In May 2019, dRMM joined 16 other RIBA Stirling Prize winners to sign an open declaration in the wake of a global climate and biodiversity emergency. Together with our peers, we announced a commitment to positive action against the twin crises of climate breakdown and biodiversity. One year on, we take stock of our assessment, advocacy and action, outlining the ways in which we have worked to mitigate the profession’s impact on the natural world.
Buildings and construction account for nearly 40% of energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, whilst also having significant bearing on natural habitats. In our studio, we grapple daily with the realities of this serious impact. dRMM has been a steady ambassador for sustainable design and construction since the studio’s inception, but we have recognised the need to turn up the volume dramatically in a bid to bring our years of research and development to the fore. For the past year, our contribution to the sustainability debate has been steadfast and our ambition to create architecture that addresses the crises at hand, resolute.
There have been challenges – speed of procurement and delivery, lagging government policy, and client misalignment being the most dominant. Despite future-driven intentions, many studios – including ours – have had to make peace with working on historic projects that may now feel anachronistic with our signatory status. We also have had to contend with a dissonance between our sustainable ethos and an eco-inertia that still grips the construction industry. Supply chains have been slow to catch up with best sustainable practice; a reliable and widespread market for reuse materials remains elusive; retrofit projects are still not VAT incentivised. All these obstacles are exacerbated by the ongoing densification of our cities and a growing disparity in social divide – which, as a profession, we cannot solve alone.
Within our profession, there appears to be a collective agreement that now is the time to make significant change – a positive appetite for revolutionising practice, supported by both societies at large and forward-thinking clients. While we embrace this collective energy, we remain aware that compromises have, and will always have, to be made – on past, current and even future projects. As architects, we must exercise our role as professional advisors to clients; not just on matters of material sustainability, but also on social sustainability, affordability and quality of life. We need to establish the link between these concerns and the question of profit, opening up a discussion around the realities of that relationship. We will all fare better and achieve greater results if we are open about the conflicts associated with building a more sustainable future. A big part of dRMM’s sustainability mission is to champion that transparency, to be frank about our moral dilemmas, and to find commonality amongst our peers in our ambition to solve them.
What we need to achieve:
identified the need for radical change and questioning of old habits, design
favourites and default processes. We can no longer wait for legislative change
to trickle down and eventually reduce the impact of our industry. Change has to
be more than incremental. Following a year of learning, listening and sharing
knowledge, our commitment to the declaration made in May 2019 is ongoing and
growing. The following points outline what we hope to accomplish as we move
into the year ahead.
dRMM joined the Global Climate Strike in September 2019 in a bid to publicly declare a state of climate emergency. We also participated in the profession’s Part L & F consultation and associated campaigns, offering a response that urged the industry to make significant changes to the way it designs, builds and operates buildings. We are also responding to consultation to safeguard the use of structural timber. Our most urgent challenge now is to help convert the construction industry towards a retrofit-led model. As such, we have supported the Architects’ Journal Retrofit First campaign, and continue to share knowledge on retrofit practice through lessons learnt on our past, award-winning conversion schemes.
We recognise that a greater challenge exists with larger housing regeneration projects, with difficulties involved in maintaining existing buildings that are subject to complex phasing strategies and sites. Going forward, dRMM will look to address this challenge more actively, working collaboratively with construction professionals and lobbying groups to promote more awareness around these challenges, inciting joined-up solutions towards meaningful change.
dRMM is a long-standing advocate for timber as an exemplar material in sustainable construction. Going forward, we believe that sustainable forestry management will be a crucial exercise in reducing the world’s carbon footprint. Trees are a vital source of food and habitat for insects, birds and animals – we have to support these ecosystems as we manage our forests. A focus on deciduous trees and growing more variety within our forests must be prioritised, and architects should strive to specify different species within construction – creating a demand for diversity.
dRMM’s research into the development of Tulipwood CLT looked at engineering a hardwood as opposed to the conventional softwoods used in mainstream manufacture, with its fast growth an obvious advantage for carbon sequestration. As a studio, we will continue to drive research and testing of diversified timber. We will also look to collaborate with experts in the field of forest management to better inform our procurement practices.
Social usefulness and building for social durability are themes that have always been at the heart of dRMM’s practice. We believe these priorities to go hand in hand with best practices in environmental design. As such, we have been active in advocating for a new ‘Architecture of Circumstance’. Our thesis embraces a consequence-aware approach to design, where accepted aesthetic expectations adapt to rely on ‘process’ as opposed to finished product.
Going forward, we believe a new focus for the architecture industry must be on rigorous analysis and designing flexibility. Flexibility, in turn, will ensure social sustainability, allowing buildings to take on longer lifespans with more nuanced functionality. We must achieve a shift in focus towards understanding what can be saved, what can be used, and how design can work to circumvent waste.
What we have influence over:
dRMM has always encouraged young talent to impact design, influence debate, and challenge pre-conceptions. In this same spirit, we have fostered a studio environment that doubles as a platform for climate advocacy. Our team includes active members of some of the industry’s most significant climate lobby groups. Representatives from ACAN (Architects Climate Action Network) and LETI (London Energy Transformation Initiative) within our team have been given both license and encouragement to bring their knowledge and activism into the studio, helping to meaningfully integrate it into our practice.
