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How can architects use technology to decarbonise design?

In architecture’s bid to decarbonise, technology will play a key role. Six professionals discuss tech’s role in cutting carbon, promoting a circular economy and designing efficient buildings at our roundtable sponsored by Autodesk

Grimshaw’s RIBA Award winning Bath School of Art and Design, a great example of where being able to access original plans and drawings helped enable a retrofit based on the circular economy.
Grimshaw’s RIBA Award winning Bath School of Art and Design, a great example of where being able to access original plans and drawings helped enable a retrofit based on the circular economy. Credit: Paul Raftery

Architecture urgently needs to decarbonise, and for this to happen before 2050 (the UK government’s net zero target, which is already considered too late) the industry must harness tech. Each panel member had a different success story about the marriage of sustainability and tech. For some, it is the efficiencies driven within a practice’s workflows or within materials choices. For others, it has been the ability to make data-backed decisions and champion these to stakeholders. For others still, a key benefit has been the ability to mobilise fellow architect-activists across borders.

So how does tech support the delivery of projects from inception to completion and beyond? Which of its capabilities should architects be mastering and where are its areas for improvement? These questions formed the basis for a lively discussion.

Practice culture / current knowledge levels among architects

There was consensus that tech has made sustainability expertise more democratically accessible, fast-tracking processes and giving designers ownership. PRP associate Kartikeya Rajput emphasised the positives of a trajectory towards ‘optimisation’ whereby different tools – around daylighting, embodied carbon, thermal comfort, acoustics etc – will be in dialogue. When this comes of age, it will ease the ‘push and pull’ of competing priorities, with decisions ‘not driven by egos or by individual knowledge’ but by science.

Yet there were cautionary tales too about vaunting technology as the solution to climate change. ‘In the wrong hands, software can lead us down the path of thinking something is the right answer, but we have been asking it the wrong questions,’ said Kay Scott, associate in regenerative design at dRMM and a member of ACAN.

‘What is required ... is to have a more holistic understanding of sustainability that allows you to be a critic of the tools you are using.’ Competency is fundamental yet not all users fully grasp software’s limitations.

Gensler climate action and sustainability lead Rhiannon Laurie described the status quo as a ‘slightly dangerous turning point’ whereby architects are told: ‘You need to design sustainably, you need to own it, off you go!’ but are given insufficient support, such as the fall-back of sustainability experts to quality-control the tech-informed outcomes.

‘Why can tech not become more of an educator?’ asked Skidmore Owings & Merrill sustainability lead James Woodall. Practices with limited resources would benefit from tech companies providing wider sustainability training, he argued. ‘Many practices want to raise the aspirations of their projects. It is not a competence gap but a confidence gap.’

Tech and the project life cycle

‘Early-stage decisions massively impact on embodied carbon … Do these have any tech answers to them?’ asked chair and RIBA Journal editor Eleanor Young.

Grimshaw principal Paul Toyne said: ‘We don’t have a very good evidence base for what we should be keeping within existing buildings.’ Given the increasing pressures of resource scarcity, this is a concerning gap. Currently, appraisals focus on the amount of carbon being added. Scott agreed: ‘We could benefit from a tool which looks at an existing building and applies to it a number of factors that can say “this building was constructed in this year, we think this was its construction system, this is how much carbon we think is sequestered in the system”.’ A potential PhD project for an architectural historian perhaps.

These early project stages offer the greatest carbon savings potential, but – due to tech limitations and industry protocols – many opportunities are lost. There was a feeling that tech is not exploited enough; that certain carbon and environmental modelling tools are ‘crude’ or ‘rule of thumb’-based; and that there is still a high reliance on ‘experts’. While tools today are backed by complex calculations, the validity of the data driving them is not always clear, which leaves users uncomfortable about relying too heavily on it. The discrete/siloed nature of many tools, meanwhile, does not reflect the true interconnectedness of environmental factors. All this creates an environment of risk.

Moreover, the panellists agreed that outputs from these tools would be more useful if presented as a flexible range than fixed numerical values; presenting probabilities would reflect an acceptance that factors may alter over time. As Hewitt said: ‘Having a modelling tool that will enable you to explore a whole range of options really fast, without having an expert build a model for each permutation (around massing, shape, orientation, fenestration etc), and creating a bandwidth of results would be really helpful.’

