Architects gear up for broader challenge

The built environment accounts for nearly half of the UK's carbon emissions - yet we need three million more homes by 2020. Mark Lupton looks at the widening role of the architect in a sector that is becoming increasingly complex

As circle-squaring exercises go, it is hard to think of a more difficult one faced by this or any future government.

On one hand, Britain needs more homes – three million by 2020 is the ambitious target – to cope with a growing population, more single-occupancy households and the fact that we’re living longer. On the other hand is climate change, which remains the greatest of challenges.

The question is: how do we reduce CO2 emissions while at the same time undertaking more of an activity which has traditionally contributed a huge amount to the problem of global warming? The built environment accounts for nearly half of the UK’s carbon emissions. So how do we build more while sticking to the much-vaunted commitments to reduce greenhouse gases?

As the creative force behind our built environment, architecture clearly has a role to play. But, although in the past designers obsessed with sustainability were on the margins, recent years have seen green building go mainstream.

Professor Brian Ford, head of Nottingham’s School of the Built Environment, has been involved in architecture for more than 25 years. “The situation has changed a lot,” he says. “Those that espoused the values of being environmentally responsible have gone from being on the periphery to being the mainstream.

“When two of the pioneers of this, Robert and Brenda Vale, developed the idea of the autonomous house in the 1970s, a building which essentially met all its own energy and water needs, it was seen as barmy. It’s taken 30 years to get to the point where this is accepted.”

President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), Sunand Prasad, agrees architects have often led the way on sustainable building. But it’s often difficult, he argues, for architects to do as much as they would like without the backing of the client. It can be a case of he who pays the piper calls the tune. And for developers there has simply been little incentive to invest in green buildings. Leading the way has therefore been the preserve of a limited number of mavericks.

“Without a client wishing to invest in sustainability or zero-carbon measures, it’s difficult for an architect to do as much as is required,” he argues. “You can always do something with a standard budget. But, in today’s climate, if we are really going to go for zero carbon, we have to invest seriously in it.

“From my own experience as an architect, you often start projects with very high ambitions of sustainability. But, when some of the additional costs come through, even if you can prove that in the long run, they will save the client money, clients are often reluctant to invest in that.”

There’s a growing consensus, however, that alterations to building regulations and the introduction of the Code for Sustainable Homes are bringing about a sea change – certainly when it comes to new buildings. By 2016, the code’s stringent level 6 will be compulsory for all new domestic properties.

This much-trumpeted target, which many have dismissed as over-ambitious, will effectively mean all new homes will have to be zero-carbon rated. The code builds on the earlier green homes test, the Building Research Establishment’s environmental assessment method for housing. It sets minimum standards for new properties in nine key areas such as energy/CO2 and water.

It’s inevitably focusing minds, and is already having some unexpected consequences, says Rory Bergin, head of sustainability and innovation at HTA Architects. This company recently won an English Partnerships competition with developer Barratts to design the UK’s first net-zero-carbon eco-village at Hanham Hall in Bristol.

“At the moment, affordable housing has to meet level 3 of the code. And private housing has to meet the lesser requirements of Part L the Building Regulations.

We’ve had some clients say that they don’t want to do that and they’d rather have the whole site to level 3 of the code because they don’t want an unrated private home next to a rented home with a higher rating. So it’s already inadvertently driving standards upwards.”

There’s also some evidence that relationships between developers and architects are improving. Often characterised by adversarialism, the 2016 target and the need to deliver, is forcing a more co-operative approach, says Bergin. “The Carbon Challenge competition at Hanham Hall was a good example of such a collaborative approach. It was about working with them to develop how they would take on this agenda rather than us telling them what’s going to work. We worked together to develop a solution that works well from their business point of view and succeeds in meeting industry targets.”

Barratts senior land manager Ben Cook agrees. “It was a truly team-based approach but then I’ve never built a building or a home without the assistance of an architect. It was a learning experience for us all and involved bringing together a lot of technologies we may have used individually on one scheme together in one place.

The architects on the scheme were a vital part of the delivery team. Their role was to ensure that all strands of the brief not just Code 6 of the Code for Sustainable Homes were delivered.”

