#37 Are we ready for the “Decade of Action”?

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by all United Nations (UN) Member States in 2015, reflected a shared vision to end poverty, save the planet and build a peaceful world by 2030. Five years on, and with just 10 years to go, we are now entering a “Decade of Action” where ambitious global efforts are needed to accelerate sustainable solutions to all the world’s biggest challenges. But are we ready for this?

In May 2020, the RIBA launched a report that affirms their commitment to the UN SDGs and implores all RIBA Members to unite in a bid to accelerate progress towards achieving the goals by 2030. This report provides an interesting insight into the connection between building designers and these global goals.

Since signing up to the commitment, the RIBA have produced several resources to help Architects embed the goals into their practice. These include: introducing Sustainability and Ethics into the Core CPD Curriculum; declaring a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency; launching the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge; publishing their Sustainable Outcomes Guide; and publishing a new Plan of Work. These resources provide Architects with the tools they need to ensure the goals become a core driver to all their projects and to educate their clients about the role buildings have to play in tackling climate change. By using this toolkit, even if Architects don’t have a conscious connection to the SDGs, they can still work towards achieving them (if other challenges don’t get in there way).

Other initiatives such as the Transforming Construction Challenge to at least halve the energy use of all new buildings by 2030, also serve to accelerate progress towards the goals.

In their report, the RIBA called on Architects to become leaders in sustainability and to implement the SDGs through sustainable building design. Another report prepared by the RIBA, entitled UN SDGs in Practice, outlines the role of Architects as uniquely positioned influencers, with a responsibility to positively affect how places are shaped, how they perform, and who is engaged in the process.

The Active Building concept provides an approach to building projects that, if followed, could help Architects achieve many of the SDGs through design and influencing clients. The Active Building Toolkit I am developing aims to provide designers with a  suite of documents that offer up-to-date knowledge on environmental design; introduce the Active Building approach to building performance optimisation; reduce time pressures by presenting research into existing and emerging low and zero carbon technologies; and provide links to other useful resources. To ensure projects align with the SDGs, the Active Building concept stipulates that clear aspirations are set at project inception and maintained through to delivery and building occupation. This is tracked through use of Checklists and by recording project progress using a standard Active Building Project Template provided in the Toolkit.

The RIBA report outlined the findings of 900 RIBA Members surveyed about their view of the Climate Emergency – of the 900 participants, 66% said they were committed to addressing the Climate Emergency, although they believed that only half of the projects undertaken by their practice are actually sustainable. The 4 top challenges to delivering sustainable projects were cited by 60 – 70% of respondents as:

  • Cost constraints
  • Client requirements
  • Lack of client engagement
  • Product substitution and value engineering

……Similar to the findings of my own research.

As we enter a period of increasing economic uncertainty, these challenges will become even more prominent and will hinder work to achieve the goals, unless we find viable solutions to address them. If we are to achieve the SDGs within this decade, solutions to overcome these challenges are urgently needed. Architects and other designers need to be armed with the facts and tools to enable them to convince clients of the urgency to reach Net Zero and the benefits this will bring to them as individuals or organisations.  Whole Life Cost benefits of sustainable design must be understood and reviewed against the downsides of taking design decisions based on capital cost alone. Lowest cost does not equal best value, particularly when assessing building performance!

More and better-quality data about building performance, product performance and technical performance would also help convince clients to take the sustainable design route. Construction suffers from a lack of robust data on building performance and a lack of desire to share lessons learnt between building projects. Generating, analysing and reporting building performance data is an essential part of the Active Building approach. Without data how could we optimise performance of building systems, develop intelligent control strategies to enable energy management between a building and the grid, or find ways to save money and reduce carbon emissions? Accurate and robust data collection and reporting must become an essential part of all building projects.

Returning to the RIBA Members Survey, 63% said they would be willing to provide performance data if there were a suitable database available, and 89% said they would reference the database in their design. Such a database would enable sustainability to be evidence-based, providing confidence to designers and contractors, and resulting in wider adoption by clients.

In my own experience, most designers passionately care about climate change and want to tackle this through sustainable design of buildings, but they are often held back by other constraints, as mentioned above.

Over the last few weeks, I have been contacted by at least half a dozen organisations wishing to improve their specifications in a bid to progress towards Net Zero goals, each faced with their own challenges to this. Part of my role at SPECIFIC is to work with such companies, review their current specifications and suggest suitable technologies or design ideas to help them achieve the aims. Ultimately, this will be packaged up into the suite of documents forming the Active Building Toolkit. While that is being developed, I will continue to work with companies offering bespoke support for individual projects, design standards and specifications. Information provided in my toolkit will be based on knowledge gaps identified as I engage with designers and developers.

If anyone is interested in my work, has ideas they would like to share, or would like to contribute to my toolkit, please get in touch: joanna.r.clarke@swansea.ac.uk.

Published by jorclarke

I am an Architect, currently working at SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre, Swansea University, and studying for a Doctorate in Sustainable Built Environment (D.SBE), which is focused on developing an Active Building Design Guide.

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