For the RIBA, tackling global warming means changing both policy and practice

Adrian Dobson discusses the Royal Institute of British Architects' climate emergency declaration and 2030 Climate Challenge.

October 27, 2019

Within the past year, a number of architecture firms and allied organizations have formally declared a climate emergency and pledged to take action. But what should this action involve, and how likely is it to happen at the scale and speed required to prevent the worst outcomes of global warming? In this interview series, the League presents different perspectives on where architecture currently stands with regard to climate action, where it needs to go, and how it might get there.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) is the UK’s most prominent industry association, playing a role similar to that of the AIA in the US. Earlier this year, the organization made headlines in the global design press by declaring a climate emergency.

The League’s Sarah Wesseler spoke with Adrian Dobson, RIBA’s Executive Director Professional Services, about the declaration and subsequent development of a program aimed at helping member architects achieve net zero carbon for all projects by 2030.


What led to the climate emergency declaration?

It was very much member led. Earlier this year, past winners of the RIBA Stirling Prize joined Architects Declare, which is a public pledge to work towards a zero-carbon built environment. Then, at its meeting in June, RIBA Council, the governing group of the RIBA, passed a motion proposed by then-RIBA president Ben Derbyshire joining in the declaration of a climate emergency. The motion committed the RIBA to lobbying our national government on performance standards, as well as encouraging and supporting our member practices to adopt stretch targets and report on the performance of their buildings.

About two weeks before the climate emergency was due to be debated at the RIBA, the UK government made a commitment that it would go for a 100% [emissions] reduction by 2050. We announced our support of this as part of the RIBA’s commitment to the fight against climate change.

There’s always been quite a strong commitment to sustainability at the RIBA. We have an expert advisory group called the RIBA Sustainable Futures Group which was established about 20 years ago. Going back much further, there was an RIBA president called Alex Gordon who initiated a big study in the early ’70s, around the time of the oil crisis and early environmentalism. This study was called “Long life, loose fit, low energy.” It’s quite interesting to go back to that, because you think, well actually, most of the ideas that we’re talking about are not new at all.

As part of the climate emergency declaration, the RIBA committed to developing a detailed action plan. What has that process looked like?

The big risk in all of this is that we have yet more high-minded statements and no practical outcomes. There’s a lot of pressure to get down to practicalities.

Over the last two years, a group at the RIBA has been working on an action plan built around the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We’re taking elements of that plan that relate to climate change and trying to accelerate them.

The core part of the plan, the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge, was announced in early October. We’ve set specific targets for 2020, 2025, and 2030.

We’re focusing initially on things that are measurable: operational energy, embodied carbon, and water consumption. The idea is that this challenge will be two-way facing. It has set performance targets and will try to influence UK building regulations standards accordingly, but we are also asking our Chartered Practices to voluntarily sign up to these targets, and to voluntarily report the actual performance of their projects.

One of the big issues in the UK is that our regulations are based on design energy models. We know from a project we did a few years ago that there’s a huge gap between what the models predict and how much energy buildings actually use. We found that a building that was designed to consume, say, 100 kilowatt hours per meter squared would typically consume double that number.

So we want the regulation to be based on actual energy performance. We’re asking for operational energy consumption to be in a range of about 111 to 170 kilowatt hours per meter squared for non-domestic [non-residential] buildings by 2020. By 2025, we’re looking for 56 to 110, and 55 or lower by 2030. For domestic buildings, the figures are less than 105 kilowatt hours per meter squared by 2020, less than 70 by 2025, and under 35 by 2030.

The best-practice buildings in the UK, which often follow a German standard called passive house, can achieve the lower ranges already. By 2025, we’d like all new buildings and major refurbishments to be meeting the same operational energy standards as good practice is today. So, although it’s a stretch, it’s not unachievable. And we’re not taking into account onsite renewables. We’re saying that’s a different issue—we need to get the actual energy efficiency right using a fabric-first approach.

We have similar targets for embodied carbon and water consumption.

