Language Barrier

I’ve just had the pleasure of being keynote speaker at Black Architecture’s first breakfast briefing, talking on the subject of Eco-Porn in building design. The event was a huge success and stimulated a lot of high level debate about how the property industry can take the sustainability agenda forward and also deliver substantial additional value for clients and occupiers. (Sorry -Chatham House Rules)

One of the key issues that did arise from the discussions however, was that of language. It is becoming clear to me that we designers do not speak the same language when we talk about sustainability as is spoken by property investors and those who appraise buildings. This results in the standard tick-list approach to environmental appraisal, as we see embodied in rating systems such as BREEAM and LEED, becoming the default intermediary for communicating sustainability between parties. Unfortunately, any rating system that is simple enough that it can be applied universally, by expert designers and non experts assessors alike, must contain elements of compromise. At the moment, that compromise appears to be manifesting itself in a loss of essential energy performance and operational information.

Don’t get me wrong; I am a great fan of environmental rating systems in raising the aspiration for building design. But I don’t believe that when appraising a building we can substitute a single overall rating for all the richness of information that we can convey through proper communication. Building occupiers are increasingly interested in maintenance and running costs and we need to be able to drill down within any rating system to interrogate the underlying performance data and understand how the performance is achieved.

For instance a potential tenant should be able to draw comparisons between a BREEAM Excellent building achieved through energy conservative design which will save them money and one achieved by attaching Eco-Bling post-factum which will cost them far more in the long run. This will require intelligent translation between techno-babble and econo-speak. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again many times I am sure: if we designers want to be at the forefront of the sustainable property revolution, then we really need to learn a new language to communicate our ideas; that of finance and economics.

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