How to make your next project more sustainable according to an architect

We all want to make more eco-conscious decisions when it comes to our home projects, so we spoke with the experts on how to be more sustainable in our choices

Clapham Common Art Gallery, by Common Ground Workshop
(Image credit: Common Ground Workshop)

We are all making efforts to live more eco-conscious lives, from buying a reusable cup to switching to an electric car, but have you ever considered how your home reno projects are affecting the environment? Sustainable architecture is a hot topic right now, and it's one we are so keen to learn more about and educate on how we can be making better choices, so we spoke with the experts at Common Ground Workshop (opens in new tab), a London-based architecture firm where sustainability is high on the agenda.

Director, Jack Pannell, gave us his top tips for ensuring a new project has as little impact on the planet as possible, from approaching the right people for the job to easy, more sustainable, switches you can make.

What is the biggest area of sustainability that the architecture industry is focussing on?

'There is a huge drive towards achieving net Zero in the construction industry and it’s great to see so many talented architects and design professionals engage with new initiatives led by the RIBA and other key forums and interest groups.' explains Jack. 

'For us, retrofitting buildings and building reuse pose some very exciting opportunities for future sustainability, and we are increasingly taking on projects that require both sustainable material specification and energy efficiency, as well as innovation in the life-cycle design of spaces in terms of future adaptability and agility.'

'Our architectural practice, for example, is situated within a café and co-working space that we own: we have built the space to be fully agile and to accommodate a range of potential uses and community events, as well as building an arts project space in the basement. For us, sustainability isn’t just about specification and efficiency but also involves changing minds and attitudes to the way spaces are used, occupied, and shared.'

What do you find are a client’s biggest concerns about sustainable architecture?

'Budget tends to always be a major constraint, especially on smaller domestic schemes. We are seeing however that clients are becoming increasingly aware of the long-term benefits of thinking about sustainability at the start of a project, and the impact that early investment will have not only for the environment but also for their own personal finances in the future, with reduced energy bills and a potentially greater property value.'

'Inevitably the costs of new technologies are coming down, and we are usually able to include at least some sustainable ideas into our projects whilst allowing for flexibility in the design for future retrofit when the budgets are available.'

Sustainable architecture projects by Common Ground Workshop

(Image credit: Common Ground Workshop)

What manufacturing processes should we look out for in order to make a project more sustainable? 

'Some great innovations are coming to the fore from all corners of the design, manufacturing, and construction industries and we would encourage clients to engage with these developments by attending design fairs and shows, reading relevant journals, and basically just researching topics of interest and showing support. We are currently very excited about the proliferation of pre-fabricated and off-site construction, especially the use of cross-laminated timber (CLT) framing, and have some challenging projects coming up that will harness these technologies in highly challenging locations.'

What can we be mindful of when engaging an architect for a sustainable project?

'We would always encourage clients to think about sustainability from the outset and to see if taking a sustainable approach to materials specification, energy, waste, and space flexibility fits with their lifestyle aspirations and budgets. There is no set agenda when discussing sustainable aspirations and we very much like to keep an open mind and to ensure that clients are fully informed so that they are empowered to make the right choices as early on in a project as possible.'

Sustainable architecture projects by Common Ground Workshop

(Image credit: Common Ground Workshop)

How should you approach an architect to work on a sustainable project?

'The key to most successful projects in our experience is having a good client, and we would welcome anyone who is considering a new sustainable project and is enthusiastic about sustainable design to contact us and to commence the conversation as soon as possible. It’s great to have informed clients but this isn’t a must: there are many aspects of sustainable design and renovation of existing buildings that clients may not have considered, and an initial consultation and brainstorming can be invaluable to tease out the full potential of a project.'

What are the top 5 sustainable issues you would recommend we adhere to when starting a new project?

'The top 5 things that I personally feel can always be greatly improved upon in buildings are:

1. Use of water
2. Efficiency of windows and doors
3. Heating and cooling (active and passive)
4. Reusing materials/using sustainably sourced materials
5. Lifecycle sustainability and social sustainability (for buildings of all types and scales)

Rory Alastair Robertson has a long-standing history working across the interiors industry. Raised in Morningside, Edinburgh, Rory grew up surrounded by classically grand Scottish Georgian and Victorian architecture. 

His first appreciation for interior decoration sparked when his mother hired scaffolding and decorated their three-storey Victorian staircase in Farrow & Ball Picture Gallery Red, by herself. She then painstakingly gold leafed the drawing room - by hand - over a base coat of Sudbury Yellow. This was the era of Jocasta Innes and Kenneth Turner, when paint techniques and maximalist style were the decorating raison d'être. 

With this inherited gene of creativity, Rory went on to study Interior Architecture at the University of Edinburgh, and later, Theatre Set Design and Architectural Illustration at The Rhode Island School of Design on America's East Coast.  

Rory's foray with the editorial world started a decade ago at Livingetc magazine, a title which he regularly contributes to today. Specialising with a deep-seated appreciation for historical homes and interiors, Rory often travels far and wide to be inspired by unique properties with a fascinating history. 

If he’s not uncovering an unusual National Trust property in the UK, then he’s seeking out a Neo-Classical clifftop villa in Capri or a Palazzo in Florence. 

Based in London’s Shoreditch, working as a Senior Interiors Editor and Consultant, Rory's portfolio of work is a creative melting pot of residential and commercial interior design projects and a plethora of editorial writing work. Rory is also Guest Interiors Lecturer at the prestigious KLC School of Interior Design in Chelsea, London. His most cosseted possession is a ramshackle Citroen Deux Chevaux, which he has reupholstered in Pierre Frey yellow and turquoise silk fabric. 

Discover more at roryrobertson.co.uk and @rory_stylist.