20th May 2021 — Sustainable Engagement

Sustainable Engagement

When we succeed in delivering a sustainable project, we succeed in combining carbon-light design with the building user’s needs. With the climate emergency showing no signs of abating, we’re trying to make the transition into ‘green living’ almost seamless, and hopefully attractive. We think this means adapting our eco-knowledge of building performance to serve daily behaviours, nudging and enabling users to consume fewer resources.

Our 25 years’ experience can be a bridge between the overwhelming scale of eco-knowledge and the human needs of each project. By looking at our past projects, we discovered two key ways to improve. Some projects are already ‘green’ but could do more. Other projects have a disconnect between the user’s aims and the green agenda; we need a deeper understanding of this. So in this journal article, we will explore new ways to boost the sustainable credentials of every project.


Attitudes to the Green Agenda

DEFRA’s Environmental Sustainability Report is a great resource for understanding barriers to participation in the green agenda. While their research takes in sustainable behaviour in all corners of life, their extensive interviews are helpful for visualising the motives or obstacles to participating in being a ‘green consumer’. For an architect, this translates to the underlying agenda of our clients.



By comparing the mindsets of individuals, DEFRA can form categories of trends and behaviours, plotting them on charts according to ‘ability to act’ and ‘willingness to act’.

DEFRA's chart of eco-behaviours, plotted according to ability and willingness to act

By comparing the mindsets of individuals, DEFRA can form categories of trends and behaviours, plotting them on charts according to ‘ability to act’ and ‘willingness to act’.

Here, the research plots privilege (or access to resources) against motivation (or inclination to use resources), simplifying their findings into seven key attitudes to the green agenda:

DEFRA's chart of 'types' of behaviours, broken down into percentage of the population

DEFRA then go a step further, to consider these seven types on a sliding scale of their ‘ability to do more’. This leads to specific suggestions for ways to engage, encourage or enable a ‘consumer’ (or building user). Again, these three tiers of engagement correspond to our experience of architectural engagement:

DEFRA's three types of engagement - Able & Willing, Able & Unwilling or Disengaged
  • Able & Willing
    Visibly engaged, pro-active and demanding change
  • Able but Un-Willing
    Aware but inactive, perceived & real barriers are greater than perceived gains
  • Disengaged
    Either unaware, disenfranchised, excluded or disinterested

It is interesting to note how closely these seven ‘mindsets’ trace onto our experience of clients’ attitudes to building green. The categories create valuable distance between our general approach and the details of each project, helping us to increase engagement in the green agenda, aligned with each client’s priorities. To understand this further, we plotted our experience of different project types and their agendas, onto the same chart:

SWA Projects on DEFRA's axes

This is an empathy exercise, first considering the project user’s agenda, then what they know, understand and value about sustainability, so we can respond accordingly and craft greener outcomes. It is a more nuanced approach than simple metrics of comfort, convenience and costs.

Willing & Unable 

As we plotted our project types on this chart, we noticed a few projects do not fit into one of the three categories. In fact, they sit together under the umbrella of “I’d like to do more… but”; we’re therefore adding a group called
‘Willing & Un-Able’.


By considering what limits each project’s ‘ability or ‘willingness’ to do more, we discovered trends within this new category. For each, we can understand new ways to enable, encourage or exemplify the green agenda to our clients:

SWA project experience indicates a fourth category


The expectation of a high up-front cost for a high-performance building is enough to dissuade, even when compared with reduced future running costs

Solution: comparison with similar project types to demonstrate value of additions and scope of savings / efficiencies. Integrate sustainable content into specification, rather than treating as ‘extra over’. Assistance for seeking grants / funding for sustainable works. Retrofitting at scale to create economies.


Unsure how to start thinking ‘green’ or best approach for each project, assume project is ‘too small to make a difference’, client lack of experience in building.

Solution: Carbon Literacy engagement, ways to measure quality of environment and value of work, comparison projects, toolbox talks, widespread Retrofit training.


Intentions of building provider are different to the end user (particularly in housing) creating engagement ‘in principle’ not in use, hard to sell the value of green measures.

Solution: Engage with user where possible, including key stakeholders as project ‘champions’, case study projects that ‘cross over’ cultural barriers. Education about climate change, sustainability and construction across more of the population.



New construction methods, technologies or retaining existing buildings can carry uncertainty which is unattractive to some clients. Heritage features need to be protected.

Solution: demonstrator projects to explain outcomes, breaking down risks so they don’t ‘snowball’, involve specialist consultants for specific issues, early contractor involvement and inter-project learning / teaching.

DEFRA's proposals for motivating 'types' of individuals

Breaking Down the Big Picture 

By helping us to understand the causes of green inertia, DEFRA’s methods reveal howe we – a small practice – can make more opportunities for action. It is evident that the financial bottom line is rarely the sole motivator for decision making – we can catalyse action by engaging with more subtle agendas.


This approach also needs collaboration with other consultants’ expertise to help client teams express and manage their long-term agendas. When aligned with end user needs, understood through meaningful engagement, we can start to design solutions that factor in everyone’s agendas and handle risk appropriately.

Specifically with housing projects, recognising the growing demand for low-carbon, high efficiency housing is key to breaking the eco-stalemate in retrofit and new build homes. Even after a year of home working, many of us still live in homes that are too dark, cold or damp. Normalising end-user involvement in setting a building’s design brief is key to folding sustainability into every level of a project’s inception, guiding private sector knowledge and dispelling myths around the costs and risks of green building.

As designers, we see the potential to connect isolated agendas into a holistic approach to the fair consumption of resources. It’s our best bet for averting further climate disasters, learning to design for the consequences of our past actions and beginning to make reparations to our damaged ecosystems.