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Small steps to net zero

There is no perfect project or client for a fully sustainable building. Instead think of these four steps to make your design approach fundamentally more sustainable says Allies and Morrison sustainability manager James Woodall

Retrofitting means less demolition and rebuild, a decision often needed at Stage 1, as seen at Allies and Morrison’s The Westworks in West London.
Retrofitting means less demolition and rebuild, a decision often needed at Stage 1, as seen at Allies and Morrison’s The Westworks in West London. Credit: Allies & Morrison

Over a decade of scientific consensus and industry rhetoric finally reached its watershed in 2019, when the UK became the world’s first major economy to legislate a net zero carbon emissions target by 2050. Signs of change are also becoming much more evident with institutions and local authorities declaring a climate emergency. And this initiative soon spiralled down the industry food chain with the Architect’s Declare movement. 

Each of these declarations has been applauded for its commitment and ambition in addressing what has become a stark reality, with only 10 years to mitigate irreversible impacts of climate change. Architects Declare has also served to re-emphasise that our industry is full of willingness and enthusiasm, but ill-equipped to deliver. Sustainability is no longer an exploration of ‘alternative’ forms of design and construction – design for a climate emergency is now a non-negotiable part of our work. We can no longer bury our heads in the sand with qualitative gestures to sustainable design. 2020 ushers in a decade of conviction and accountability. 

The RIBA’s 2030 Challenge defines the destination, while the London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI) crowd-sourced guidance distils this into key components to help upskill the industry. But how do we take the momentum generated through these resources and apply them to everyday projects with real-world clients? 

Resistance has gone on for years:  ‘no client of ours will ever go for this’, ‘sustainable design is too great a cost premium’, ‘developers have short term mindsets’, ‘this is the wrong client’,’it’s the wrong time to try this’. 

Instead of re-affirming the established consensus, this article uses four principles to unpick some of these predispositions with meaningful and workable methods for practices to deliver practical value through sustainable design – because ultimately it will cost the earth to ignore it. 

Make stage 1 count
Many, if not all, of the most well regarded sustainable buildings have set clear executable outcomes from the project’s conception and without compromise. We often praise clients for setting such visionary goals, yet clients rarely arrive at an architect’s door with the perfect brief (and budget to match). There is no such thing as ‘the right client’ – the most sustainable brief is one that the entire project team has helped shape and has a stake in delivering. No client will have all the answers; they look to their design team as advisors, so engage your client early in these discussions, and use Stage 1 to frame the project’s ambition by establishing key quantifiable project targets that are linked to what is most important to them. 

At Allies and Morrison, our client fee letter includes a statement that we will design to 2030 Climate Challenge  levels of performance until notified otherwise. This sets the agenda from the getgo, and any clients that question the clause give us a valuable ­opportunity to educate them and discuss the project’s ambition.

Advocating the environmental benefit of a particular strategy and ‘doing the right thing’ is not always enough to convince decision makers ahead of their commercial interests. So we must be adaptable in these circumstances and tailor the approach to communicate the benefits of sustainable design in a variety of different ways to suit more immediate interests. Key to this is finding the ‘levers’ to pull. For example, reducing building operational energy does reduce annual running costs, but what of the speculative developer with no interest in operational efficiency beyond that of compliance? Reductions in peak energy demand lead to reductions in mechanical equipment sizing, which does affect building capital cost – a saving such a developer could be interested in.

Work collaboratively with your consultant team to structure sustainability strategies to suit the clients’ interests – it is not one size fits all. 

Model early and often

Many studies into the causes of the well-documented performance gap between design prediction and in-use performance point to the ‘design for compliance’ culture that the industry finds itself. Part L of UK building regulations has undergone significant change since it was first introduced, and the appearance of dynamic modelling in 2006 marked a notable step. But energy modelling should be used to inform the decision making process as a design tool, not simply reflect or validate what is already designed when there is little opportunity to make changes. 

Performance-based targets – such as those within the LETI climate emergency design guide or RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge provide an effective yardstick for the design team to record and evaluate progress. Teams should ensure that these metrics are tied to ‘real world’ outcomes, provide a clear understanding of why the metrics chosen are so important, and act as a point of conviction to encourage self-reflection and identify where shortcomings exist. Performance targets drive outcome-focused design exercises and use performance modelling as a parallel workstream, providing an evidence base to support recommendations. 