Understanding what savings can be made at each stage helps with a more intelligent use of BIM to make those savings, and understanding where the sweet spot is.
Understanding what savings can be made at each stage helps with a more intelligent use of BIM to make those savings, and understanding where the sweet spot is. Credit: LETI from LETI Client Guide

Scott also pointed out that pre-emptively specifying given products with good environmental product declarations (EPDs) too early can backfire when the designs meet a real-world scenario. A well-intentioned timber frame, for instance, may turn out to require extensive concrete foundations and large quantities of metal fixings.

Detrimental carbon outcomes also arise when sustainable products are value-engineered or ambitions scaled back due to financial viability. ‘One thing we could really benefit from would be fast cost-consultancy tools … which could give us an indicative number, a baseline,’ suggested Mischa Hewitt, founder of Passivhaus designer Earthwise. “All the different models are great … but then we hit the reality of how much something costs and we scale it back. The brutal cost of inflation has meant there is enormous compromise.’ Such data does exist yet is difficult to access given its proprietary nature.

For Woodall, the question is: how do we embed what we are seeing into a design? In his view, environmental tools could be more ‘forward thinking’. Beyond offering ‘red-flag warnings’ when data or parameters appear incorrect, tech could actively help generate design solutions with the calculations generated from these tools.

‘It is at the early stages that you can make the biggest carbon saving but it depletes over the project life cycle”, continued Scott, referring to the widely circulated LETI diagram (see above) showing how carbon might be saved at each RIBA stage. ‘Conversely, BIM level of detail increases, and you hit the sweet spot around Stage 3 to 4 when the BIM model gets really intelligent and can produce really accurate carbon assessments and energy models.’ This reiterates the need for early-stage accuracy because even small changes in BIM parameters can magnify carbon outcomes.

Autodesk sustainability lead and architect Marta Bouchard agreed. To avoid a performance gap, ‘we have to find that sweet spot of carbon opportunity and bring it into the BIM software.’

The pressured nature of procurement also leaves little time for architects to undertake further modelling, research or have crucial conversations with environmental experts at this juncture.

And while BIM excels at simulating a real-world scenario, there are significant departures. These include context and ability to be dynamic over time, and materials quantities modelling compared to how quantity surveyors approach the task. Another area where BIM could improve is around designing-in ‘tolerance’ – modelling a repurposed wonky door or a rammed-earth wall, for instance, in an acknowledgement of craft. The ‘perfection’ of a BIM model favours the rectilinear, but an ability to tolerate irregular elements is increasingly important in the circular economy. ‘I would love for a BIM model one day to take the site and tell the modeller about the repository of materials around from deconstructed buildings – like an inventory of urban mining,’ said Laurie.

‘There is a lot of opportunity to help those workflows be a lot faster,’ commented Bouchard. ‘Ultimately, you want to be able to design, analyse and iterate in an integrated way, but how do you get this existing built environment into a BIM ecosystem? It is a top priority for us at Autodesk.’

Materials

Materials passports – while in their infancy – are one means by which digital threads can take construction to a circular-economy model, integrating the digital documentation of components into the BIM space.

The leap to adoption is currently huge but the participants believe it will become easier as data is leveraged over time. Meanwhile, many practices must take their own steps. ‘At Gensler, our physical library is being digitised and vetted while we simultaneously utilise databases to verify information about materials,’ said Laurie. ‘Understanding what we have first before we begin to design [is crucial].’ Toyne agreed, emphasising the importance of inventory audits. ‘There will be a cycle and we have to start somewhere, by building our libraries,’ he said.

Unfortunately, the hindrance here is not tech’s limitations but a lack of industry transparency. ‘To share data with people who are competing for the same work is too culturally difficult right now,’ observed Woodall. Rajput agreed. ‘We have a fragmentation of industry as all the firms are doing their own thing and the language isn’t consistent,’ he said. Toyne proposed that manufacturers’ product testing results should also be openly shared. ‘[Data] needs to be open source,’ he said. ‘It needs to be accessible, and it needs to be credible. And we are up against time. If we are squabbling, we have got no chance. We need a market transformation.’

