Sustainability review: what have been architects’ biggest challenges in 2023?

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With the year almost at an end, it gives us the opportunity to examine and assess where architects are when it comes to sustainability – one of the most important areas of the profession. In fact, as this article is being published, a RIBA delegation is attending COP28 to help showcase architects’ role in combating climate change and shaping a net zero future.

It’s safe to say that 2023 was full of continued evolution in this area, with no less momentum or innovation. But it also brought with it challenges.

The biggest challenge facing architects who have been championing sustainability in 2023 is the same as it’s always been, argues Mina Hasman, Sustainability Director at SOM and RIBA Council member: how to convince some clients to do the right thing and be ambitious about their project’s carbon objectives.

There are hopes that the arrival of the UK Net Zero Carbon Buildings Standard (UKNZCBS) next year, at least for some of the most common building typologies, will help generate many more net zero, or approaching net zero, projects because consultants will finally be able to present clients with a more consistent and defined delivery route supported by agreed carbon limits.

Read more about RIBA’s attendance and activity at COP28

How are clients reacting on sustainability?

Not all clients are unambitious, of course. Hasman says architects are starting to see clients jumping straight in and asking for net zero at an early stage, but the problem then arises that they may have little idea of what that exactly entails.

‘If that is the client’s brief, you are obliged to try to deliver, but there is a whole suite of knowledge that we first need to unpack for them,’ Hasman says. ‘We need to inform them what the work involves; the type of assessments and the frequency of them which often requires more than one assessment at the at end of a project stage, to really help inform the project’s design evolution.

She continues: ‘And this is not our standard practice in the industry today where we work very linearly, and a project’s scope is often defined based on this very linear process, rather than the integrated and iterative one that a truly sustainable and/or a low/zero carbon project would need.

‘Not every architecture firm will have the required in-house skillset and/or capacity to complete this iterative process. It is, therefore, essential to understand from day one, what kind of industry partners architects need to collaborate with to make the net zero ambition a reality. And all of this needs to happen as early as Stage 0 and 1 where the project brief and the consultant scope is often locked-in.’

As the author of the RIBA Climate Guide and presenter of the CPD module Climate Literacy: Energy and Carbon, which has been developed to help members to prepare for RIBA’s planned Climate Literacy exam, Hasman is concerned that beyond design skills, many architects need to revive and hone ‘storytelling’ skills to ‘convert’ clients to sustainability, or to explain to converts how they can get there.

‘I think we as architects need to spend more time to upskill and re-skill ourselves to be better able to communicate with our clients on complex topics of net zero and sustainability. We need to be able to ‘sell’ this ambition with the right value proposition; from the perspective of what clients would value the most.’

Read more about how to talk to clients about net zero

What is the ‘scoping gap’?

Explaining to clients what approaching net zero actually means raises the second challenge still facing sustainability design champions, which is what Hasman calls the ‘scoping gap’.

‘If the clients do not understand what getting a project to be low or net zero carbon exactly entails, then they will not want to pay for any additional work that this process may require,’ she suggests. ‘I think as architects, since we are there on day one, it is our responsibility to help better inform our clients on what net zero is and what a net zero carbon project would need in terms of type of consultants, and the overall design process which in turn, will have an impact on the project’s scope, time and budget.’

Hasman reveals that SOM will sometimes go beyond what could be expected of them to build a business case for sustainability for an unconverted client. The practice will do the research, leverage its connections with cost consultant partners and/or real estate agents, and develop a proposal from cost, marketability, leasability etc perspectives partners that is tailored to the client’s own business and stated values.

SOM has had success converting a number of clients from different sectors who were not really onboard at the beginning, she says, although it does take a lot of research.

Sometimes they will quote back to the stakeholder group they are facing the company’s own public pronouncements on their corporate commitment to sustainability.

‘We remind them of their commitments,’ she says. ‘But we are also researching what they value. We tell them they may be spending more up front now, but in the long run you are going to save costs, and your reputation is going to improve.’

Key sustainability resources for architects

A whole range of resources are available to architects to help them navigate the present and the future of sustainability. These range from a tranche of toolkits and overlays from RIBA, but also other industry experts:

What could 2024 hold for sustainability?

Progress has undoubtedly been made on the sustainability front in 2023, Hasman concludes.

She points to the much greater levels of collaboration across the industry, including among architecture firms that are natural rivals for work, and a new focus on whole life carbon accounting among consultants (SOM recently launched its own Whole Life Accounting Service this year). Whereas 2022 was the year everyone seemed to wake up to embodied carbon, this year has seen a greater awareness that it is the complete picture of embodied and operational carbon that matters, Hasman says. The UKNZCBS will encompass both of course.

For now, the main reference points for architects committed to sustainable design remain the RIBA 2030 Challenge and LETI guidelines, which have targets for additional building typologies. The LETI network now involves over a thousand built environment professionals working together to put the UK on the path to a Net Zero carbon future.

Next year will see the arrival of the first full version of the UKNZCBS, which is when everything will finally be made concrete, says Hasman, and clients and their architects will get a defined and consistent path to net zero carbon for their projects. It is the milestone everyone is waiting for.

Read more on the latest updates to UKNZCBS

Thanks to Mina Hasman, Sustainability Director & Climate Advocacy Lead, SOM.

This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas

RIBA Core curriculum topic: Sustainable architecture.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, professional features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD core curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as an RIBA Chartered Member.

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