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Two years on… How has Architects Declare affected the AEC sector in the UK?


In July of 2019, Exponential-e hosted a roundtable at The Ritz London, bringing together 18 top UK architects to discuss topical issues across the sector and sharing views on the matters at hand. One of the topics raised was the newly launched Architects Declare manifesto and its 11-point plan for tackling climate change and biodiversity loss. From 16 founding signatories, word spread like wildfie and within weeks, hundreds of practices - large and small - signed up, signalling that our architects were ready commit to operating in a greener, more sustainable manner.

Why several leading firms left Architects Declare

Like many organisations, big names like Foster + Partners and Zaha Hadid Architects already had well-established green agendas, working to many of the principles set out within the Architects Declare manifesto, so supporting a more vocal coalition made sense. However, throughout 2020, we saw concerns raised by Architects Declare that the platform was being used to raise profiles rather than creating change. This discontentment escalated in December, when Zaha Hadid and Foster + Partners publicly departed Architects Declare following criticism of their projects.

Both firms are leaders in the design of airports - a contentious topic within the area of climate change and sustainability - and while still firmly aligned to the manifesto's environmental goals, deemed the proposed methods for achieving them as "setting the profession up for failure" by demanding commitments that would not be conducive to its long-term growth and profitability. These firms feel that rather than completely withdrawing from Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) projects where there are currently environmental concerns (i.e. airports), efforts should be made to deliver them in an eco-friendlier manner that will ensure long-term sustainability.

It's clear that operating in a more sustainable, environmentally friendly way is still a key concern for the whole AEC industry, as demonstrated by the 6,000 practices committing to Construction Declares, which unites structural, civil and building services engineering practices, landscape architects, contractors and project managers under the same principles. We're also seeing international recognition of BREEAM - a recognised standard for measuring the sustainability of buildings, now used in 89 countries.

So, how can environmental goals be balanced with business ones, in a way the whole sector can wholeheartedly commit to? With the aforementioned concerns around the long-term viability of sustainable building methods, are there other ways in which the sector as a whole can contribute to the battle against climate change?

Considering the role of technology in battling climate change

Despite his firm's withdrawal, Norman Foster has continued to emphasise the key role of the agriculture and aviation industries in combatting climate change, arguing that "You cannot wind the clock backwards", and sharing examples of projects like Stansted Airport, where the carbon footprint was reduced by introducing more natural light. So perhaps we need to look at technology to enable this, and examine the role it has already played in responding to the challenges of COVID-19

While we've been unable to get a view of the clouds from a window seat, we've all been reliant on Cloud technology for work, education, and entertainment throughout lockdowns. In light of the pandemic, business travel has been digitally transformed, thanks to tools like Microsoft Teams, where we can meet and share content with clients all over the world, from any device, without having to leave our homes. We've also seen 5G offering wireless connectivity we could only dream of making more room for streaming content and the adoption of augmented reality and virtual reality.

This period of rapid technological evolution has huge implications for the UK's architects, going beyond maintaining 'business as usual' throughout the pandemic, and opening the doors to a more efficient, more environmentally friendly way of working.

How architectural firms are developing a greener way of operating

Cloud adoption has accelerated throughout the pandemic and its sheer scale now presents a more sustainable solution compared to on-premise deployments. Cloud and data centre operators are forever seeking methods to optimise Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE), as they take steps to reduce carbon footprints and run their facilities most efficiently. For example, we've seen Scott Brownrigg make use of their Digital Twin to model and test improvements, while firms like Stephen George + Partners have found virtualising desktops can be an effective way of providing design teams with access to workstations wherever they are, minimising the business impact of remote working, and reducing the need for permanent office space, in line with long-term green goals.

Climate change isn't going away, so whatever the most effective solution eventually turns out to be - be it design or technology - it will require consideration of environmental and ethical obligations, the long-term profitability of firms, and their customers' specific requirements for current and future projects. With firms working in close collaboration with their technology partners, this will help embed a greener approach to architecture in the sector's daily practices and establish a new generation of green buildings. It will not happen overnight, but the potential rewards are enormous.

Find out more about how Exponential-e is supporting the evolution of the AEC sector.

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