The Road to Sustainability in Architecture… taking the first steps
Simon Matthews, a member of the Social Responsibility group at Stephen George + Partners (SGP), shares his thoughts on starting along the road to sustainability.
SGP are committed to sustainability in all that we do; easy to say, never easy to do. So how have we gone about making it a reality.
Personally I had little knowledge of what sustainability really meant, so I jumped at the opportunity to join our practice’s new Social Responsibility group when it was formed at the end of 2019. Little did we all know what was to come.
For our first meeting we each brought along our suggestions as to how we could impact sustainability; mine included ideas for measuring the embodied carbon of building materials and for designing a flagship ‘green’ house for the residential market. Fast forward a year and a half and we’ve made a great start. So, what have we done?
That first step, to form the Social Responsibility group, was a big one. The group created the opportunity for ideas and activity to develop. And over the course of the last eighteen months the team has collaborated online to help bring many ideas to life.
My ideas on measuring embodied carbon have evolved into an interactive programme called Better Buildings, a part of our larger SGP + You schools sustainability campaign. It is designed to introduce and explain sustainability in building materials to older primary school children, we even have our own cartoon professor to explain some of the more technical aspects.
The ‘green’ house has focused on renewable technologies, and we now have a presentation to deliver to key house builders on the rationale behind, and the practicalities of, installing air source heat pumps to replace gas boilers.
To assist in our drive to reduce our carbon footprint we joined the Planet Mark in 2018, from whom we’ve had external support and evaluation of our activity. This has been important and has led us on to collaborate with other like-minded organisations, learning from others and sharing our success. A particular highlight was winning a Planet Mark award for our schools sustainability campaign.
Our second big step was far less predictable; we discovered that we knew far more about sustainability than we realised. In a practice of over one hundred staff, our embodied knowledge and depth of experience was huge, but it wasn’t until we started to encourage a sharing of knowledge that it all became apparent.
A central component of bringing that knowledge to the fore has been the introduction of our own Chair and Share Forums. Each month since early spring 2021 we have hosted a practice-wide discussion on a Thursday lunchtime in which we invite members of staff to share their experience of ‘What sustainability means to them?’. We have been both fascinated and inspired by personal insights and opened up the debate on sustainability and all that it means to the practice as a whole.
“To me, sustainability means using natural, low impact products to create natural, low impact environments …taking only what you need and giving back at least as much as you take.”
One memorable intervention at a Chair and Share was when one of our Directors, now retired and working with us in a consulting capacity, delivered a moving recollection of the work he had done on his thesis at university in the 1970’s. Now here we were, finally, with the opportunity to bring it to reality.
Sharing that enthusiasm, and there are many similar stories and pools of experience, is key to our next steps in bringing all we can do to reality.
I can’t believe how many of my colleagues have spoken to me over the last year, saying they would love to help or get involved and they’d be happy to do it in their own time. From the adoption of our own beehive, to design of a cutting-edge biomimetic office, from early-stage concepts for sustainable urban re-development to the first presentation of our Better Buildings programme to a school in Leeds, more and more staff are committing more and more of their time to playing our part in building a sustainable future.
We know we have a real obligation to ensure that the built environment, one that we have so much responsibility in creating, is sustainable for future generations. From taking that first step, and sharing our knowledge, to capturing the enthusiasm that is burning within the practice, we have created the platform to bring about real change, not only in our day-to-day work, but in the future of our planet. And that is exciting!