Too many architects assume their lack of energy performance knowledge will be ‘fixed’ by others

Lynne Sullivan

Many architects have a surprisingly limited knowledge of the energy consequences of the buildings they design, as I am all too well aware of from my role as a design advisor and design review panellist.

Although the prevailing assumption is that any shortfall of knowledge can be ‘fixed’ by the services engineering consultant or perhaps the SAP assessor in housing, it is increasingly clear from case studies that a lack of integration in design between aesthetics, fabric performance and building services  is a common cause of poor performance in use.  I believe that the 2013 UK Construction Strategy’s call - for an industry equipped with the necessary skills to deliver 50% emissions reductions in UK buildings by 2025 - requires my profession to set specific targets for architects’ capability in the area of so-called ‘energy literacy’, to be applied in both education and CPD.

A concerted effort is needed to deliver skills at an appropriate level for the challenges of our time.

The Zero Carbon Hub’s recent report on the performance gap in new housing points out that energy literacy within the design team can be limited, and that an apparent rift between conceptual design for planning and design for energy performance can contribute to a shortfall in performance against design /regulation targets.   Subsequent analysis of project examples and case studies is demonstrating this to be the case.  Of course, a better knowledge of energy and environmental issues in buildings must be part of a much larger skill-set in architects but it does appear that the necessary emphasis on building performance is currently lacking from professionals’ education.

The recently launched RIBA 2013 Plan of Work suggests sustainability tasks (including early stage energy assessments) are optional, and need not be included in the scope of services, which reinforces this view.  

I believe however that architects need to have a functioning knowledge of principles, techniques, and outcomes related to real energy impacts and performance in use of buildings, and make them implicit in inspirational design fit for the 21st Century.  

Good architecture as ‘long-life, loose-fit’ should also include thinking ahead  to a warming climate, more extreme weather and increasing density in occupation, and this demands a good working knowledge of how energy use is affected by building form and fabric specification, building orientation and glazing levels, microclimatic conditions and use and usability by occupants.  Amidst ongoing debate about the increasing cost and lack of flexibility in architectural education, a concerted effort is needed to deliver skills appropriate for the challenges of our time.

Lynne Sullivan is a founding partner of Sustainable BY Design