Some of dRMM’s team members have been crucially involved in the creation of the Climate Emergency Design Guide and Embodied Carbon Primer documents; both recently launched and well received by the industry. We have had team members meet with the Committee for Climate Change, and we devote our time to supporting the Architects Declare Steering Group efforts. Young members of staff are charged with planning our environmentally focused events diary and CPDs. dRMM also has a dedicated sustainability group made up of team members who – amongst other sustainability tasks – monitor our in-house climate action efforts, coordinating a carbon audit to review our carbon footprint.
dRMM has committed to dedicated sustainability and regenerative design resource as a studio-wide practice. As such, we have undertaken an analysis of our technical reviews, design crits, and quality assurance processes, and have worked to improve processes such as BIM & computational design toolkits in line with sustainability targets. It is our ambition to gradually introduce the challenging endeavour of Life Cycle Costing across our projects, as well as undertaking retrospective analysis on historic projects. This will include a study of our early project, Kingsdale School, as well as the more recent housing project, Trafalgar Place. Additionally, dRMM is participating in the RIBA 2030 Challenge, which mandates project-data sharing on an open source basis. As such, the studio promotes both the RIBA 2030 Challenge objectives, as well as the LETI Climate Emergency Design Guide as targets for all new projects.
As a continuation of dRMM’s legacy as timber pioneers, our team is now looking at hybrid system design, investigating the way in which timber and other biogenic materials can be used in mainstream. The studio maintains a longstanding preference for working with off-the-shelf products in unconventional applications, serving as an alternative to bespoke products that cannot be easily repurposed past end of life.
dRMM is a thought leader, advocate and material pioneer within the sustainability movement in UK architecture. Aside from contributing regularly to industry media (including Building, Architects’ Journal, BD Online, the Architecture Foundation and more), our team actively works within various knowledge sharing groups, collaborating regularly with fellow Architects Declare signatory practices to promote shared learning. Members of staff across all levels, from directors to architects, actively participate in public speaking endeavours related to sustainable construction, design and policy. We stimulate advocacy through our established profile and through the staging of studio-initiated events. dRMM’s Forest of Fabrication exhibition has toured in London and Liverpool, with its associated educational and networking events promoting the sustainable advantages of timber architecture. Our strong network has also allowed us to consistently collaborate with engineers and supply chain professionals to develop MMC/DfMA approaches that significantly reduce construction waste.
dRMM embraces team initiatives and a sharing economy, including studio yoga, food sharing, and circulation of sustainable vendor recommendations. In order to further reduce the impact of our consumption, as a studio we strive to make small changes wherever possible: we use local suppliers to avoid travel miles, we have switched to zero waste paper, we get our energy from a green supplier, we have swapped using dairy for oat milk, and we have drastically reduced our number of chargers and electrical appliances. We are also in the process of undertaking an operational carbon audit and are committing to re-wilding initiatives and growing trees.
What we must overcome:
dRMM recognises the great challenges involved in converting our project output into a predominantly regenerative practice. These exist at both micro and macro scale. At micro, they revolve around early decision making on structure, materials, and supply chains, and on tallying design objectives with adjacent construction priorities. On a macro level, our greatest trial will lie in initiating important client conversations about sustainable choices on projects. Re-educating both ourselves and our clients on the definition of project value as it links with holistic sustainability will be the greatest challenge we face.
As a studio, one of our most prevalent obstacles will be to reconcile our sustainability objectives with realistic practice demands related to productivity, cost-management and efficiency. Understanding how we can operate in the leanest and least wasteful way without compromise on quality will be an ongoing challenge. Empowering team members to confidently air sustainability concerns on both project and operational matters will be a key focus – working to upend profession-wide habits that discourage open criticism and debate. As such, providing team members with the confidence to be vocal about poor sustainable choices will be crucial as we move forward.
On a bigger stage, our greatest challenge will be to meaningfully engage with commentary whenever our choices on sustainability are exposed to public scrutiny. By striving to be open and transparent about the conflicts we face as we navigate through daily practice, we hope to build more robust dialogue within the industry. Despite the discomfort of potential criticism, we believe that open debate is central to the growth of our profession. As such, we will endeavour to better participate, contribute and listen to the ongoing discussion on sustainability.
The year ahead:
Our long-term aim is to develop a standard post-occupancy evaluation framework that enables different levels of scrutiny, including introductory, standard, and intensive levels of analysis. To this end, our ambition is to encourage an industry-wide culture that promotes focus on embodied carbon from a whole-life perspective, ensuring that buildings are designed to be adaptable, circular and healthy. As an immediate action, our goal is to begin looking at our past projects in a bid to study specific aspects related to sustainability performance. We will also identify a current project as a prototype for a performing holistic post-occupancy evaluation over the 2020-2021 period.
Our goal for the year ahead is to support research and development surrounding sustainable construction, both from within our studio and through our team members’ extracurricular endeavours. dRMM will provide more support, working to create a formalised framework for our in-house sustainability team. We will implement sustainability reviews into existing design crits and review processes. We will create a comprehensive Sustainability Design Guide for studio use, incorporating guidance from disparate focus groups. Finally, we will continue to provide regular resource and time within the working week for a dedicated sustainability group to devote to measurable action, research, participation, and activism.
dRMM understands that in order to embrace sustainable design wholly and meaningfully, our team must feel empowered and supported in their daily work routines. As such, we are committed to creating working conditions that are nimble, subject to redefinition, and rooted in practicality. Through the next year, we will work to strengthen the flexible and adaptive work ethic that has been ushered in by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, changing our working patterns for the future, and guaranteeing greater efficiency with less travel. It will be dRMM’s aim to reduce working hours to 37.5 hours, allowing our team more liberty and flexibility to exercise sustainable work and life habits.