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How to make sustainability and clients more compatible

Matt Thompson

Investor-developers got together to work out how to overcome barriers to sustainable design at an RIBA roundtable discussion

80 Charlotte Street W1 – Derwent London’s first net zero carbon building, designed by Make Architects. Derwent London
80 Charlotte Street W1 – Derwent London’s first net zero carbon building, designed by Make Architects. Derwent London

Why do construction clients sometimes frustrate architects’ plans for better sustainable outcomes? Why would they hesitate, given the rising end-user demand for environmentally friendly buildings, the importance of pro-social, green values in real estate investment (especially after COP26) – and of course the risk of reputational damage? 

To find out, the RIBA Client Liaison Group convened a roundtable discussion with client representatives and architects who are leaders in the field of sustainability.

The roundtable interrogated eight clients who retain a long-term interest in the assets they develop – five from the private sector, three from the public sector.

Led by Nigel Ostime, chair of the Client Liaison Group and partner at Hawkins\Brown,  the online event was split into two. During the first part, client representatives outlined what they thought were the main barriers to sustainable outcomes. In the second, they set out possible solutions, including how architects could help. The architect panellists were given a chance to comment based on their experiences of working with clients.

The RIBA’s November 2021 Decade of Action poll of architects gave some useful context to the discussion.

This investigated what obstacles faced respondents trying to deliver sustainable outcomes. The top four barriers were, in order, project cost restraints (implicated by 72% of respondents), client requirements (65%), a lack of client engagement (62%), and product substitution and value engineering (57%). On top of that, 32% thought they would fail as a business if they only produced sustainable designs.

Importantly, the survey did not distinguish between kinds of client, who of course all have different resources and motivations.

Certainly, Benjamin Lesser of Derwent London did not recognise the impression that clients deliberately obstruct. In his experience, environmental and social governance matters are top of investors’ list of concerns. In turn, Derwent pushes its teams to hit stringent sustainability targets.

Peter Runacres of Argent agreed, although he suspected that funders’ understanding does not go very deep. As he said, ‘Many in the business still just want a box ticked.’

Although it is probably an urban myth, architects sometimes fear that their PI insurers are against POE

Verification, confidence and insurance

Clients remain to be convinced that the sustainable solutions so ardently promoted by their design teams are optimal and reliable, both from a cost and a technical performance point of view.

Without a body of evidence from R&D, testing, and, crucially, in-use verification, these solutions will stay less well assured than business-as-usual alternatives. Needless to say, without this performance certainty, innovative solutions are harder to invest in. As Claire Bennie, director of Municipal, said, ‘Clients quite often default to easier things because they’re less risky.’

The problem is compounded by the shortage of insurance products to underwrite the risks. According to Runacres, the ‘biggest blocker’ is asset insurance, which has knock-on implications for construction insurance and PII. ‘If you can’t get asset insurance your funders won’t go there.’

Lesser advocated long-term collaboration as a solution. Sustained collaborative research and development ensures that, when it comes to a live project, teams don’t start from scratch. Certainly, Derwent only works with people who have the requisite R&D mindset.

Bennie felt that in-use performance verification was the way forward. This implies a greater focus on RIBA Plan of Work’s Stage 7 and more post-occupancy evaluation (POE). Although it is probably an urban myth, architects sometimes fear their PI insurers are against POE on the basis that it risks dredging up problems. Runacres recommended consulting them to avoid any difficulties.

There is a need for not only useful evaluation criteria but also a reporting system to capture and share findings. Caspar Rodgers of architect alma-nac proposed there should be a ‘common pool of knowledge so that everyone can sing from the same hymn sheet’. This should make it easier to reach agreement on targets and for clients to compare options from a position of greater certainty.

80 Charlotte Street included air source heat pumps, solar thermal panels and was 8% lower embodied carbon intensity than the RICS benchmark.
80 Charlotte Street included air source heat pumps, solar thermal panels and was 8% lower embodied carbon intensity than the RICS benchmark.

Finance: cost, viability, predictability

While the industry has, as Lesser put it, long been picking the low-hanging technical design solution fruit, it is only just moving to the high-hanging, and it is far from straightforward. ‘It’s a risk because we are having to invest significant funds years in advance on design fees, R&D and innovation testing.’

Robert Jenkins of Delancey agreed, ­adding that deviating from where we are now to much-needed improvements in design performance places an additional burden on the client project team in terms of disciplines, time and cost, with the added lag in the omission of their pricing in appraisals. As we are all having to upskill industry-wide, could architects take on delivering say ­Passivhaus compliant schemes – and even certify them?

Runacres described the difficulty of justifying extra upfront capital expenditure in return for theoretical but unproven eventual in-use savings in operational expenditure. Success depends on convincing funders that money is spent where it is most effective. Taking the leap is just as hard for publicly funded projects, where initial capital cost is constrained and politically sensitive, added Bennie.

Unfamiliar design solutions entail comparatively unpredictable costs. Since cost control is usually an important consideration for clients, particularly public ones, the increased likelihood of losing control is likely to be an inhibiting factor.

Accounting for externalities

Development appraisals favour short-term decision horizons at the expense of long-term ones that might account for non-financial costs. As Jenkins said, ‘In the bidding process for assets and opportunities, not everyone is pricing in future carbon risk.’