The problem for developers, says Nick Johnson, of Manchester-based Urban Splash, is not their relationship with architects but the lack of any way of capturing the value of sustainability measures on new properties. And there’s little agreement on just how much extra it will cost. Architects Journal last year reported a secret source inside the European Commission putting the cost of meeting level six of the code at between £60,000 and £100,000.

“The government seems to think that the additional costs of producing zero-carbon homes can simply be passed on to the buyer. But costs are not what determines the value of a property. You don’t just build a building and mark it up by 10%. The determinants of value are set by the valuation industry and there is no articulate means of capturing the value from energy-saving measures. That is a real barrier to delivering on this agenda. Until this is resolved, it will always be a burden on a developer.”

Costs are higher at the moment, says Bergin, largely because there are not enough UK manufacturers of green building products. “For example, for the size of combined heat and power system we are planning to use at Hanham Hall, there is only one manufacturer in the UK. So of course, it’s not satisfactory having only one supplier of a product. There’s also no UK manufacturer of a low-flush toilet, and the new SIPS panels used in construction have to be imported from Germany. I think it’s inevitable though as we do more of this we will see more manufacturers in the UK.”

Chris Wilford of PRP architects which has developed the Sigma demonstration house at the BRE innovation park in Hertfordshire which meets level five of the Code for Sustainable Homes, says a sea change is needed if we are to catch up with those leading the way in Germany and, Holland and Sweden.

“There’s a real issue about whether we have the servicing infrastructure to back up the technologies which we are bringing to the UK now. Where are the installers and the people to run maintenance programmes?”

There also has to be a shift to focus not just on buildings but also how you build in lifestyle changes to a development. “You have to go beyond the architect in that respect,” he says. “The multi-disciplinary and complex nature of the carbon challenge affects the whole community so you have to find ways to keep the goals and initiatives designed in at the beginning of the project through its whole life – rather than just building the thing and upping sticks and leaving.

“The architect’s skill has to broaden to take on the agenda of the other disciplines. So an architect has to understand more about waste management, the impact of low-carbon lifestyles on a masterplan, the technology of renewables and the impact on house design. Ultimately, the architect’s role is about having an overview and helping to carry the vision into all the disciplines.”

Peter Clegg of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios – whose pioneering sustainable buildings include the headquarters of Greenpeace and the National Trust, says in many ways the other disciplines have some catching up to do. “In the last five to ten years, the knowledge and skills base in the profession has grown. Architecture didn’t take a lead for a long time but I think it is doing now. And it’s bringing the engineers and the contractors along with it.

“Architecture has made the moves that we need in terms of understanding the building form. So, for example, we know we can reduce the heat loads to a minimum on buildings. And things such as airtightness and insulation techniques have improved enormously. The big challenge as we reduce those further is how we meet the electricity load of a building. Savings there are going to come more from engineering than architecture.”

Others agree that, while architecture has largely cracked the building envelope problem – i.e. making better-insulated buildings requiring lower heat loads from more sustainable construction methods – we’ve a long way to go in terms of switching to renewable energy supplies. The UK’s renewable energy industry is one tenth the size of Germany’s, and just 2% of our electricity comes from renewables compared with 40% in Sweden.

And all agree that the focus cannot just be on new buildings. By 2020, even if the government hits its target of 3M new homes, the vast majority of properties will be those that are already built. Three quarters of all the homes around in 2050 already exist.

One way to tackle this would be to change the tax rules which mean new build projects are VAT-free, while refurbishment projects are not. Only by ending this will you provide an incentive to add energy efficiency to existing properties.

And, ultimately, once the built environment professions have done their bit, it’s up to us to change our lifestyles, says Clegg. “There’s a lot you can do in terms of reducing the CO2 from buildings. But there’s still a huge amount of CO2 produced from the lifestyles of occupants, especially in the critical areas of transport energy and food consumption.

“So, architects have to also sell in membership of a low-energy sustainable community through such things as food co-ops, allotments, and car clubs. It’s not just about buildings. Technology is only half of it – the rest is lifestyle.”

Mark Lupton is a freelance writer

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