Brian Moore: Architects must accept and embrace the role as a leader of the process, regain the high ground that has in the past been taken for granted and take responsibility for the design

…By Brian Moore…

Sustainability is at the forefront of every significant commercial development. Building owners understand only too well that there is no point building projects for the future using yesterday’s technology and a sustainable building represents the future more than any other quality.

ECOnomy and ECOlogy go hand in glove, quite simply the highest rental returns for commercial properties are being achieved by the most sustainable building stock and the new wave of 6 star buildings such as 1 Bligh Street Sydney being constructed by Grocon Constructors for the Dexus Property Group is a classic example.

Most architects would acknowledge that sustainability should be embedded in the design philosophy of a building and not a featured “add-on” to an otherwise outmoded concept of design, sustainability is quite simply good design, but the architect must truly embrace the concept, take charge and take responsibility. Right now this is not happening in a number of architectural practices.

I am not talking about the band of dedicated professional architects that are passionate about sustainable outcomes and may be seen by the broader architectural community as being the “green fanatics” doing wonderful but one-off smaller projects. I am referring to those that are in mainstream architectural practices completing mainstream commissions for mainstream clients.

The question is do architects want to be the design professionals leading a consultant team or do they want to be designers of the aesthetic outcomes only? If the answer is the former and architects do want to be recognised as the sustainable team leader, then the second question is why have architects relinquished the responsibility for sustainable achievement to the ESD consultants.

Could it be through a misunderstanding of the design process and what it really means to design a sustainable building?

The highest rental returns for commercial properties are being achieved by the most sustainable building stock and the new wave of 6 star buildings such as 1 Bligh Street, Sydney

With Green Star now being the recognised rating tool used to identify the sustainable credentials of a commercial office building, designers are fast falling into the trap of documenting for points rather than identifying ways of designing a sustainable building. In the worst example of this approach that we have seen in a while, all the points that could be attributed to anyone other than the design architect were claimed. All those claimed points subsequently became the building contractor’s responsibility. None of the points that required a conscious and responsible design input by the architects that would result in the design of the building responding to sustainable principals were identified and claimed. Yet it was still proposed that the building be presented for a 5 Green Star Design Rating submission.

The Architects were quite proud of the fact that they had “designed” a 5 Green Star building when in fact they had made no contribution to the process of sustainability and simply passed the responsibility for the Green Star rating calculation to a third party, namely the ESD consultant.

So you can’t blame the ESD consultant for taking over the responsibility for achieving the required star rating, they are/were simply doing their best to achieve the required outcome with the information provided to them. In this instance the architect had not followed the basic premise of embedding sustainability within the design philosophy.

All too often architects are falling into the trap of proclaiming that the outcomes were beyond their control, bleating that they were constrained by the brief, or the developer didn’t want a sustainable building, or the budget didn’t allow for a sustainable solution, or the contractor dumbed down the design, this is nonsense and a “convenient untruth”.

Architects must accept and embrace the role as a leader of the process, regain the high ground that has in the past been taken for granted and take responsibility for the design. The first step in achieving this, is to ensure in the first instance that the building design deals with the fundamentals of sustainability ie: the built form responds to the site conditions, orientation and sense of place.

That might seem like an obvious statement but you would be surprised to hear the reasons given as to why this didn’t happen and not surprisingly none seem to be that the architect simply didn’t deal with sound design principles. Given that most commercial buildings have limited options with respect to their orientation, as they are generally endeavoring to maximise their floor space on a constrained site, it comes down to the ability of the architect to produce a design that fulfils the clients, their own, and the communities expectations of the design for the site.

I will take this one step further and say that there would be very few clients that are prepared to invest a significant amount of capital, take the risk associated with development, appoint their preferred architect and then ignore that architect’s advice.

Sure there may be times when robust debate exists but the architect’s opinion is highly valued and respected and it is generally expected that the architect would be protecting their clients investment by designing the best possible outcome for the site and that means a building that will stand the test of time both in its aesthetics and its functional response to the carbon constrained economy in which we find ourselves. Now if that means being even more clever and efficient than in the past ie: sustainable, then that’s as it should be.

So what is the answer, where to for architects?

Any architect working on a building design (this includes all project stages from schematic design to project delivery) that is presumed to achieve a Green Building Council of Australia Green Star Rating, should attend the “Green Building Council’s Accredited Professionals Course” (and sit for the exam).

This is a “must do” requirement as it is naïve to assume one can design and document a sustainable building without the firsthand knowledge of the rating tool used for its assessment. You can guarantee the ESD consultant has passed the GBCA Accredited Professionals exam, so this is step one if the architect is to be taken seriously when discussing commercial office design sustainability.

Below is a credit point summary table identifying the categories and total points that can be awarded within each of the eight categories identified by the Green Building Council for a commercial office building (a more detailed breakdown of the points within each category can be found on the Green building Council’s website).

GBCA Credit Point Summary Table – Office Design

Category

Points Available Version 2

Points Available Version 3

Management

12

12

Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ)

27

27

Energy

24

29

Transport

11

11

Water

13

12

Materials

20

22

Land Use & Ecology

8

8

Emissions

14

16

UNWEIGHTED TOTAL

129

137

WEIGHTED TOTAL

100

100

Innovation

5

5

Step two, after familiarising oneself with the breakdown of each of the above categories, is to ensure the building design responds in detail to a clearly articulated sustainable philosophy and does not simply rely on a points tally for actions attributable to others. By that I mean, demonstrate through the architecture that the design addresses everything it physically can. Then and only then should the design team resort to other issues, as the most important issue for the architect is the design of the building.

It is not relevant to the architect at this stage how the building is to be managed or whether the builder will use recycled materials for instance. All these issues will have their own relevance in time, but only after the design is addressed – not as the primary means of achieving a sustainable outcome.

The third step is to ensure that you, as architect, are in full control of the various disciplines that make up the design team and by that I mean understand and challenge your consultant’s solutions. It is only through a fully integrated design approach that that you will achieve design excellence.

By all means specify recycled content of concrete and steel but when you do, ensure the engineer has taken into account the structural sizes and variations that may be required to a conventional design by incorporating such decisions. Do not leave the building elements in a standard guise if you are specifying non-standard but never-the-less sustainable solutions.

It is a travesty for the design team if the constructor has to identify that credit points claimed in a summary table do not match the documented design. The constructor who has accepted the contractual responsibility for sustainability will lose confidence in the design team’s ability to document the required outcome.

Currently a buildings can be awarded a “Design Rating” and an “As Built Rating”, it is my personal view that the “Design Rating” will become irrelevant as it is subject to abuse, given that it is not a requirement to ensure that what is documented is actually constructed or delivered, but simply sufficient to identify within the documentation that it is proposed to be delivered, it is only the “As Built Rating” that has a requirement for verification to ensure that the designed objective is actually constructed. So as far as I am concerned the only true representation of sustainability is the performance of the end product or the constructed project.

Brian Moore is an architect and the national sustainability leader of Grocon Constructors Pty Ltd