Following COP27 we reflect on the key actions we need to see in 2023 to help our industry to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and deliver a Net Zero Carbon world from a construction industry perspective. It is clear that the wider built environment sector needs to step up and drive progress towards Net Zero Carbon in construction.
In the sector we are now seeing what the barriers to reducing carbon in a significant way are. They include the challenges surrounding retrofit: the financial uplift on retrofit versus new construction and misperceptions in the industry that new is better. Pressures against demolition are building across the built environment and authorities are responding to these changing attitudes. The outlook of developers and architects is also shifting but significant challenges remain.
We need data
In order to demonstrate that retrofitting is less carbon intensive than new build we need data. Despite claims that some developers are using Whole Life Carbon Assessments as an exercise in greenwash, from our perspective these assessments are really important if we are to have a better understanding of the effects of construction and proceed towards a standard, regulated process. What is also clear is that we need to be measuring the carbon impacts of demolition as part of whole life carbon assessment of a new development – this should not be seen as a separate exercise.
Not only should we be measuring carbon emissions relating to sourcing, manufacturing, transport and construction, not forgetting designed energy requirements, we should also be capturing true data during occupancy. This data would enable our design and construction methodologies to evolve, at the same time as providing investors with metrics to demonstrate that their assets are part of the solution not the problem, an emerging trend with the rise of ESG (Environmental Social Governance).
“A Data-centric approach puts data at the heart of design decision making. By pairing project and design data and adding information captured from building management systems and occupants, insights can be reached into how buildings are going to perform, and how they actually perform in use.
Data is also invaluable for retrofit as it allows the creation of “what if ” scenarios to predict and test performance for repurposed buildings. Reality capture of existing buildings using laser scanners is also a form of data-centricity which enables engineers and architects to discover the condition of existing buildings in more detail and in the process make better retrofit decisions.” Dr Erika Parn, Chetwoods Works Lead Strategic Consultant and a Research Associate at the University of Cambridge.
We need regulations and targets
The industry is crying out for regulation and, in the meantime, we need a certification scheme to ensure consistency of such data. Off the back of the industry recognised UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) Framework Definition for Net Zero Carbon Buildings, the UKGBC are in the process of developing a certification scheme. If, however, a more global outlook is required, the International Living Futures Institute (ILFI) have released their own Zero Carbon certification, which has been recognised by the likes of Google and Amazon. Perhaps the BRE, the group of researchers, scientists, engineers and technicians, are working on some amendments to BREEAM to take this into consideration.
Not only do we need consistency of data, we also need maximum emissions targets for all sectors in relation to embodied and operational carbon, which is something that the London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI) and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) have been working on. An embodied carbon Private Members Bill which will make measuring carbon mandatory as part of Building Regulations – a potential Part Z – has been presented twice by two different MPs in the last year, and there is an expectation that benchmarks will soon follow. Whilst there is anticipation that there will be regulation on carbon, the Greater London Authority (GLA) are already charging developers £95 per ton of carbon through their offset fund, a sort of carbon tax, and we suspect they will not be the last.
We need further collaboration
So, what can we in the industry do in the meantime? Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet, and therefore we need radical collaboration to share solutions. In the workshops we host at Chetwoods, this manifests in academics and subcontractors being invited to a discussion with the client, Project Manager, Quantity Surveyor and Design Team to work ideas through and test the real boundaries. Through these discussions we are evolving the conversation to be in a position to ask the right questions. Involving the client and those further along the supply chain sets a tone of collaborative urgency and speeds up progress.
Ideally, we would also like to be able to collaborate with the end users of a scheme. If we are not careful as an industry, certain speculative buildings can result in a scheme for everyone that pleases no one. If we are going to continue to build property for no one and everyone, it is clear that we need to be more inclusive in our design conversations, for example agents need to be brought into these conversations to enable them to buy into the vision and contribute their knowledge. We also need to keep talking to insurers and normalise the use of biobased and reused materials if we are going to make any dent in the carbon footprint of buildings.
We need to prioritise retrofit
Whether it’s retrofit or new build, the use of engineered timber will need to play a major role in construction going forwards, as will the use of reclaimed steel which is proving to be viable not only on several major developments in London but also in minor domestic retrofit.
The Zetter Hotel occupies a refurbished Victorian warehouse building in the heart of Clerkenwell, London. The architectural concept put environmental design top of the agenda with a five storey atrium that allowed natural light and air to penetrate deep into the building’s interior.
“We believe aiming to retain and repurpose any existing buildings should be the starting point for considering all project briefs. By retrofitting the existing built environment, we are adding to the history and narrative of a place and saving embodied carbon.” Yianni Kattirtzis, Chetwoods Studio Director.
We need modelling
At a minimum, daylighting and overheating modelling at design stage needs to be carried out. We are being steered in this direction by the Part O Building Regulation. Modelling needs to be carried out early and the outcomes need to be responded to in glazing sizes, positions, and robust shading strategies. This would avoid the need to revert to tinted glazing or films which degrade the quality of natural light, reduce desirable solar heat gains during winter time and compromise options for reuse at the end of a building’s first life.
It is not all about carbon
We will continue to drive these themes forward in 2023, however we are also aware that it is not all about carbon. When considering the climate and ecological emergency there are a great many contributing factors and we must be sure not only to focus on reducing CO2 associated with buildings but to ensure that we design buildings holistically in line with 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Philippa Birch-Wood, Chetwoods Thrive Director.
Operational and embodied carbon emissions associated to construction are just the tip of the iceberg. The industry should now not only be dealing with carbon but also adaptation to the changing climate, the chemical make-up of the materials we use, water pollution and biodiversity degradation due to building environment activities.
To find out more about the points we have raised, or if you would like to discuss with us directly, please contact us today.
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