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Identifying opportunities to deliver and delight through sustainability

“The climate emergency is the biggest challenge facing our planet and our profession,” said Ben Derbyshire, former RIBA president, “to have a significant impact we need to do more than make symbolic statements — we need to turn warm words into impactful actions.”[1] But who is championing sustainable features within the construction process to make this happen? And what action can you take today?

The sustainability players

As found in our research, The Architect Effect, driving sustainability features in build projects is not aligned with one single party. Architects, their firms, clients, contractors and governmental and building regulations all have a similar level of sway, with a percentage share all between 33-39%.[2]With this shared responsibility, in your role as architect you have your own important part to play in creating the buildings of the future.

“Architects have a duty to put forward more ambitious plans for the future, rather than simply creating what they think developers want[…]. Architects should be visionary”[3]

Ma Yansong, MAD Founder, China 

The sustainability opportunities

Lifecycle management of the building

Designing buildings with sustainability in mind increasingly requires an understanding of the embodied energy impacts from products and the operational energy impacts while the building is in use. Or in other words, beginning with the end in mind[4]. And then, with end-of-life management of the product, comes an increasing focus on re-use. 

We can take the lead from The Netherlands on this one with the introduction of their forward-thinking new legislation on Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA). The Dutch Government set the tone nationally in 2017 by establishing the government-wide programme Nederland Circulair in 2050 (“a circular economy in the Netherlands by 2050”)[5]. This includes the construction industry, which among other sectors is required to become at least 50% circular by 2030. In more concrete terms, “this means that by 2050 raw materials will be used and reused efficiently without any harmful emissions into the environment.”[6]> Examples of how this can be achieved are showcased on their website, with 50 best practice examples, that use a range of techniques, including energy recovery, circular design, recycling and refurbishment.[7]

The Carbon Calculator

In a bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, counter climate change and increase building product transparency, various companies from across the architecture, engineering and construction industry have joined together to create a free, open-access digital embodied carbon calculator. The Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator, is an Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) comparison tool. It can be used by architects, policy makers and engineers to easily compare building materials and help in the selection of the most sustainable option.[8]Building Transparency, Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator,, 2020. Covering over 16,000 materials, it’s a great example of different roles within the industry united by a common goal: to make sustainability more measurable and more manageable.[9] It’s worth noting this only works in conjunction with the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building certification system currently.

New materials, new visions 

L’Oréal Hair Research Centre, San Ouen

A review of current construction procedures also begs the question, what could go further for sustainability? Phineas Harper, Chief Curator of the Oslo Triennale and Deputy Director of the Architecture Foundation, believes part of the opportunity lies in the specification of materials. 

Harper explains that: “The aesthetic and material possibilities of a new ecological architecture could be exceptionally rich, driving an international artistic and political renaissance.”[10]In our durability-focused world, the priority for lack of maintenance has become king. Take thatching, for example. This was once a popular roofing technique, with “good thermal performance, hyper-low environmental impact and seductive sculptural qualities” to boot.[11] But these days, it would rarely be specified, as the need for regular repair makes it less attractive. 

The justifications around material choices and what constitutes ‘sustainable’ could be rewritten now the curbing of greenhouse gases and the drive for carbon neutrality is a stronger priority than ever before. This of course would require a seismic cultural shift in the commissioning of buildings.

Rethinking the roof 

Our research also found a surprising number of architect pioneers who are already using innovative roofing materials as one way to solve sustainability-related challenges. Some 79% of architects we heard from had already built an ‘active roof’ that interacts or responds in some way to the environment they are in — including green, blue, solar or de-polluting roofs. By doing so, they solve a problem or fulfil a specific need beyond providing a seal for the building. Every building needs a roof. Now it can be up to you just how hard it works.

