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Rising Star: Rachael Owens

The head of sustainability at Buckley Gray Yeoman has a talent for processing data to create clear guides for architects and clients

RIBAJ Rising Star: Rachel Owens.
RIBAJ Rising Star: Rachel Owens.
Head of sustainability, Buckley Gray Yeoman
Part 1: 2010 Part 2: 2013
Rachael Owens admits her fondness for the ‘nerdier’ side of sustainable design – calculations, stats etc – but also believes that ‘it’s really important that these are invested in the social side, and make buildings work for people’. It’s clear that this driven and well-informed architect is in her element rendering such complexities useful for others.
Owens is head of sustainability at Buckley Gray Yeoman, a coordinator of the Architect’s Climate Action Network (ACAN) embodied carbon group, and a guest lecturer at the University of East London (UEL). Her passion and deep knowledge of sustainable design is evident in her communication style (even ‘in the way she writes, she is enthusiastic’, commented judge Yasmin Al-Ani Spence).
Owens describes Buckley Gray Yeoman as a practice that ‘is forensic’ in its approach to conserving resources – a quality that suits her own thoroughness. At work, she is part of the practice’s technical panel, a key organiser within its sustainability forum, and is working with the sustainability and wellness team to implement the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge principles. She devised the practice’s sustainability toolkit – a codified document establishing principles to follow. She is also working towards WELL-accreditation, because ‘fundamentally the reason we work to mitigate the climate crisis is to reduce harm to people’, she explains. All in the job description perhaps, but as Owens’ referee Laura O’Hagan points out, she is also ‘prepared to hold management to account’. In the words of RIBA Journal’s Eleanor Young: ‘She clearly feels strongly about sustainability and demonstrates passion and commitment.’
Data can be daunting, and ‘day to day, architects don’t have the time to read all the information that’s out there’, Owens says. But she relishes making the intimidating implementable by, for example, collating resources, creating visual client guides, editing an internal newsletter and working on a materials/products library cataloguing system which ‘makes the easiest choice the most sustainable one’. Even her UEL teaching focuses on helping undergraduates get to grips with energy calculation tools. ‘It’s about disseminating information and giving people the confidence to use it’, she says. ‘Part of what I do as a lecturer is to tell the students that they do in fact have power, and that by making sustainable design choices we can drive positive change … the industry is a huge part of the problem but we can also be part of the solution,’ she adds.
In March 2020 Owens became involved with ACAN’s campaign for embodied carbon emissions regulation. This campaign, and the accompanying report, won an Alliance for Sustainability (ASBP) award. ‘What I love about ACAN is that it is a non-hierarchical, supportive network … full of inspiring, hardworking and knowledgeable people,’ she says. 
  • Owens is coordinator of ACAN’s embodied carbon group.
    Owens is coordinator of ACAN’s embodied carbon group.
  • Owens has created a sustainability toolkit for her practice.
    Owens has created a sustainability toolkit for her practice.
What existing building, place and problem would you most like to tackle?
We need to understand, measure and drastically reduce embodied carbon emissions. As professionals we need to have a much better understanding of materials’ carbon footprints and material efficiency. We need to calculate these emissions from RIBA stage 1 in order to understand the impact of certain choices. Secondly, embodied carbon emissions must be regulated at a national level, through the Building Regulations. I am working both to increase the level of knowledge on embodied carbon within the profession.


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