The RIBA has declared a climate emergency says Housing Today’s new columnist Ben Derbyshire – together we can reach net zero whole life carbon in new housing

Ben Derbyshire

Source: Tom Campbell

Ben Derbyshire

Who hasn’t declared a climate emergency? Housing providers, that’s who. And yet 40% of carbon emissions come from the built environment – much of that from housing. As Greta Thunberg pointed out recently in her presentation at the United Nations, it is in the nature of emergencies that action to deal with them should be taken with some urgency. Where is the urgency? 

During my tenure as president of RIBA, we declared a climate emergency this June and in September set out our 2030 Climate Challenge.  

One major London housing association even refused to collaborate when the service was offered at no additional cost

This invites architects to work with clients to successively improve performance of new homes compared to current norms, aiming by 2030 (that first decade counts if we are to achieve net zero by 2050) for a reduction of 50-75% energy use, 75% of embodied energy and reducing water consumption by 40%, while systematically checking to avoid the potential for unintended consequences in terms of health and wellbeing.

To achieve this, realistically much of the profession will have to skill up, building organisation and resources to be able to predict performance, and just as importantly, test whether the desired outcome has been achieved by undertaking post occupancy evaluation. I’ll discuss that in my next column for Housing Today in November.

But the architectural profession is powerless to achieve these targets alone. We obviously need the other professions we team up with to be working on the same basis, and most of all, we need our clients to be on board. 

Unfortunately, I know only too well that some clients are resistant and unwilling to pay for this service. One major London housing association even refused to collaborate when the service was offered at no additional cost. 

This seems oddly inconsistent when I know that many housing providers go to great lengths to obtain feedback on sales, service and management.

Previous attempts we have promoted at HTA Design to predict and test performance in the interest of better customer information foundered for want of consumer pull in a broken and unbalanced market where overwhelming demand obviates the need for competitive performance advantage.  

But the climate emergency is surely another matter altogether. I’m willing to bet that the governance of most housing providers is populated by people who understand the existential threat of the climate emergency. I challenge them to demand for procurement processes to be modified to meet these progressively tightening targets.

What would be required? Nothing too organisationally challenging, in my view: frameworks that set out the competencies for performance prediction and testing; performance-related clauses in Employer’s Requirements for Design and Build; a central reporting and monitoring resource.

The recent Green Construction Board Buildings Mission 2030 report shows that net zero operational carbon is already possible. The challenge for the industry is to extend good practice to all future work, as highlighted by the World Green Building Council’s latest report on net zero embodied carbon.  

Net zero whole life carbon should be prioritised in lower density areas using on-site renewables. For urban areas, net zero whole life carbon will likely require additional offsite renewable energy generation and certified woodland offsetting in the UK.

We cannot afford to wait for the updates in the Building Regulations due next year, let alone the consultation of the Future Homes Standard (which should be a new standard for all homes, by the way, not just a standard for new homes). Here, I challenge the readers of Housing Today to do what is needed.

If it’s possible for Norwich city council to do it at Goldsmith Street – and win the Stirling prize and RIBA Neave Brown award to boot – it is possible for any of us. 

Ben Derbyshire is chair at HTA Design LLP and Immediate Past President of the RIBA