Preparing for the future

The current lockdown situation has provided plenty of opportunity for reflection. The world is in a constant state of change, but recently we have become aware of how quickly these changes can impact our comfortable, controlled, technology-infused lives.

I am sure that many of us have been surprised at how ill-prepared we have been to deal with the Corona pandemic. We should consider the idea that our capacity to deal with the inevitable consequences of climate change might be similarly limited, and accelerate the drive for genuinely sustainable, better performing buildings which make a positive contribution to health and wellbeing.

The metrics have been well publicised; UK property accounts for around 45% of UK CO2 emissions, construction is responsible for around 60% of all materials used in the UK and around one third of the UK’s waste. These are big numbers and present the industry with an opportunity to achieve real improvements. We in the design professions should feel the weight of obligation to promote sustainable design to our clients and implement best practice in all that we do. RIBA members have an explicit obligation to educate clients and make the case for adopting sustainability as a key design objective. It is not hard to imagine a point in the future when clients, looking at increasingly outmoded assets, look to us and ask why we did not drive the sustainability agenda with more energy.

At KSS we have been working over the past couple of years to understand better the environmental impact of the buildings we design, to promote sustainable design and to focus our efforts towards creating more sustainable buildings. We are signatories to Architects Declare, we have adopted where possible the targets of RIBA Climate Challenge 2030 and we have started to measure the performance of our own buildings. But we need to move faster to deliver better outcomes.

The demand to reduce operational energy and carbon emissions is well understood, if sluggish in its trajectory towards zero carbon. We can only hope that government will take heed of industry representations against the proposed changes to Part L (expertly co-ordinated by LETI) and create regulations with real teeth that provide the framework necessary to drive meaningful improvements in buildings.

Not only must we create buildings which minimise operational energy, but we must also minimise their embodied carbon, even to the point of questioning whether we need a new building at all. Embodied carbon accounts for around 20% of a building’s total carbon emissions, increasing to perhaps 40% with reductions in operational energy and decarbonisation of the grid. This means we need to think about retaining structures where possible, specify low carbon, natural and recycled materials, or simply minimise the use of materials. The stripped back, warehouse aesthetic not only has an enduring appeal, but minimises resource use too.

Traditional thinking is constantly being challenged and new, more sustainable approaches to procuring materials are being developed. Increasing use of recycled materials and a focus on circular design has led to the growth of material databases, which consider buildings as repositories of materials which can be reused as buildings are reconfigured or reach the end of life. The Madaster database for example is a material database with 2.5m sqm of materials which can be used as part of a circular design approach. There are also examples of building materials being delivered as services rather than bought assets, much like office furniture or ICT. Philips for example has delivered lighting as a service to Schipol Airport, with an anticipated 75% increase in lifespan and 50% reduction in energy consumption.

If we seek to create long lived, adaptable buildings with the lightest environmental touch, we need to consider also the environment that these buildings create for the occupants. People spend a great deal of their time inside buildings of one sort or another, and so logically the environment which they experience can contribute to good health and wellbeing, or the opposite. Sick building syndrome is a term which has largely fallen out of use, but it still describes a very real and current issue. The multitude of products and materials which go into creating a new building too often contribute to poor occupant health, but with better knowledge and care in material selection, buildings can instead have positive impacts. We need to understand how to avoid the former and accentuate the latter.

WELL Building Standard by the International Well Building Institute is a measure of a building’s environmental quality, focussing on occupant health and physical and mental wellbeing. Engineers Cundall have created the first WELL certified office space in Europe at One Carter Lane in London, and in so doing have created a space which their research has shown to increase productivity whilst reducing absenteeism and staff turnover. CBRE has had a similar experience with their Amsterdam office, reporting higher levels of staff satisfaction and productivity. This circle could barely be more virtuous – something that benefits people and is also good for the bottom line!

Sustainability and wellness go hand in hand, and in my view, these should become the benchmarks for all that we do.