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Measuring sustainable design

Adrian Malleson

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are five years old. How familiar is the profession with their aims, and how do its designs match up? Here’s an overview of an RIBA survey showing where we are

The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a blueprint for a sustainable future for everyone. They were adopted by all UN member states in 2015, with the ambitious, shared vision of meeting the goals by 2030. We have one decade left to do that.

The goals lay out the structure for global action; for governments, NGOs, universities, international corporations and small businesses – including hundreds of organisations in the UK. The RIBA is committed to sustainability and professionalism through furthering the goals. The Institute became a signatory to the UN Global Compact in 2015. In June 2019 the RIBA joined the global declaration of an environment and climate emergency, declaring support for the UK government’s legislation to require the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. But how are practices using the goals?

Where is the profession now?

At the end of 2019, the RIBA surveyed its membership to better understand current knowledge and practice, so that it can more effectively support practices working to meet the UN’s sustainable development goals. 

The survey results show that UK practices are knowledgeable about sustainable development. Of the survey respondents, 87% described their practice as having ‘practical knowledge’ or higher, while 5% saw their practice as being a recognized authority in sustainable development. 

Knowledge of the SDGs is harder to come by however; 37% of members described their practice as having only ‘basic knowledge’ about the SDGs, and 28% said that their practice has ‘no knowledge’.

How bad is that? Well, it turns out, not as bad as it might seem. The SDGs give a holistic vision of a sustainable future. They describe not only tackling the climate emergency but also strategies to improve health, reduce inequality, further economic growth and end poverty; all while preserving life in the oceans and on land. So while they don’t automatically appeal to practices to sign up,  it doesn’t follow that not knowing about them means there is no action in the key areas. 

Matching the goals anyway

When we look at the data in more detail, it’s not that members and their practices are ­failing to work towards the targets and goals that make up the sustainable development goals, but rather that there’s a knowledge gap. Architects are working towards the SDGs but don’t always know that they are.

For example, members overwhelmingly told us that waste, biodiversity, air pollution, and recycled content are important to the work their practice does. Between 80% and 90% of respondents said that each of these issues was important. They also directly relate to the SDGs.

For instance, waste and recycling are included within SDG 12, ‘Responsible consumption and production’ – which includes the target ‘By 2030, substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse.

Biodiversity is referenced in Sustainable Development Goal 15, ‘Life on land’ which includes the target ‘Halt biodiversity loss’.

And air pollution is covered in SDG 11, ‘Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ (which includes the target ‘By 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality’). In 2016, UN figures showed that 90% of urban dwellers were breathing unsafe air. 

Further, the RIBA is encouraging all practices to sign up to the 2030 Climate Challenge. The challenge is made up of four targets: To reduce operational energy demand by at least 75%, before offsetting; reduce embodied carbon by at least 50-70%, before offsetting; reduce potable water use by at least 40%; and achieve the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenges covering core health and wellbeing targets on temperature, daylight and indoor air quality

These targets are ambitious, but it is an ambition commensurate with the climate emergency. They also directly link to the SDGs, as seen in the RIBA Sustainable Outcomes Guide. By designing buildings to meet the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge, architects are making a very significant contribution to our realising the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Keeping the pressure up

The survey also indicates that the profession is making the first step to meeting the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge: measurement. Sixty-nine per cent of practices quantify the actual or anticipated embodied carbon in some or all of the buildings they design. A similar number, 68%, measure the actual or anticipated operational carbon emissions, at, or before, the detailed design stage. Anticipated potable water use at the same stages is measured by 73%. While there is a long way to go before every practice measures embodied carbon, operational carbon and potable ­water use on every project, measurement is now becoming increasingly routine among many practices, and the RIBA will support this action.

Through the SDGs, countries, institutions, organisations and citizens can share a broad description of, and ways of achieving, a sustainable future. The RIBA is committed to furthering the SDGs; they are of central importance to the institute’s work and the goals of both organisations are very closely aligned.  The survey indicated that UK architects are doing much to secure a sustainable future, doing much that helps realise the SDGs. At the same time, nearly one third of the architects who both had, and shared, a view about the importance of the SDGs did not see them as important. 

The RIBA will continue to work with members to emphasise the importance of the SDGs and make them usable in practice. Time is against us. 

Adrian Malleson is head of economic research and analysis at the RIBA

The full findings of the RIBA survey are included in its report ‘A Decade of Action: RIBA Members and the Sustainable Development Goals’


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