29 November 2021

Being an Architect has never been so important. Originally, we would have needed to deliver a building that suited the client and withstood the elements. As time has gone on, our plates have stacked ever higher. The construction industry is now at risk of being labelled a “dirty industry” with the built environment being linked to 49% of carbon emissions1. Whatever we design now not only needs to suit the client and stay standing, but it also needs to be worthy of its very existence, giving back more than it takes.

Architects have been trained to be holistic thinkers, and now is the time to demonstrate this. It is an opportunity to show what we have always done so well, but that has perhaps been suppressed over the years. It is now being encouraged by our professional bodies to be considered as part of our competency and it is engrained in the RIBA work stages. Social grassroots action and global pandemics have required reaction from governments, and perhaps more importantly the finance sector. As a result, the door to sustainable and healthy design is now ajar, we just need to nudge it further open.

Figure 1 – The considerations of an architect in practice are ever-increasing. While not an exhaustive list, this illustrates the major considerations typically expected of an architect with a growing list of additional implications that should be considered beyond the basics.

Our Approach

At Chetwoods we demonstrate our holistic thinking by ensuring each project represents our three brand values; Studio, Works and Thrive. In plain terms, it means that each project attempts to push possibilities in design, is delivered efficiently, and enhances our environment and improves our wellbeing. Each brand component has a dedicated team of consultants to push innovation further. The Thrive team developed seven design drivers* based on the EU Level(s)2 themes to help communicate sustainability to colleagues and clients more effectively. One of those drivers is ‘Resources,’ which focuses specifically on the materials involved in our buildings and how we specify them to maximise their value for years to come.

This is to ensure that we design in line with circular economy principles. Not only does this have a benefit in reducing carbon emissions but it also serves to protect resources for future generations; we are a growing population and currently at a global population of 7.9 billion and are already consuming 1.7x Earths’ worth of resources.

Holistic Specification

When it comes to holistic specification, we identify two main areas for advocacy. The first being brief definition and feasibility, which is the most crucial area of influence; as 90% of environmental impacts are determined in the earliest design stages3. The second is during the specification stage.

Figure 2 - This illustration shows the circulation of materials and some of the impacts of physical resources on the building and its inhabitants.

Once we have a clear idea of the realistic lifespan of the building and the components within it, we can refer to our Resource Hierarchy pyramid, in order of best to least desirable choices, in the hope that this thought process becomes second nature. This pyramid draws upon work by Bea Johnson, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the UK Green Building Council:

Figure 3 – Resource Hierarchy. If having to choose new materials, ensure they have recycled content or are natural / biodegradable. Design for disassembly. Try to avoid composite materials or “monstrous hybrids”: bio-based materials and complex chemical-based materials have separate processing loops.

Video – NBS Source – examples of well-structured manufacturer product information (1 of 3)

Architects have an opportunity to incite change further down the supply chain, by asking more from materials suppliers and manufacturers. At the moment material information is complex and in numerous formats. The Living Future Institute’s Declare label4, EPDs (Environmental Product Declarations) and HPDs (Health Product Declarations) are helping to improve this; however, the amount of information can be daunting. In the absence of an industry-accepted Material Passport standard, Thrive has created a supplier questionnaire and our own Material Passport template to help improve our understanding of sustainability and health and wellbeing credentials.

This template helps us better compare materials. We understand that not all practices will have the time and capital to conduct this level of research, nor should it be necessary. We have engaged with NBS to incorporate additional search filters in NBS Source, to encourage manufacturers to provide this enhanced data within their product information. We believe that with a better understanding of materials we can demonstrate the true value of good construction products and ensure that they are not lost during the value engineering stage.

Materials Passports need to be developed quickly to help break one of the main barriers to material reuse, lack of data. Work also needs to be carried out in parallel to test materials ripe for reuse today. The idea is that this improved information can then be incorporated into a Building Passport, much like the Madaster5 platform in the Netherlands, or a Digital Twin, that can be handed over to the client for future reference. Our buildings need to be treated as materials banks as our resources are depleting.

Call to action

As part of the Architects Declare6 pledge, Architects committed to “raise awareness of the climate and ecological emergencies and the urgent need for action amongst our clients and supply chains.” Events of the past year have demonstrated that our social and economic systems can be disrupted rapidly and on a global scale. It also demonstrates that we must listen to scientific expertise over rhetoric.

Architects have always been renowned as being great storytellers, and we need manufacturers and suppliers to help us tell a story that is truly going to help us ‘build back better’ after this pandemic. We have linked to the questionnaire that we ask our manufacturers. Architects, please refer to it when asking questions at CPDs; manufacturers, please consider the answers to these questions as part of your ESG strategy for reporting to your investors and customers.

We cannot wait for legislation. We need to act: we need healthy, carbon-neutral materials now.

Further Resources

1. London Energy Transformation Initiative. 2020. LETI Climate Emergency Design Guide. Retrieved from https://b80d7a04-1c28-45e2-b904-e0715cface93.filesusr.com/ugd/252d09_3b0f2acf2bb24c019f5ed9173fc5d9f4.pdf
2. European Commission. Level(s): The European framework for sustainable buildings. European Commission. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/environment/topics/circular-economy/levels_en
3. Hosey. L. (2016, February 29). When It Comes to Sustainable Design, Architects Still Don't Get It. ArchDaily. Retrieved from https://www.archdaily.com/782905/when-it-comes-to-sustainable-design-architects-still-dont-get-it ISSN 0719-8884
4. 2019. Declare: the nutrition label for products. International Living Future Institute. Retrieved from https://declare.living-future.org
5. 2021. Madaster. Retrieved from https://madaster.com
6. 2019. Architects Declare. Retrieved from https://www.architectsdeclare.com