With all of this, we’ve been working closely with what’s called the UK Committee on Climate Change—it’s an independent statutory body whose purpose is to both advise and challenge government on meeting its obligations under the Climate Change Act. They’ve been setting some standards around the built environment, so we’ve been trying to work in lock step with them.

Do you see passive house as becoming almost a universal standard in the UK, then?

In the UK there has been movement away from BREEAM and LEED and toward passive house. It’s become quite popular just by word of mouth. BREEAM is pretty much the official government-sponsored approach, but I think passive house is winning out because it’s more narrowly focused on operational energy, and more measurable.

The 2019 RIBA Stirling Prize winner, Goldsmith Street, meets passive house standards. Credit: Tim Crocker

What kind of feedback have you received from RIBA members about the climate emergency declaration? What are they excited about, or apprehensive about? 

Well, the profession is very much behind it. The general sense is that we were making quite good progress in the early part of the century. Regulatory standards in the UK were getting tighter. Clients were coming around to recognizing the need to address issues of sustainability.

After the financial crisis in 2008, 2009, it all became very economically focused. We went through a period where government tended to be deregulatory. So the profession is quite keen to get sustainability back on the agenda.

Some of the practices that were in the vanguard of Architects Declare have begun to discover the PR risks of doing this, though. Practices traditionally might have said they’re not going to get involved with projects involving the armaments industry or something like that—well, that’s fairly easy to opt out of. But this throws up much more fundamental questions. Can you still design airports, for example?

I’ve heard a number of designers say that they want to prioritize sustainability, but clients often just won’t pay them to do it. How is the RIBA thinking about the commercial and financial constraints designers face in terms of meeting strict performance standards?

That was the big issue in the 1972 study I mentioned. It pretty well said, “Well, look, architects can do this; we can deliver low-energy, loose-fit, long-life buildings. But how are we going to bring the clients with us?” I think you put your finger on the conundrum.

But there is perhaps one difference in the UK architecture sector [compared to the US]. It is essentially a private-sector profession now, but in the immediate post-Second World War period, when the British welfare state was being built, a big proportion of UK architects worked for the public sector. I think there’s still an element of commitment to public service within the profession, so that perhaps it makes it an easier sell.

I think gestures like this declaration of climate emergency are important partly because of their communications function—they can help educate the public, and hopefully therefore help architects make the case to their clients.

I think that’s why the practices, even though they’d already taken this declaration action, were quite keen for the RIBA to get on board. As a professional membership body, the RIBA is neither part of government nor part of commerce, so that gives it credibility.

But we’re very conscious that if we’re seen to not practice what we preach, that undermines that authority. We know that our own house isn’t necessarily completely in order yet. We run two or three quite large buildings, and are looking at their energy performance. We’ve recently rolled out reusable water bottles for all our staff so we can get rid of plastic cups. It’s a small thing, but small and big changes both matter.

Also, we run the Stirling Prize; we run architectural competitions. As soon as we ask practices to voluntarily sign up to performance standards, it’s going to make it very difficult for us to award prizes to buildings that don’t meet them, or to run competitions where the client is only prepared to build to the regulatory minimum.

Thinking about the discipline of architecture as a whole, what do you see as the primary challenges in terms of confronting the existential risk of climate change? And what solutions do you see?

I think the level of awareness of the scale and urgency of the challenge is quite high amongst architects, but the level of knowledge around how to design low-operational-energy, low-embodied-carbon, resource-efficient buildings is variable. You’ve got practices like Architype, which is very much at the cutting edge of this fabric first approach—they’ve got their own in-house research unit, they really know what they’re doing. And you also get some very small practices who’ve been committed to methods like passive house for a long time and are quite expert. But an awful lot of practices don’t have that knowledge base, and that’s where you get unintended consequences like poor indoor air quality and indoor moisture problems.

So giving people access to skills, knowledge and training—that’s the challenge. Giving them the design tools they need, but also helping them make the sustainable design argument to their clients, going back to the point about commercial and contractual constraints.

Architects are not necessarily the actual decision-makers, when it really comes down to it. They’ve got some agency, but they’re not always calling the tune.


Interview edited and condensed.


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