Embedding Sustainable Practice within the RIBA



How to reboot the Architectural profession? This is what we have been thinking about and researching at LTS Architects. Our Director Anna Woodeson recently prepared a report for the UKGBC in response to the RIBA Ethics and Sustainable Development Commission’s call to action in 2018.

We are delighted that the RIBA Council has voted to take on board the recommendations of the Commission’s final paper (authored by Peter Oborn) to achieve a step change in their approach to sustainability. We support the RIBA wholeheartedly in achieving these goals.


Embedding sustainable practice within the RIBA


prepared by Anna Woodeson for the UKGBC


“to consider how the profession can best reflect its core values of public interest, social purpose and sustainability, and engage with the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable development Goals”.

How you think the Institute and its members can engage most effectively and place the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) at the heart of everything we do?


RIBA’s goal – to place the UN Sustainable Development Goals at the heart of everything done by the Architecture profession – is laudable, ambitious and indeed essential. The impact of such a goal, thanks to RIBA’s role as the professional body representing 44,000 Architects, could have a profound impact on carbon emissions, the built environment and, indeed, the very way we live.

It is a virtuous circle. Such a focused and ambitious change to the way the Institute operates will make it appear more relevant to its membership, more in step with the times to external bodies, including the government, which in turn may increase membership and improve the reputation of Architects across the construction industry.

In representing such a large membership, the Institute’s activities are diverse and so this response identifies opportunities within each area of activity. This is clearly not an exhaustive report, but will support the notion that ambitious and extensive change is all encompassing.




Organisations with leaders who understand the importance of these issues are often driven to innovate and disrupt industry norms in achieving more sustainable outcomes.
Notable examples within our industry include:

  • Interface – Ray Anderson, the CEO and chairman, established ‘mission zero’, ensuring his company has no negative impact on the planet by 2020. Since his death, the company has gone on to develop a carbon negative carpet tile and annually spends 25% of its income on sustainable initiatives.
  • Architype – Jonathan Hines leads the practice, one of the UK’s leading Architects for sustainable design. The practice has consistently raised the bar across industry in relation to building performance and sustainable design.

To embed this level of change within the RIBA, the leadership team would need to support completely the vision and engage in the process of change. There may need to be a full change-management process initiated through an external consultancy which may take years to complete. The RIBA presidents have in recent years almost unanimously supported moves towards an Institute more reflective of the UN sustainable goals but their tenure is just 2 years long. It is important that these changes are not reliant on any one person but must be championed by all at the RIBA. This may have an implication for the Sustainable Futures group because sustainability would be at the core of all activity groups and integrated within the business plan.




The RIBA audits and validates all schools of architecture in the UK and many overseas to ensure standards are being met and the schools can continue to award Part 1, 2 & 3 qualifications. Indeed, education was the centrepiece of the RIBA’s original 1834 Royal Charter.

Changing the way Architects are educated is critical to meeting the aspirations set out above. The ‘RIBA’ label carries enormous kudos, particularly abroad, so raising these standards further could arguably only increase the reputation associated with this professional standard.

Current Requirements:

GC5 Understanding of the relationship between people and buildings, and between buildings and their environment, and the need to relate buildings and the spaces between them to human needs and scale

The General Critieria 5 identifies a learning requirement in Part 1 and 2.

Demonstration of an understanding of the following will contribute to this criterion being met:

2) the Architect’s obligation to society and the protection of the environment;

8) environmental and sustainability legislation;


Professional criteria identified at Part 3


Schools across the UK address these requirements with varying success. There are many Architects that qualify without an in-depth understanding of environmental design and the broader issues relating to public interest and social purpose.

