joined-up thinking. Fabric performance is likely to get worse – a home in 2020 could be less insulated than a home under the 2013 Building Regulations.

Absolutely critical is an overhaul of the Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) and Simplified Building Energy Model (SBEM) methodologies currently used to model Part L compliance based on notional buildings. 

If we are to have any chance of hitting the 2030 target, a modelling approach based on actual performance must begin in 2020. This gets no mention in the proposal now out for consultation. 

Sorting out Part L is essential because Building Regulations will be the legislative driver for ensuring that new buildings meet the UK’s 2030 net zero target. Bone up on the details and submit your comments on the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government portal. Better still, encourage everyone in your practice to submit individual comments. 

2. Sign up to the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge

Initially slow off the mark, the RIBA is now running before it has learned to walk with the release last month of this ambitious voluntary programme. This excellent initiative, spearheaded by the Institute’s Sustainable Futures Group, should be widely adopted. Encouragingly, almost 50 practices have already signed up, including Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Allies and Morrison, HTA Design and Tonkin Liu.  

Originally a New Mexico-based initiative later adopted by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the 2030 Commitment has driven considerable change in America. More than 400 practices now report the operational emissions of their entire portfolio of projects. Through the participation of many of America’s large commercial practices, the operational emissions of millions of square feet of floor space are now being monitored and disclosed. 

Poised to drive similar change in the UK, the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge sets stretching targets not only for operational energy, but also for embodied carbon and potable water use. The institute now needs to commit resources to educate its members along this path and practices should overcome any trepidations and engage with this process now. 

The RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge is not an overnight fix, but it can drive meaningful change within three to five years. And it’s not just for heavy-hitters. The AIA has established a clever programme whereby small practices can be mentored by practices already reporting. The RIBA should follow suit without delay.

3. Begin ‘light-touch’ post-occupancy evaluation

Any architect should be able to do ‘light touch’ post-occupancy, as described by Fionn Stevenson in her recent book Housing: Fit for Purpose. Stevenson distills post-occupancy assessment into a straightforward, step-by-step process, applicable to all building types, that any architect can do with a notebook, a phone and a thermal imaging camera. 

We all need to deepen our climate literacy. By acting now and harnessing the enthusiasm of younger staff, the actions outlined above can be put in motion quickly. Google Drive documents and WhatsApp groups enable instant updates and collaboration. There is no time to lose.


Readers' comments (4)

  • There are surely more than three things - how about grasping the nettle of whether to become involved in the destruction - rather than improvement - of buildings whose only 'crime' is to be located where property values encourage destruction and new-build?
    Perhaps our politicians would have to overhaul planning law before that notion could fly.

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  • There is the obstacle of the 20% VAT levied on retrofit while new-build housing gets off scot-free. There needs to be an equalisation before a true cost-benefit-analysis across the two fields can become a reality.

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  • I'd add that we should get up to date with what the wider industry is doing with things like the Better Buildings Partnership. These (major) clients are far ahead of any architecture practice with what they have committed to:

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  • China...

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