Existing attempts to encourage data sharing have had disappointing uptake but there is a new initiative by the Built Environment Carbon Database on the horizon. And perhaps RIBA awards project data could form the basis of a central repository, mused Young. ‘Get people to disclose what they are uncomfortable disclosing,’ proposed Woodall. ‘We should all be sharing this because it is about things that are bigger.’

Post-occupancy monitoring and feedback loops

‘There needs to be a way of making feedback more passive,’ said Rajput, adding that post-occupancy evaluations should not be a chore for the users. Whatever systems are proposed to clients, they need to be of value to them – for example, focusing on occupant wellbeing – as well as a means of acquiring environmental data for the architects. ‘It needs to be quick to mobilise,’ said Woodall, citing a web-based comfort survey app created by US practice Kieran Timberlake, which measures temperature, humidity, personal activity level, air quality, visual and auditory stimulation and more. ‘This is at a different level of insight than previously was possible and the sort of thing that most architecture practices should be embarking on,’ he said.

The digital twins concept – creating a digital representation of a real-world asset – is another nascent technology that requires end-users to be fully invested in the ongoing sustainability of facilities management, prepared to embrace the full potential of a unique maintenance model. Autodesk is witnessing increasing interest from the asset owners’ side, Bouchard observed.‘They’re saying: I don’t want my handover to be a bunch of paper. I want a digital twin,’ she said.

Modelling can help reduce wastage, for example on when a mix of brick is used. Here the RIBA-award winning Trafalgar Place in Elephant and Castle by dRMM, London shows the impact of mixing bricks.
Modelling can help reduce wastage, for example on when a mix of brick is used. Here the RIBA-award winning Trafalgar Place in Elephant and Castle by dRMM, London shows the impact of mixing bricks. Credit: Daniel Romero

Roundup

So, what advances do architects desire from technology in the short-to-medium term? ‘For small to medium practices,’ said Scott, ‘I would want more handholding and nurturing from the software companies, with more range-based, scenario outputs.’ Rajput focused on widening access to tech. ‘We should not be thinking of software but tools, in a common language that user, client and architect can understand and that everyone can scrutinise,’ he said. Woodall added: ‘In a perfect world, there would be more reflection and less competition. Technologies have to be built on a collaborative effort.’

Rounding off a fruitful discussion, Bouchard summarised: ‘Flexibility, interoperability and transparency are the keywords. Tech-users want to see the data, they want to have some configurability. The good news is that in this cloud-based, AI-based future, we will get there if we embrace this as a community of professionals. This goes beyond software, if we accept we are all trying to achieve sustainable outcomes, this will drive the conversations to build more partnerships in this industry.’


How does each participant believe technology has helped drive sustainable architecture so far?

  • Activism There is an improved capacity to ‘share ideas and make sure they stay out there ... groups have mobilised through collaborative platforms and gained access to international networks across borders via tech’
    Kay Scott, associate in regenerative design at dRMM and member of ACAN
  • Making objective value judgements ‘It’s just so great to be able to move towards the correct answer when you are designing … it’s not just someone’s feeling, it is data driven.’
    Rhiannon Laurie, climate action and sustainability leader, Gensler
  • Modelling made easier ‘I’m struck by how easy it has become to model embodied carbon. Twenty years ago, that took a long time ... now, it is so easy to model carbon in an independent way. There has been a huge step change.’
    Mischa Hewitt, founder, Earthwise
  • Democratisation ‘Our ability to convey [ideas] and statistically validate them democratises things, allowing designers to access [sustainability expertise] to allow for that personal ownership of ideas.’
    James Woodall, sustainability lead, Skidmore Owings and Merrill
  • Optimisation ‘[The concept of] sustainability has existed in every age – for instance in vernacular architecture – but there was an age in which a burst of tools were developed that were existing in different silos. Where technology shines today is in how these disparate tools can be brought together, ie optimised.’
    Kartikeya Rajput, associate, development consultancy, PRP
  • Efficiency and empowerment ‘Tech enables you ... to fast-track design decisions, and design things in real time for the better.’
    Paul Toyne, principal, Grimshaw
  • Helping businesses realise the value of sustainable choices ‘At Autodesk, I feel in a privileged position to bring more tools to more people...so that they can iterate, analyse and ultimately demonstrate the value of sustainable choices – via business cases and return on investment – in pursuit of high-performance building design.’
    Marta Bouchard, AEC sustainability lead at Autodesk

 

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