Successful models of this process do exist – the NABERS scheme in Australia improved energy performance of the office sector by 36%, while quality assurance offered through Passivhaus certification has reduced domestic space-heating consumption by almost 90%. 

Think of early targets as boundary conditions – set them early (before pen touches paper) and regard them as another form of context to inform concept development. Ask your consultants to share more about the modelling exercise, beyond compliance with regulations. Hold workshops with your consultant teams that provide the opportunity to explore the model inputs and ask questions to improve your understanding. 

Sutton Secondary School by Architype. The practice has carried out post occupancy evaluation of education work for many years, with each new project learning from the lessons of the last and raising performance.
Sutton Secondary School by Architype. The practice has carried out post occupancy evaluation of education work for many years, with each new project learning from the lessons of the last and raising performance. Credit: Jack Hobhouse / Architype

Create feedback loops 
We should not expect architectural practices suddenly to begin designing and delivering net zero carbon buildings, as though this were part of our skill set all along. This relies on involving structure in the design process, and embedding feedback loops that cultivate staff understanding and allow us to learn from things that went well (and things that didn’t). 

Do not treat projects with a ‘net zero or bust’ mentality. One project that achieves zero carbon in use will stand for very little if another several hundred do nothing. The path towards zero carbon will be stepped, and incremental gains should be well understood as part of that. RIBA’s 2030 Climate Challenge targets are set as trajectories to recognise that increasing fluency is required.  How we disseminate and learn from these gains will determine how quickly industry moves. 

Treat projects as opportunities, and be proactive. US architect Perkins and Will has committed to giving every project a free report identifying a bespoke zero carbon pathway. Allies and Morrison has used LETI’s guidance to inform a parallel studies alongside live projects with consultant teams to identify performance shortcomings and their source. 

Choose your battles and look to make gains in different aspects across your projects. You might feel that a particular project presents more of an opportunity to pursue deeper savings in embodied carbon, whereas operational carbon savings might be a harder sell. Capitalise on the opportunity available, and see your findings as part of a broader exercise in knowledge capture and learning. 


Hawkins\Brown’s collaboration with UCL led to release of the free open source HBERT software for embodied carbon calculations, as on this facade calculation.
Hawkins\Brown’s collaboration with UCL led to release of the free open source HBERT software for embodied carbon calculations, as on this facade calculation.

Sharing is caring 
There is a tremendous benefit in divesting the knowledge gained through our collective pursuit of net zero. Many value the short term gain of competitive advantage, but failing to share risks multiplying the same learning curve across industry. Consider that in sharing what you do know this knowledge and the agency carried with it is attributed to you, and reputationally you will benefit from this. Successful examples include Architype’s expertise with Passivhaus, particularly in the education sector. And Hawkins/Brown’s HBERT software, developed in collaboration with UCL has positioned them amongst the industry leaders in embodied carbon.

The RIBA Sustainable Futures Group is preparing a new CPD curriculum focused on providing members with a solid foundation of knowledge in alignment with the sustainable outcomes guide published in January 2020. AndLETI’s Pioneer Projects helps teams pursuing net zero carbon design targets to engage with like-minded designers to share knowledge and lessons learned. 

I’m sometimes asked what I consider to be the most innovative technology to help tackle climate change. This type of question is synonymous with society’s disavowal – knowing yet not knowing as it suits us. We both know and don’t know who manufactures our clothing and goods, who cleans up after us and where our waste disappears to. But we play down this ignorance, attribute it to others, or convince ourselves a technological solution will make everything OK. 

The inconvenient truth is that the methods to deliver zero carbon buildings are already available to us; the real innovation lies in each of us. Our response to the Covid-19 pandemic has seen countless examples of businesses and communities pulling together in the face of an existential threat. Our ability to ‘flatten the curve’ of climate risk and limit the impact on our planet will need the same spirit and collective endeavour.

James Woodall is sustainability manager at Allies and Morrison and a contributor to LETI



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