Forget the tickbox

Waiting for a final checklist won’t embed sustainability into design but the RIBA Plan of Work tools can

Sustainability does not have to cost more provided a balanced and timely view is taken. Often a prescriptive retrospective checklist can increase costs and compromise design.

So the architect’s role is pivotal in realising an optimised sustainable design. As we all understand in theory, good design fully integrates user function, building fabric and complementary, efficient engineering. ­Architects must grasp the consequences of balancing each of these drivers at each ­design stage, and not rely on others to measure the sustainable success of a project retrospectively using tick box headings. While tools like BREEAM and the Code for ­Sustainable Homes can help reduce carbon and set ­sustainability targets, they don’t inform the architect about how to achieve optimised sustainable design or what to consider when. 

So, with Bill Gething, the RIBA’s Sustainable Futures group has aligned the Green Overlay with the RIBA Plan of Work 2013. This is intended to provide guidance at each design stage, prompting the architect to consider relevant sustainability targets at the right time.

Briefing is essential to define realistic targets and the new stage O prompts the ­architect early to define the project’s parameters and set objectives that require continued commitment to measuring a design’s performance. The plan encourages a different way of designing based on outcomes. One ­example of this is ‘Soft Landings’ which is identified at Stage O, highlighting the importance of its impact at the early briefing stage as well as at handover and during the post ­occupancy stages.

Sustainability checkpoints along the way highlight headline considerations for each stage, a reminder for example to think about the reuse of existing building components. These trigger the timely consideration of sustainability targets for each stage of the project, to provide a robust understanding of issues that might in the past have been left to others or adopted much later in the process. A fully integrated approach is not possible if sustainability is seen as a ‘bolt on’ kit of parts; it only adds cost and reduces the building’s performance potential. 

Decisions during the early design stages not only define how the building functions but ultimately determine its efficiency. It is essential that the architect understands the consequences of these decisions, how to avoid conflicts and identify complementary passive and active design solutions.

An architect’s first and major focus should be to reduce energy demand by fully using the building’s fabric, considering control of ­embodied and active energy consumption. Influencing behavioural change through good design is part of this. The second priority is to harness natural resources through passive design and careful consideration of the micro climate. Good sustainable ­architecture balances client and end user requirements with a design appropriate to its function, challenges conventional approaches and seeks innovative ways to cut energy use.

Finally, the remaining energy demands are married with complementary engineering and matched against appropriate ­renewable and low carbon technologies. Each building response depends on its ­climate, function and end user brief. 

The new Plan of Work is not intended to list hurdles for architects to jump through, but to prompt the designer to test key ­sustainability considerations with the design team at the right time, encouraging a collaborative, co-ordinated approach to making buildings more sustainable. 

Alan Shingler is chair of the RIBA Sustainable Futures Group and head of sustainability at Sheppard Robson

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