Architects must build on green knowledge

A tiny number of Britain's landmark building projects are green to the core, despite the fashion to adorn the nation's architectural triumphs with eco-friendly gadgetry.

This was the conclusion of government advisory body Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) in the Guardian last week.

Edie put the point to the Royal Institute of British Architects and found that the profession accepts there is a need to brush up on the theory-craft behind sustainable construction and that it must also battle for the hearts and minds of clients.

The Guardian article outlined how CABE had carried out a review of more than 700 major construction projects over the last two years and concluded that less than ten made sustainability a genuine priority – although greenwash and eye-catching gadgets and technology abound.

Ewan Willars, head of policy for RIBA, told edie that the issue was not clear cut and architects were rarely given a free hand on how green to make a project – there are always other drivers at work.

“It’s a very complex issue,” he said.

“It’s a mixture of where Government requirements and how they relate to what clients are willing to push for.”

He said there was a tendency among clients to ‘green up’ their buildings as a kind of after-thought with a few flash pieces of technology for the cover of their company magazines, whereas true sustainability needed to be planned in from the outset.

Location and orientation were often key to making the best use of natural light, heating and ventilation.

And no matter how inspiring showcase new projects might be, he added, the biggest single thing that could be done to reduce the impact of the built environment would be to retro-fit existing buildings with simple energy saving measures such as better insulation and double glazing.

He accepted that there were gaps in the environmental knowledge of architects, particularly at smaller practices where it was not feasible to employ a sustainability specialist, but insisted that the situation was improving and green building was no longer a niche market dominated by a handful of specialists.

He also acknowledged that architects had a role as advocates and should seek to persuade clients of the benefits of sustainable building – both environmentally and, in the long term, economically.

Inbuilt, one of the country’s first architects to push forward the green agenda, said it shared CABE’s concerns.

Dr David Strong, chief executive of Inbuilt, said: “I’m not surprised that some developers are reaching for green gadgetry rather than pursuing longer-term strategies to deliver genuine sustainability.

“Our own research has revealed the same issue, not just among commercial property developers but also among housebuilders who are unsure about what route to take to meet the regulations in 2010 and 2013, let alone the big target of zero carbon by 2016.

“In fact, when we asked leading housebuilders about their ability to deliver zero carbon homes, their discomfort was palpable, expressed in warnings about the unrecoverable costs, the lack of reliable technologies, supply chain, skills or expertise, and the trouble accessing renewable energy sources.

“Designers and developers have been thrown a green gauntlet by Government and many are struggling to balance all the complex and inter-related factors that are involved in sustainability.

“At the moment the temptation for developers to jump on the first technical bandwagon is enormous. Any supplier that claims to deliver a solution that meets the regulations and looks anything like affordable is doing rather well.

“CABE and others should also encourage sustainability skills training and the promotion of ‘whole system thinking’ which is so vital to success in this area.

“Delivering genuine sustainability is much more than simply achieving a low or zero-carbon building, it’s also about addressing quality of life and wellbeing issues including; improved learning outcomes in schools, healing in hospitals, productivity in offices and safe and healthy homes.”

Sam Bond

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie