RIBA grasps the climate change nettle

Words:
Hugh Pearman

Action plan makes constructive commitment to tackle climate change

It was a highly significant moment. In the RIBA Council meeting of June 27 – the last under the presidency of Ben Derbyshire – Council joined the global declaration of a climate emergency and committed the institute to develop an action plan towards a net zero carbon environment.

As Derbyshire said: ‘The climate emergency is the biggest challenge facing our planet and our profession. But to have a significant impact we need to do more than make symbolic statements – we need to turn warm words into impactful actions. We architects need to transform the way we practise and, along with our fellow professionals around the world, make changes that will impact at a global level.’

The RIBA has been working on this for some time through its Ethics and Sustainable Development Commission (ESDC) which had put forward 19 recommendations to Council. The Commission’s findings are aligned with the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and Council also supported the UK government’s commitment to a 2050 net zero CO2 emissions target.

There is now a real impetus behind this, especially given Extinction Rebellion, professional work already done by the ESDC with cross-industry think tank the Edge, and the parallel Architects Declare initiative headed by 17 Stirling Prize winners – naturally enough also supported by the RIBA. If that grabbed the headlines, what’s especially encouraging now is that the action plan will fill in the detail on what needs to be done, by when, by practitioners and their clients, in order to achieve the zero carbon goal.

Record temperatures in the Arctic this year have led to rapid melting of the icecap.
Record temperatures in the Arctic this year have led to rapid melting of the icecap. Credit: Max Mihai / istock

The first 10 years from 2020 to 2030 will be key, and the demands will be tough: essentially to slash energy in use by more than two thirds, reduce embodied carbon in construction by some 40%, ditto water consumption. The expectation is that this will be measurable (entry to the RIBA national awards, for instance, is likely to require demonstrable data to this effect). Another expectation is that architects will be ahead of the regulatory curve – though the institute will lobby hard to enshrine these aims in Building Regulations. As Adrian Dobson, executive director of professional services at the RIBA, puts it: ‘For those used to Passivhaus or equivalents this will be perfectly achievable but it will be stretching for many practitioners’.   

The key individuals involved in delivering the action plan are Dobson on the staff side and Caroline Buckingham (vice-president, practice and profession) as RIBA board member. They are supported by  Gary Clarke of WilkinsonEyre and Mina Hasman of SOM (respectively chair and member of the Sustainable Futures Group and in Hasman’s case also a member of the ESDC).

The first visible fruit of the declaration is likely to come this autumn with the launch of ‘the RIBA 2030 challenge’ in collaboration with other industry professional bodies. ‘We want to embed this widely in everything the RIBA does,’ says Dobson. The criteria for chartered practice membership will be revised, as will the RIBA Plan of Work and Client Guide. Key to much of this will be the development of a cross-industry standard set of post-occupancy evaluation reporting metrics, supported through CPD training – because to be sure that the plan is working, the results must be measurable.

The uncomfortable fact is that while the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions have reduced by 43% compared to 1990 levels, three-quarters of that has come from the energy-generation sector (wind and solar power generation especially). All other sectors including construction have lagged badly in comparison.  Now is the time for real change.


We want to hear from you, members and practitioners, on this supremely important issue. What are your views on the RIBA’s action plan? Write to us 

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