11 June 2013

A Campaign for Real Architecture

I have long been of the opinion that we are on the threshold of a period of rapid and revolutionary change, which remains imminent, but also stubbornly illusive!  It is now over a hundred years since the birth of modernism, yet we continue to design most modern buildings in a style that has remained fundamentally unchanged over this period.

A thermally inefficient
 fully glazed office facade

The fully glazed faรงade remains the default answer for office and commercial buildings and is increasingly common in residential, hotels, schools and in fact anything that needs to be perceived by its target market as premium or luxury.  I have even had conversations with one very blue chip developer who insists that all their luxury housing is designed in a glass walled modern style.

It is almost as if the 1970s energy crisis never happened; or that the climate change deniers have actually been proven to have been right all along!  We recently passed the significant threshold of 400 parts per million level for atmospheric CO2 yet still nothing changes.  There is now a detailed body of knowledge regarding envelope performance along with the potential for passive heating, cooling lighting and ventilation, yet the tyranny of the initial dumb image persists.

To accompany this lack of any real and concerted action there seems to have been an exponential growth in the rhetoric supporting sustainable development, with professional, repeat clients all arguing that this is the future while continuing to procure buildings from the past.  Now, while I accept that buildings take a long while to come to fruition, there is no evidence that I can detect, of any real or concerted change.

So what will be that catalyst that will trigger the sustainable architecture revolution?  The first shoots may well be the proliferation of groups that promote alternative metrics to measure building projects and promote sustainable development.  BREEAM and LEED are the most obvious of these but there is now a long and growing list including:

Recently, the Feeling Good Foundation was established, within the Building Centre Trust,  to research and promote how the built environment can be designed specifically to enhance the wellbeing of occupants.  One of the Foundations key objectives is to establish what constitutes value and what metrics should be used to measure wellbeing in the built environment.  I believe that this area represents the missing link and that once we are able to accurately assess the additional value that sustainable buildings create through improved occupant performance then we will finally be able to make a robust business case which shows a return on the investment required to deliver sustainable buildings through improved occupant productivity.

There are three areas that I believe are key to achieving the paradigm shift that is required if we are to ensure sustainable development becomes the norm.


The design process for all projects must place the wants needs and desires of building users at the heart of the process.  This will be a particular challenge for speculative developments where specific user groups are not known and is likely to drive innovation and the development of new building arrangements with more flexible and diverse spaces and environments.


One of the most intractable barriers to sustainable development is the manner in which we buy buildings.  It is essential that we move away from lowest cost tendering to procurement systems that incentivise improved performance.  While there have been some isolated instances where this has been tested, most notably in the Building Schools for the Future programme the construction supply chain must be engaged to deliver better performing buildings and should be rewarded when this is achieved.  This would significantly change the nature of the process, placing more emphasis on design and encourage ongoing relationships between the construction industry and occupiers post completion.


It is essential that we understand how our existing building stock is performing so that investment can be targeted appropriately.  I would advocate that we should demand that all buildings must display their energy performance on a read out adjacent to the front door and that this data should be used to identify the best performing 25% of each building type with a green light, the middle 50% with an amber light and the worst 25% with a red light.  Imagine a street of houses where the good the bad and the ugly are made public; I am convinced that this really would make significant change happen extremely quickly!

There are two other factors that are required to create the necessary confidence for individuals and institutions to invest.  The Government needs to sets a clear policy framework to encourage sustainable development and then must show perseverance and not keep tinkering with it.  Unfortunately I suspect that this may be the biggest barrier of them all!


  1. Anonymous14.6.13

    I agree very much with this well written article, however I was surprised you didn't mention the role the architect plays in designing these energy intensive buildings.

    My experience, as a services engineer is that most architects have the attitude that they will design the building they want and it is our job to attempt to make the building use as little energy as possible!

    Too many projects recently have we had buildings presented to us which were glass boxes with the client having an aspiration of achieving a BREEAM excellent. Without running any calculations, most engineers and architects should know that a glass box is unlikely to score any Ene 01 credits, where 6 are mandatory for BREEAM excellent.

    My experience and I must stress this is my experience only, is that when I explain to the architect that it just isn't possible to achieve a BREEAM excellent with a glass box and that if they really want to achieve this they would have to significantly reduce the glazing within the building, suddenly I am the bad guy. I am told that the architect has sold this building design to the client, to which I explain to them that they got it wrong then!

    It is this lack of understand from the bulk of architects which is causing issues. These architects are still selling glass boxes to clients with the misunderstanding that it is the responsibility of the rest of the team to make sure it passes the BREEAM requirements.

  2. The architectural profession has been great at adopting the rhetoric surrounding sustainable development and then, in the vast majority of cases, simply continued with business as usual! It is essential that this is challenged and that expert clients stop commissioning buildings on imagery and instead demand integrated and holistic sustainable solutions not just the next fashionable style manifested in a contorted shape devoid of any real meaning.

  3. Anonymous27.6.13

    The planning system seems a major problem here, clients not wanting to risk to much input into design, hence a quick 'visual' is provided, passed through planning and then made to work!

    1. I think that the problem starts at competition stage when architects are selected on an image of a completed building before they have engaged with the client or understood the needs of the users. Clients who claim to want sustainable solutions must select architects on their process and how they will reconcile social, economic and environmental aspects to create enduring value, not simply pick the most compelling but ultimatelty vacuous image.