Source: Hawkins\Brown


Dewi has worked as an Architect for over 20 years, working across a wide range of projects and countries and currently holds the position of Lead Sustainability Designer at Hawkins\Brown. In addition to developing a new Whole Life Carbon Tool, VERT, Dewi is a frequent guest Lecturer and awards judge and has just contributed to a UKGBC task group on embodied carbon.

What drives you?

Until recently I was working as both an architect and sustainability lead concurrently. As an architect, I realised my sphere of influence working on a project was limited in a way, however when applying my knowledge at a practice level that sphere of influence was greater as I was able to educate colleagues  and influence multiple projects simultaneously.

In 2021 feeling the need to learn more about the technical aspects of environmental design, I undertook a master’s degree at UCL. This led me to being offered a role to design a new Whole Life Carbon software at Hawkins\Brown, which expanded this sphere of influence beyond what I had originally envisioned.

I got this incredible opportunity to actually influence at industry level — that is the ultimate goal to be able to really provide the tools for others to reduce the carbon impact of their projects. In addition to helping individuals make key strategic decisions at early stages, it also supports those who aren’t LCA experts to upskill.

This is essentially what really drives me, and the belief that we can really collectively work together, to make a change.

As a Sustainability Lead, what does sustainability mean to you?

It is about maintaining an environmental equilibrium, by preserving the planet's balance and at the same time preventing further emission contributions that push us beyond the tipping point. It's about ensuring that the future can thrive and eventually we need to be moving towards more regenerative rather than just maintaining that equilibrium.

Ultimately, we have to find a delicate balance between these three main aspects: economic, social and environmental — they are all interrelated and influence one another so it's a very fine balance to maintain. And part of that is also that we have to really rethink how we do everything and develop a new narrative and introduce an architectural language around it — what it really means to be sustainable and how to practise it.

As someone who has experienced this industry over the last 20 years…What do you think are the main challenges today when we look at sustainability in the built environment?

There are quite a few... I think the main ones are lack of knowledge, regulations, drivers and time. If you take the UK as an example, we are really lacking in regulation. We have existing and emerging local level policies, for example the London Plan, requiring a whole life carbon assessment on projects above a certain size, but what we really need is a national regulation. There is however a collective industry initiative proposing a new Part Z to the Building Regulations which would mandate Whole Life Carbon assessments on certain projects, but this is yet to be enacted by the government.

Another challenge is the perception of risk by the industry and unwillingness to adapt. If you take CLT, for example, insurance companies historically were so risk-averse and slow to embrace change, creating a barrier for implementation. Luckily this is slowly changing with respect to CLT. 

The widespread education on sustainable practices is a huge issue. This needs to occur across the whole supply chain. There is no point for example for an architect to upskill and adjust their practice if the contractor is unable to build in accordance. Everyone needs to “buy-in” and understand the driver and urgency.

Finally, timing plays a big role here. The biggest opportunity to reduce carbon emissions is at the early project stage which is typically short. There needs to be more flexibility and time allocation to allow teams to develop the most appropriate low carbon strategy and understand the impact to inform decisions.

In regards to education and regulations. What is your opinion on the standardisation of LCA and Material Data?

Standardising LCA methodologies and material data is crucial for consistency in assessments, making it easier to compare the environmental impact of different products or processes, comparing benchmarks and ultimately for decision making.

Lack of data is a major issue though, I think a lot of it comes down to regulation again, if you look at the UK, there aren't many UK-based EPDs, perhaps around 600. So, in terms of data, you have to really interpret global data and apply a geographical, technical and temporal level logic to it. 

I think data standardisation reflects only part of the story. On the flip side, you have life cycle assessors with vastly different base knowledge and skillsets, it’s currently an unregulated profession in its infancy— Even with standardised data, the assessor can interpret a project specification and quantification differently, resulting in vastly different outcomes. So again, education is part of this, building up consistent skillsets to be able to do LCA's is equally important.

You mentioned risk aversion and perception of risk standing in the way for changing today's norms. How do we move towards more bio-based Materials?

I think it's about creating an environment that fosters new thinking. I've touched upon regulation a lot today…but I do think that it is the biggest driver. If you look at Amsterdam, for example, they developed a Circular Economy Roadmap a few years ago. It created actionable steps for the economy to also follow this transition, which allowed for a shift in mindset and most importantly business — creating an economy around the reuse of materials.

It of course comes down to education and understanding the benefits of materials. A lot of biobased materials have many other advantages besides scoring low on carbon, health benefits being one of them. And it's also not just about limiting ourselves to whatever has the “better value” but we need to dive deeper and understand the whole story. And this understanding can help drive more people to use more nature-based materials.

Where should the industry stand by 2030?

If I look back, it was about 5 years ago when the conversations around 2030 benchmarks and targets started. I do think we've come leaps and bounds but still there's a lot to do! So my answer will not be as utopian as 2030 is around the corner.

I would really like to think that people will consider retrofit as a default option in lieu of demolition (obviously informed via a Whole Life Carbon assessment to determine the best approach). In the UK 80% of buildings will still be here in 2050. So retrofitting is really seen as key, especially since the carbon in the structure and the facade typically represents a high proportion of the whole building.

There's a lot of guidance out there and it kind of feels that we just need to get going with it. But we do need those drivers I mentioned before, we need the regulations to really push us.

I also hope that we will be thinking beyond carbon. For example, water — we have to be a lot more resourceful with the use of water and be a lot more efficient. As I said, carbon and its impact on climate change is relatively well understood, but the nine planetary boundaries from the Stockholm Resilience centre, indicate that we have to approach a sustainable built environment from a systemic point of view.

Do you have any advice for those who strive to make changes?

I think collaboration with diverse stakeholders is key. It's really about finding the drivers of the consultant or client you are working with — figure out what motivates people in order to work with them and work towards something together. Once you understand someone's drivers, it allows you to speak a common language.

It's about sharing knowledge, stories, barriers, and breaking silos. There's a lot of different networks for this in the UK. I'm a part of a Heads of sustainability group in London, which includes sustainability leads from approximately 100 practices, and we meet every two months to discuss burning issues and share knowledge. We're working together and we have a common voice and so it really does empower you as an individual, when you know that others are encountering similar issues and may have already developed solutions.