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Why more and more architects offer sustainability consultancy

How architects are making the most of their sustainability knowledge

12 August 2021

More and more architects are adopting sustainability targets and learning about how to minimise the operational energy and the embodied carbon of their buildings. They are learning to maximise building efficiency, adopting Passivhaus principles and looking at designing with a circular economy in mind.

But this kind of sustainability knowledge can lead to opportunities beyond just design and construction. There is an increasing need from clients for guidance on where to start; or for advice on particular areas of sustainability that they do not understand.

These clients are a broad church: local authorities, developers, utilities providers, commercial business chains and even other architectural practices. More and more practices are using their sustainability knowledge and experience to win consultancy work.

Architect Nitesh Magdani, who used to lead on global consultancy for Royal BAM Group, last year set up his own independent sustainability consultancy, Net Positive Solutions. He offers a full sustainability strategy service to clients; but seeks to target net zero and circular economy solutions in particular.

Built environment consultants, contractors, manufacturers and suppliers all voice similar concerns, he has found: they do not want to get left behind in “the race to net zero”, but lack the internal resources to make the transition. They might not understand the impact on their organisations that this transition will have.

“Most of the conversations or projects I’m involved in are spurred on by the UK’s 2050 Net Zero targets,” Magdani reveals. “We will see more roadmaps to net zero being developed over the coming years, which will see a greater take up of sustainable products and services.”

His consultancy’s clients include local authorities and the private and commercial sectors. They have just been appointed as a sustainability consultant on Meridian Water, the area regeneration in Enfield, North London, which is shaping up to become a testbed of circular economy principles for existing buildings and new development.

“Hopefully, we will be able to influence the project teams to reuse buildings as a whole or in parts on other sites in the development, and link in with the community network to encourage a symbiosis,” Magdani states.

This is one example of the many large projects springing up that suggest circular economy principles are set to become construction’s norm. It is an area that is perhaps less well understood among clients than operational energy or embodied carbon.

Collective Architecture, which has twin offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow, has become well known in Scotland for its work on exploring circular economy ideas. Zero Waste Scotland commissioned the practice to write its ‘Construction Industry Guide on the Circular Economy for Construction Professionals’.

A window detail from the Woodside Towers development in the north of Glasgow. Collective Architecture was commissioned to refurbish and thermally upgrade three blocks of 22-storey flats © Andrew Lee.

Nine months ago, the practice set up Collective Energy as an in-house consultancy to play to its strengths in Passivhaus and low carbon design. It has since carried out many workshops with architects on circular economy principles.

Director Chris Stewart reports that architects are keen to learn more about designing for disassembly and future uses for buildings and their components. He suggests that the real challenge is to get people to think about the re-use of materials at the very beginning, at the strategic level, when the earliest decisions are being made.

Collective Energy has positioned itself to offer three strands of services:

  1. Passivhaus design services
  2. Building performance services to assess projects and increase site potential
  3. Holistic consultancy services focusing on circular economy principles

The practice took advice on what form their consultancy division should take and decided against a standalone business, which would have needed its own PI insurance cover. Instead, Collective Energy is treated as a trading division of the main practice, with specialist staff co-opted for consultancy projects as needed; though it does have its own separate income stream.

Much of its work comes from public procurement competitive tendering, such as retrofit strategies for existing buildings, strategies for retaining existing housing stock, demolition audits for materials re-use, and Passivhaus assessments of early stage housing proposals.

“The growing interest in retrofit has really opened things up for the consultancy,” Stewart states.

The main practice has been increasingly focussed on low carbon and Passivhaus retrofit in recent years and makes great use of the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP). Having just completed a review of the consultancy’s first nine months, Stewart reveals they are seeing some beneficial bleed of work across to the main practice, thanks to the consultancy’s profile-raising effect.

There is an interesting parallel with Net Positive Solutions in this regard. While Nitesh Magdani set up the business as a consultancy, not as an architectural practice, his experience so far suggests that consultancy work may lead to commissions as a client advisor or lead architect on sustainability-led projects.

Chris Stewart will be speaking about providing sustainability consultancy work at this year’s online RIBA Smart Practice conference, Stepping up to the Climate Challenge, on 30 September. Tickets are now available.

Thanks to Nitesh Magdani, Founder, Net Positive Solutions; Chris Stewart, Director, Collective Architecture.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas

RIBA Core Curriculum topic: Sustainable Architecture.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, professional features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD core curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as an RIBA Chartered Member.

First published Thursday 12 August 2021

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