Our May conference asked, ‘What does ESG mean anyway?’ as we explored definitions, ESG in housing design, our mental health and social value in the workplace.
Our May conference this year focused on those three stark letters E, S and G - and what they mean to PTE. Our introduction was a five-act affair, with each speaker providing a unique take on Environmental, Social and Governance.
Partner Patrick Devlin’s deep dive into ESG origins linked ESG today with William Lever's Port Sunlight soap factory (1888) – its village green and idealised worker homes - and the Quaker industrialists (Cadbury and Rowntree, for example) who built model villages by their factories. Their focus, Patrick explained, was both people and profit – an aspiration challenged and often overturned in the 1970s by Milton Friedman’s doctrine “There is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits”. By the ‘00s though, new research was showing that that ‘good’ employers – those who prioritised people and purpose - outperformed solely profit-focused firms in the long term, fortifying, Patrick said, market support for the increasingly ESG-led economy of today.
Office manager Bobby Sharpe explained the E of ESG with an overview of PTE’s progress as a signatory, since 2022, of the London Mayor's Business Climate Challenge (BCC) which guides companies to drive down energy usage. We learned that we’ve reduced photocopies from 650K in 2019, to just 50K in 2022 and while our waste totalled 15 tonnes in 2019, it was only seven last year. We still produce 116 tonnes of CO2 a year however – but that’s 90 per cent lower than the average London business.
Sustainability design specialist Grecia Castillo focused on our sustainability ‘vision’ to go beyond minimum performance and how we do that with in-house tools, like our bespoke sustainability and retrofit toolkits; through our commitment to ISO 140001 certification; and to various climate action marques and organisations including AJ’s Retrofirst campaign, the RIBA climate challenge and Architects Declare.
Social value in the workplace
Bid manager Catherine Purves highlighted that social value typically accounts for 10 per cent of scoring in many bids, with clients eager to achieve social value in their projects. She also explained PTE’s history of best practice social value in the workplace - via our office lunches, social and sports groups, heath and wellbeing courses not forgetting her forthcoming bug hotel biodiversity workshop in the garden, after Thursday lunch.
Gloria Vargas Palma rounded off the introductions with a preview of her upcoming ‘Happy Homes’ workshop, which asks: ‘where does social value happen in housing?’ This is an important part of the current KTP with Reading University investigating the measurement of social value embedded in design.
Happy Homes Project workshop
As our Research Associate at PTE, and the University of Reading supported by the Knowledge Transfer Partnership, Gloria introduced the next workshop tasking the whole office with exploring how social value can be incorporated and evidenced in our buildings and places at the design stage. Social qualities are captured in six terms, including ’wonder’ and ‘belonging’. Colleagues formed small teams, each looking at and discussing a current PTE project, labelling plans to identify archetypes - ‘spaces, elements and details’ – where social value can happen in domestic settings.
One team noted on a maisonette plan: ‘oversize bedrooms (for double beds) to allow older children to remain living at home longer’, while a sculptural villa roof was highlighted for its ‘unique design’ and how this ‘fosters a sense of belonging’. Another team advised a ‘common architectural language to provide coherence across the estate’ on another scheme. The teams moved onto the next project, adding to and sometimes challenging the archetypes applied by previous groups.
Colleagues questioned ‘how you feel and move in your home and in the street’ and how this affects our wellbeing, pitted open-plan designs against cellular plans, while pretty much everyone questioned the ubiquity of floor to ceiling windows.
Guest speaker and social value expert Flora Samuel of Cambridge University chipped in to cite the work of The Quality of Life Foundation - set up by architect Sadie Morgan - and its role influencing RIBA’s social value toolkit and the wider profession’s ESG outlook.
Our third session was all about definitions, with Patrick, fellow partner Sarah Eastham (celebrating 25 years at PTE!) and Grecia encouraging a wide-ranging group discussion to capture what we think Environmental, Social and Governance criteria might be, in real life.
Patrick began by exploring the links between the RIBA Code of Professional Conduct, ESG and our own business plan for 2023, suggesting that good governance includes committing to your social obligations; and pointing to a renewed acknowledgment of professionalism as a socially necessary skillset, in architecture and beyond, rather than signifying an exclusive closed shop.
Sarah urged us to be aware of the emotional and social value of what we do; the ultimate prize will be better homes and places to live, as the market pivots away from purely profit-focused development. She highlighted how co-design sessions in Brixton are shaping our designs and influencing our client’s approach to public space provision, how our continuing relationships with completed projects – like redesigning the Packington community kitchen for its new role as a foodbank - are key to long-term sustainable communities. Our career days with residents groups, or our speaking at events on Third Age housing to underline the importance of design in later living, show the wider evolution of social value.
Grecia showed how the tools we use in-house feed into the E of ESG, for example helping us to reduce embodied carbon in our designs, and how research – like our new shading guidance programme, which will help develop a ‘new shading vernacular’ – helps improve energy performance and could radically change the look of our streets and buildings. Throughout, bid co-ordinator Elin Hopkins jotted down key questions and phrases onto A1 sheets headed Environmental, Social and Governance. These will feed into our ESG strategy with another workshop and future whole-office sessions.
During the definitions workshop, partners Dominique Oliver and Tricia Patel prepared lunch: cumin roast aubergines with couscous. Delicious doesn’t quite capture it!
Diespeker garden project
After lunch, the courtyard beckoned – conversation with friends, table tennis with foes and bug hotel design for anyone willing to pick up a saw, hammer, or making tool of some kind. Result: four magnificent wooden structures for our smaller co-inhabitants at Diespeker Wharf.
Mental health workshops
After lunch and the bug hotel build, two separate mental health sessions: one for women, one for men. Lou Campbell’s workshop for women tackled anxiety, PTSD, peri and post menopause as well as loneliness and how to safely boost serotonin levels – ‘make time to relax in nature’ - while David Thorne focused on how men can create the right conditions for good mental health, from seeking emotional support to making crucial lifestyle changes.
Thursday at Four
With Patrick in the chair, the final session was our 4pm debate, with quick-fire presentations by guest speakers followed by a Q+A. Flora Samuels, Professor of Architecture at the University of Cambridge, kicked off by noting that ‘pension funds are looking to move investments from overseas back to the UK, into assets like social housing.’
Inner Circle Consulting director and housing expert Lucy Webb pointed out that ESG ‘frames development as a long path not a rush to the ribbon’.
Lisa Taylor, director of Coherent Cities, took a pot-shot at consultants working in Saudi Arabia and advised architects seeking an ESG strategy to, ‘just think about what NEOM would do, and don’t do that.’
Grant Schlereth, director of operations, ESG, at equity firm Terra Firma Capital Partners reminded us that, ‘2050 is not that far off and we know tougher legislation needs to be set in place at some point but it’s hard for business to move forward with confidence without clarity. Most Governments have been and will continue to be indecisive, but consumer signals are weak too.’
The presentations drew to a close with Gloria’s observation that, ‘there is an attempt to standardise social value across all industries – but construction, we all know, is not the same as, for example, finance.’
Our voyage of exploration into ESG led us to some unexpectedly interesting places. There is undoubtedly a tide of greenwash swirling around the subject, but our own investigations and the contributions of our excellent panel uncovered real potential to shout about and build on the social benefits of what we do. Watch this space!
Thursday at Four takeaways
Pollard Thomas Edwards