Chris Langdon of Equans (part of Engie) amplified the point in relation to decisions about whether to refurbish or demolish. The failure to account properly for the carbon costs of demolition, and to exaggerate the financial uplift from building anew, mean that refurbishment is rarely selected despite often being the more sustainable option.

Education and competence

The panel implicated a general lack of knowledge, skills and experience as a barrier, not just in the delivery side but also on the client side. This ties in with the current dearth of verified data from assets in use. As Langdon said, ‘One of the biggest barriers is education with the client, advisers and consultants. They need to be making better decisions based on better information and knowledge.’

James Halsall of the London Legacy Development Corporation bemoaned the lack of systemic knowledge capturing and sharing from exemplar projects as standing in the way of upskilling. Louisa Bowles, sustainability lead at Hawkins\Brown, confirmed that concern: ‘Architects are often well aware of the broader sustainability agenda around issues including social value, biodiversity and land use, but don’t know how to help clients set measurable and successful strategies around these issues. The RIBA Sustainable Outcomes Guidance has provided a useful starting point for the type of metrics and standards that could be used to propose and measure success.’

Kunle Barker of Melt Homes identified a knowledge gap between architects and contractors, and a lack of understanding by clients, particularly on targets and comparing options. ‘The focus on targets and buzz phrases like net zero and embodied carbon can be difficult for clients to understand,’ he said.

The solutions are self-evident: more and different training across the procurement chain, from clients and their advisers to designers, contractors and other consultants. Peter Runacres felt that architects’ education needs greater emphasis on design for long-term performance, financial modelling and the motivations to build that precede the brief.

Caspar Rodgers went so far as to wonder whether the mandatory competence for climate literacy, which is already planned for RIBA members, ought to be a condition of continued ARB registration.

  • Architect Orms’ refurbishment of the 1974 brutalist extension to Camden Council’s former HQ as the London Standard Hotel is a good example of sustainable re-use, upgrade and adaptation.
    Architect Orms’ refurbishment of the 1974 brutalist extension to Camden Council’s former HQ as the London Standard Hotel is a good example of sustainable re-use, upgrade and adaptation. Credit: Timothy Soar
  • Making refurbishment make sense: RIBA Regional Award winning The Standard by ORMS
    Making refurbishment make sense: RIBA Regional Award winning The Standard by ORMS Credit: Timothy Soar
  • Making refurbishment make sense: RIBA Regional Award winning The Standard by ORMS
    Making refurbishment make sense: RIBA Regional Award winning The Standard by ORMS Credit: Timothy Soar

Consistency and standardisation

Confusion about meanings of concepts, targets, measures and comparability is a barrier. Langdon said, ‘There isn’t a clear enough definition of what some of the measures of success, or sustainable outcomes, actually are.’

The confusion is exacerbated, Runacres thought, by the lack of consistency across government departments and by clashing priorities. For example, the important focus on health and safety, he said, is becoming a barrier to low-embodied carbon solutions.

Robert Jenkins of Delancey agreed, citing the difficulty of juggling the wellbeing benefits of high levels of daylight with the significant energy and carbon disadvantages of full height glazing. He summed up the current picture as noisy and challenging: ‘There seem to be multiple industry bodies, and definitions of terminology, and people are using them to pursue and implement their own strategy.’ He predicts continued misunderstanding until there is consensus.

What’s actually needed is an entire new suite of products which would require wholesale industrial change

Cultural factors

James Halsall implicated siloed working and a lack of communication as inhibiting better sustainable outcomes. ‘If we all think about the challenge separately, that’s creating a really large and unnecessary barrier,’ he said.

Bowles wondered whether collaboration could be improved and siloes broken by aligning the delivery teams’ terms of engagement, while Langdon emphasised the need for better cross-disciplinary understanding. In particular, he felt that architects need to upskill in development finance. ‘If architects don’t truly understand costs and how cost bases are evaluated, it will be harder to move out of those silos,’ he said.

Bennie felt that trying to advance better sustainable outcomes within individual projects, while worthwhile, will limit the scale and speed of progress. What’s actually needed, she said, was ‘an entire new suite of products’, which would require ‘wholesale industrial change’.

To that end, Runacres advocated the power of lobbying. Langdon agreed, reminding everyone, including architects, of their responsibility to challenge, educate, and lobby, even to the point of turning down commissions if their benefits and purpose are not in the interests of society and the greater good.


The panellists generally agreed that stiffer, more coherent regulation had a part to play in improving sustainable outcomes, and that they would welcome it.

The government’s role is potentially ­multi-faceted. The panellists wished for better cross-departmental policy coherence and integration, consistency in target definitions and measurement, instruments to force beneficial behaviour change in the industry, and putting pressure on the insurance industry to support technologies that lead to better sustainable outcomes.

The good news is that the RIBA is already providing some of the solutions, all aligned under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It has updated its industry-standard Plan of Work, developed achievable benchmarks and targets in its Sustainable Outcomes Guide, is introducing mandatory competencies in climate literacy, working with LETI to harmonise definitions and reporting procedures across the industry. It is also collaborating with the UK Green Building Council on a roadmap to 2050, and lobbying government, most notably with the publication of its Built for the Environment report in collaboration with Architects Declare.


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