Green roofs

Opportunity to deliver:

  • Meet tighter local legislation in many countries. For example, France’s 2015 legislation that states “rooftops on new buildings in commercial zones across France must either be partially covered in plants or solar panels”[12]
  • Green roofs can have an insulating effect, reducing the amount of energy needed to heat a building in winter or keeping it cooler in summer

Opportunity to delight: 

  • Increasing biodiversity
  • Increasing green spaces that promote mental wellbeing
  • Providing opportunities to encourage social interaction with neighbours, and build a sense of community

Get inspired: Mairie de Paris roof, Paris, France

  • The Mairie de Paris green roof impressively features both a vegetable garden and a vineyard with a total surface area of 1,000 m² 
  • The three products used to bring this green roof vision to life were Parafor Jardin Silver (Silver, premium range with a 20-year product warranty) and Geoflow 44-1F (protection layer for the bitumen membrane and drainage function) and Wateroof for water retention
  • “It is still a great example of achievement of all that is current and what is expected from green roofs”— Claire Grosbellet, Agronomist, Florentaise Company

Get inspired: K11 Musea shopping centre, Hong Kong, China — led by architecture studio Kohn Pedersen Fox[13]

  • Clad in Portuguese limestone, with 4,600 square metres of green walls and a green roof featuring urban farms, beautiful canopies and structures, and also a playground
  • “The goal of K11 Musea is to become the Silicon Valley of culture in Hong Kong, injecting art, architecture, design, sustainability and all forms of culture into new consumers’ daily lives” — Cheng, Property Developer 

Blue roofs

Opportunity to deliver:

  • Extreme weather and flooding are becoming a greater hazard that must be mediated: blue roofs can hold and control heavy rainfall 
  • For new builds in several countries, blue roofs can help meet requirements to manage the flow of rainfall from the roof into the drainage system
  • In line with client requirements for business continuity or reduced building insurance costs, blue roofs provide an opportunity to futureproof your building against climate change beyond regulations

Opportunity to delight: 

  • Reuse water in the building or onsite e.g. replace use of drinkable water for toilet flushing or irrigation purposes[14]
  • Blue roof systems such as BMI’s Rooftop Duo™ drain the rainwater directly from the surface concrete of a flat roof to an internal storage structure, leaving the roof’s surface clear and usable for activities such as sports, even straight after a heavy downpour 
  • Combine with green roof for a self-watering system that is more easily maintained

Get inspired: The L’Oréal Hair Research Centre, Paris, France — by architect Frédéric Tomat

  • A light and airy structure that minimises the impact of greenhouse gases through various measures
  • Through an advanced BMI Siplast Wateroof system, a durable solution was also created that supports beautiful flora through a simple water-retention system 
  • The building qualified for an Outstanding Sustainable Building certification from HQE (Haute Qualité Environnementale), a first for any Research Centre

L’Oréal Hair Research Centre, San Ouen

From words to action 

You can help solve some of the world’s biggest sustainability challenges by thinking about the building’s longer-term, wider impacts, the materials you specify and the function of the roof. You can make the building work harder on behalf of your clients and our world. 

The time is now to channel momentum into meaningful action that not only follows legislation and meets goals, but sets new standards.[15]

Read our full report The Architect Effect to find out more about championing sustainable solutions in the changing world of construction. Or, for more detailed benefits of green and blue roofs and tips on how convince stakeholders to include them in projects, take a look at our business case for sustainability.


1. Dezeen,, 2019.
2. Results collected from multiple choice question. BMI, Global Architects Survey, 2019.
3. Dezeen, Ma Yansong: Architects Need To Talk About What The Future Is,, 2017.
4. LCE,, 2019.
5. A future proof built environment,, 2017.
6. A circular economy in the Netherlands by 2050,, 2016.
7. Nederland Circulair,, 2019.
8. Building Transparency, Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator,, 2020.
9. Dezeen, Dezeen link, 2020.
10, 11, 15. Dezeen,, 2019.
12. UNFCCC,, 2015.
13.  Dezeen,, 2019.
14. Efficient rooftops, Green versus blue roofs,, 2019.