In contrast, schools like Sheffield Hallam University have actively sought to embed sustainability in its broadest sense in all that they do. The RIBA could ensure every school has its own roadmap to allow students to leave with the knowledge required to respond to current environmental challenges. It could mandate Passivhaus designer accreditation in the future as part of the Part 3 qualification. The Part 3 exam could include a section modelling embodied carbon. Rather than seeing sustainability as a separate topic, should there be exam questions that talk about the impact of procurement route on sustainable outcomes and which contract supports collaborative working best etc.


Continuing Professional Development


The RIBA has recently made it compulsory to spend two hours a year on topic 6 Sustainable Architecture. However, it is likely that the level of training required to ensure all qualified Architects can deliver against the UN Sustainable Development Goals and to the standards required to avoid climate breakdown would be more extensive. Training will be needed that is affordable and easy to complete (online/ bite sized chunks). The RIBA is introducing a mandatory annual CDM exam in 2020 for all members. Mandatory sustainability exams are surely the next step.


Research and Innovation


The RIBA already carries out research and actively champions research carried out in practice. The research in the coming years could explore how to best align with the UN Sustainable Goals at the RIBA and in practice.


Lobbying for change


Unfortunately many clients are not willing to go beyond minimum standards, leaving architects struggling to make the case to go further. Pivotal to any meaningful change within the built environment is an overhaul in legislation governing the industry. The way our cities are planned and made accessible, the energy efficiency of our buildings, biodiversity targets and so much more are all set out through legislation.

The RIBA already lobbies government and advises on changes to legislation. In order to support the kind of legislative change needed to prevent climate destruction, the RIBA would need to lobby effectively for very far-reaching commitments. These would be recommendations that would take the debate well beyond a discussion of zero carbon. This process would need the support of the membership and the upskilling of members to ensure future compliance. It is likely that such lobbying would only be successful if carried out alongside other organisations like the UKGBC, the RICS, etc.

Championing architecture for social purpose and public interest would mean the RIBA commenting and lobbying in areas well beyond traditional architecture and place making. Topics like affordable housing, well-being, enhancing biodiversity, transport initiatives, energy strategies would assume relevance in relation to the UN goals. The RIBA would have to broaden its remit.

The resource and expertise required for such a programme would be considerable, larger than the current Grenfell and Brexit teams. This then points again to collaboration with organisations like the UKGBC so we can together ensure we achieve the most with the resource available to us.


Engaging and empowering the membership


The RIBA will need to enable every Architect, whether a sole practitioner or part of a large company, to work in a new way.

They can provide the tools and knowledge to equip Architects at all stages in their career, they can engage the architectural community to understand the ethical imperative to change the status quo and they can provide leadership. Alternatively if this doesn’t work, as the Institute that bestows chartered membership or chartered practice membership, the RIBA could stipulate further requirements for membership to align with its sustainable aims.


Establishing quality benchmarks


‘The Royal Institute of British Architects is a global professional membership body driving excellence in architecture’

But what is ‘excellence in architecture’? Is good design in 2018 by its nature also sustainable design in its broadest sense?

The RIBA – through its awards programme, its events and its publications – helps to define what is ‘good architecture’. The RIBA awards programme currently includes a sustainability section for applicants to fill out but, in future, this should not be separate from a clear description of the building design.

In the future the RIBA could:

  • ensure its awards are only given to sustainable buildings and designs that align with the UN goals.
  • better define ‘good design’ through the buildings and Architects it champions.
  • publish clear and cross-industry sustainability benchmarks to ensure designs are easy to compare and eliminate ‘greenwash’.


Scope of an Architect


The standard documents and guidelines provided by the RIBA would need to be reconsidered and amended as required. For example, a review of the Plan of Work may require building evaluation to be a core service. Setting out the scope of the Architect is one thing, ensuring clients adhere to it is more of a challenge. Collaborating with organisations like the UKGBC, whose membership includes numerous client bodies may help with this.


A global institution


The RIBA has ambitions to be seen as a global institution. With chapters all over the world and a Council with international representation, the impact the RIBA can have in countries where legislation and construction expertise lags behind Europe is far reaching.

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