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Architectural Thoughts On: Sustainability

Our resident architectural columnist, Róisín Hanlon, looks at RIBA’s latest and long-term efforts to offset our current state of climate emergency

Last month, the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) formally joined the global declaration of an environment and climate emergency. At a RIBA council meeting, the trustees committed to a new 5-year action plan and to support the government -set, 2050 net zero emissions target. The aims of this action plan will be to change standard practice in architecture to make real sustainable choices and to create an overall building industry that is zero carbon.

‘The climate emergency is the biggest challenge facing our planet and our profession,’ says Ben Derbyshire, RIBA President. ‘But to have a significant impact we need to do more than make symbolic statements – we need to turn warm words into impactful actions.’

The announcement comes after increasing pressure from architects calling for real action, including the Architects Journal and Architect’s Declare, who are both calling for a declaration of climate emergency. Architect’s Declare was founded by leading architects, and their declaration has been signed by over 500 architects practices. It calls for greater and faster change in the building industry, collaboration across professional fields, life cycle costing and many other actionable points. 

One of the frequently-mentioned goals is to push more architects into using Post Occupancy Evaluations as standard. These evaluations involve assessing the whole life cycle of a project. From when it is built, through handing over to the owner and then when actually in use. The aim is to find out how well the building is realistically functioning. Areas looked at include; actual energy consumption, indoor air quality, comfort of building users, and use of space. 

Once an assessment is made, a report is produced, and any findings should be acted upon. For example, if it is discovered a room is rarely used because the occupants are too hot, then anything that effects that room should be looked at and altered to improve comfort, namely heating, ventilation and shading. If these studies are done well, then the findings can feed back into future designs to ensure the buildings we create are continuously improving.
By finding what has and hasn’t worked before, we can learn and adapt. 

At the moment, these evaluations are not particularly common. In 2017, a study by the RIBA showed that only 10% of architects were offering POE as an option. This is for a variety of reasons, not least because clients are unwilling to pay the extra cost. However, a small expenditure on one of these studies can ensure a much larger saving in running costs over the life of the building. 

Architects AHMM used the refurbishment of their own office building as an opportunity to undertake a Post Occupancy Evaluation where they were naturally ensured fully compliant clients. The evaluation for their Moreland office in Clerkenwell is used as a case study by the RIBA as an example of an evaluation done well. AHMM can show their reports – and how they ensure low emissions and running costs – to new clients, which helps them to explain just how effective a tool these evaluations can be.

This announcement is important, as the RIBA represent the profession of architects, and they have the potential to seriously encourage change across all kinds of building projects. Recent figures have shown that the built environment (not just construction but buildings in use) accounts for around 40% of the UK’s carbon footprint. This means that if we can change the built environment to be more environmentally conscious, we can drastically change our overall carbon footprint. RH