Environment-friendly design means sandal-wearing beardies designing draughty offices for a handful of right-on clients with no money, right? Wrong. Sustainable architecture is going overground as blue-chip clients spruce up their images.
In the old days, support for eco-friendly design was limited to a few do-gooder clients and left-wing architects who could be spotted by the Peruvian herbal tea they sipped at lunchtime.

But new legislation and public opinion are forcing a different make of clients to take a serious interest in low-energy, sustainable buildings. After decades in the margins of building design and planning briefs, the concept of sustainability is fast becoming a core commercial concern for mainstream consultants and their corporate and public sector clients.

More and more hard-nosed commercial architects, including Broadway Malyan and BDP, are creating dedicated sustainability units to handle the growing demand for expert knowledge in "green design". Such moves are a response to the increasing concerns of corporate clients; legislation such as the European Union Energy Directive (see "Green revolution", right), which the European parliament expects to ratify later this year, will set tough targets. Recent changes to Part L of the Building Regulations are forcing consultants and contractors to reduce buildings' energy consumption, and companies are still grappling with the climate change levy, which was introduced last year to encourage companies to cut their pollution output.

"The sky will fall in for a lot of people when the EU directive finally comes into force, and practices are gearing up for this. It makes sense to say to clients, 'look, we are up to speed with green issues,'" says Peter Smith, chairman of the RIBA's sustainable futures group. Smith believes the trend among commercial practices for setting up sustainability teams show that they genuinely understand the wider concerns of the approach and are not just concerned with helping clients to "green wash" their buildings and dodge taxes.

But "sustainability" is such a woolly term. How does it translate into a service for clients? Lynne Sullivan has just been appointed director of sustainability at Broadway Malyan. She says her role is about more than helping to design low-energy buildings: "Sustainability is about the social, economic and environmental impact of a building; its place in the local infrastructure of a community."

Cascading knowledge
Recruited two years ago from ECD (now a part of FaberMaunsell) to form part of Broadway Malyan's sustainability unit, Sullivan aims to use the rising profile of her role to support and encourage other designers in the practice as they offer clients a sustainable approach to design. She will use exemplar projects to demonstrate technical and design solutions for reducing, for example, carbon dioxide emissions from the construction process as well as the completed building. "The production of certain materials like aluminium smelting plants uses a lot of energy, so you've got to consider the 'embodied energy' of a building – how much energy it uses from cradle to grave," she says. Her specialised knowledge will cascade through the firm by way of Broadway Malyan's dedicated sustainability intranet, continuing professional development seminars and the firm's knowledge management reviews.

Matthew Johnson, an architect at Broadway Malyan, says Sullivan's role is having a big impact. A few weeks ago, he had to put together a feasibility study for the conversion of a psychiatric hospital in Epsom into a residential units with an emphasis on sustainability. "It really helps to have expert help on hand and means that environmental concerns can be introduced into the very start of a project rather than reworking designs at a later stage," he says.

Realising the commercial value of green credentials, Broadway Malyan and other corporate consultants want to attract clients such as BP, Shell and Barclays – companies hit by negative press that are striving to change their image but need to do it in a commercially practical way. Sullivan says: "As a commercial firm, we realise that we are not necessarily seen as 'green'. We are saying that we can do it."

As a commercial firm, we realise that we are not necessarily seen as ‘green’. We are saying that we can do it

Lynne Sullivan, director of sustainability, architect Broadway Malyan

Consultant and architect BDP set up its own sustainability group eight months ago to tap into the growing energy management sector. Trevor Butler is the dedicated leader of the group. He says there is "unlimited scope" for the growth in the market for sustainable buildings, and predicts that the public sector will lead the way.

"From 2003, projects paid for by the public sector will be designed from a whole-life cost perspective," he says. "At the moment, because new build comes from capital funding and running costs come out of local authorities' revenue, the two are separate, but they will be brought together. This means designers will have to consider running costs from the outset."

Fundamental rethink
Other consultants agree that clients are becoming more demanding in their desire for green buildings, but so far it is all ad hoc; at some stage there will have to be a fundamental rethink of the relationship between development and environment.

Dave Hampton, director of ABS Consulting, says: "Legislation and media pressures will drive most clients to take sustainability seriously. In the meantime, there is a growing minority of clients that are willing to go through the evolutionary pain and anguish of changing their business habits – and buildings."

More and more corporate clients are seeing the wider commercial benefits of a wholehearted approach to sustainability, he says. "Rather than sustainability concerns acting as a bolt-on to projects, more clients are taking these concerns into their core business. We are seeing more companies, such as high street banks, wanting to exceed minimum standards.

"But surprisingly few companies realise that if they promote green issues without actually applying such principles, their customers will soon see through them."

Green revolution: the laws and initiatives that are driving sustainability

  • Part L of the Building Regulations sets tough minimum standards for the conservation of fuel and power in new-build and refurbishment work. The regulations were tightened in April 2002.
  • The climate change levy, introduced in April last year, is charged on all energy supplied to industrial and commercial users, agriculture, public administration and other services.
  • The emissions trading scheme is a scheme to encourage organisations to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. The UK government pays £53.37 to individual companies for each tonne by which CO2 emissions are reduced. The scheme kicked off last April.
  • The European Union Energy Directive, currently going through European parliament, is expected to be ratified later this year. It aims to double the amount of energy produced from renewable sources in the EU from 6% to 12% by 2010.
  • The Kyoto Agreement is a framework laid down by 38 developed countries, including the UK, to prevent global warming. Signatories agreed to reduce their production of greenhouse gases by 12.5% from 1990 levels by 2012.
  • At the International Earth Summit in Johannesburg this August, world governments will determine direct action toward conserving our natural resources.