May 6, 2021

Improving lives through architecture

Over the last year, the pandemic has impacted the built environment abruptly and in profound ways. Here, Philip Watson, Director and Head of Design at HLM Architects, outlines how the changing landscape has impacted on the marketplace.


Many things we never thought could happen did and with that the need for us to embrace innovation and open-mindedness was accelerated by years. The very purpose of space is being challenged more rigorously, with health and wellbeing benefits to occupiers more widely understood, captured and measured.

What stands before us now is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink the concept and purpose of architecture while simultaneously improving lives. From better energy and water efficiency, to waste and carbon reduction, our industry has a vital role to play in keeping our communities healthy and safe. Health and wellbeing should sit alongside net-zero carbon and energy efficiency targets if we are to accelerate the transition into a more sustainable future.

Today, building and construction are together responsible for 39% of all carbon emissions in the world. This means environmental sustainability targets are going to emerge in a more meaningful way as we emerge from the pandemic. We’re seeing increasing requirements from private sector clients such as universities to achieve zero carbon targets for new build projects that support their climate change declarations. Increasingly, government procurement is also showing signs that it will soon demand similarly ambitious targets. The Department for Education’s £7bn construction framework asks bidders to demonstrate how they will deliver the necessary, “Step Change to ‘Net Zero carbon emissions in Operation’”.

Similarly, the zero-carbon ambition is moving up the justice sector agenda and while targets might not be set quite yet, there’s certainly an indication of where we are headed. Case in point, the Ministry of Justice has recently asked potential bidders to their new prison procurement what a route to zero carbon would look like as part of their submissions. At last, it seems that this direction of travel will pervade all public procurement before long as the government formalises its own response to climate change.

Fundamentally, we have witnessed an accelerated adoption of certain established circular design strategies, exploiting modern methods of construction for its adaptability, as these have demonstrated convincing solutions to some of the newly emerged issues. Looking to the future, our’ ‘Forever Home’ concept – which we developed last year during the pandemic as part of the Government’s Home of 2030 competition – exploits these trends with a universal manufacturing platform to enable flexible, affordable, and sustainable ‘forever’ homes that are delivered using a circular economy approach. The homes are able to grow and shrink to suit their owners needs over their lifetime, meaning people can invest in their homes rather than in the cost of moving and put strong roots down to support stable, sustainable communities.

Finally, we shouldn’t underestimate the philosophical shift that is emerging either. Our continued, collective learning has enabled the built environment to grasp at new opportunities to evolve and improve. The success of our industry’s future is hinged on how we take forward this experience, to make better places for people to live, learn and feel fulfilled and rewarded at every level.

Philip Watson, Director and Head of Design, HLM Architects,