Building towards a sustainable future

Great strides are being made to decarbonise the built environment industry and push sustainability even further up corporate agendas, panelists in the first of our ‘Green Construction’ series of webinars heard on 12 October.

But more effort is needed by industry to measure the carbon emissions involved in building new assets. Stakeholders must also focus on considering if existing infrastructure can be reused instead, and ensure that whole supply chains are fully invested in maximising environmental awareness.

National Highways’ director of environmental sustainability Stephen Elderkin told the session: “Every time we produce a cost estimate for one of our schemes, we produce a carbon estimate too.”

Such an approach adopted more widely should ensure that design houses and contractors know the carbon associated with a design and how it will be scored, allowing for the client to consider more fully carbon reduction ambitions in a contract, he explained.

Our very own Chair, Phoebe Sullivan, asked panelists for their views on the built environment sector’s ability to help meet the UK’s net zero target by 2050.

“We are at a point where everyone knows they need to be doing something,” remarked Mace’s global head of responsible business James Low. “We know where we need to get to; now we must deliver on our promises and where possible, accelerate them.”

Faithful+Gould’s sustainability technical lead Annabel Clark agreed. “We know exactly what we need to do, it’s just a question of how we get there.” She added that many companies understand the challenge of reducing carbon emissions and have made “really big commitments” to do so.

Measuring embodied carbon

Conversation turned to ‘Scope 3’ emissions, which are those produced not by a business itself, but by others along a supply chain. “Scope 3 is becoming all important if we are going to reach net zero by 2050, otherwise we are ignoring a big chunk of emissions,” said environmental think tank Green Alliance’s policy analyst Verner Viisainen.

“Without measuring those Scope 3 emissions or having mandatory reporting on them, we won’t get to where we need to be.” Everybody needs to be responsible for their Scope 3, across the board, he added.

But the industry should not wait to measure emissions before taking action to cut them, warned James Low. “In the built environment, people know the pound value of their asset and the square meterage of what they are building. We should equally know a third metric: the carbon involved in everything we are doing.”

Stephen Elderkin told the session that one of National Highways’ flagship schemes, the Lower Thames Crossing, is set to be the first major infrastructure project to use hydrogen construction plant at scale.

There is a push, he explained, to spend more on such technology to help “prime the market, so we can get these technologies available for the rest of our portfolio”.

But he also said: “We need a large investment from the plant industry if we are going to turn over all plant on our sites to zero emission by 2030.

Expanding carbon literacy

RSK’s senior carbon consultant, Jamie Blunden, said there is a collective need for the built environment sector to increase its ‘carbon literacy’.

By “joining the dots together within design teams” he noted, and “with a bit more communication”, real value can be achieved from measuring carbon. “If we can continue to increase our carbon literacy in the way we have seen in the last three years, we will see it naturally become a part of how people work.”

Stephen Elderkin added that the built environment sector has to “question if we can use our existing assets more productively, so we don’t need to build more”.

In the case of strategic roads, he asked, can more motorists be accommodated without building additional carriageway and can the longevity of the asset be increased?

Beyond focusing on materials, Stephen added, “there is a strategic level dimension” to cutting carbon which is really important.

Verner Viisainen concurred, “We need to think about whether we need that construction in the first place and there needs to be much more emphasis on retrofitting existing buildings, extending their lifetimes and ensuring we are making best use of the existing stock before we go out and build.”

Jamie Blunden spoke about a spatial development strategy in one UK city which considers a ‘whole life’ carbon assessment for buildings, which is encouraging greater collaboration to renew assets rather than rebuild.

He gave an example of a major retailer who was set to knock down its flagship store, until the city authority intervened and called for a review. This showed, he added, that “pressure is being applied to make sure they are considering the reuse of the building.

Collaboration and developing skills

It was also said that companies are starting to work more closely in order to share knowledge and help tackle the environmental challenge. “We have never seen better collaboration across industry,” remarked Annabel Clark of Faithful+Gould.

She pointed out that professionals involved in designing, building and operating building projects are increasingly thinking about the ‘circular economy’ and considering how structures could be adapted for different uses.

Attention turned to the skills needed by the built environment sector to deliver on the decarbonisation agenda. “We know there is a skills shortage in the industry, so we must come together, quickly, to help upskill and create opportunities for more people to support the climate challenge.” said James Low.

Innovating for the future

Phoebe mentioned that the industry circles around the need for innovation and asked whether the panel thought the sector is making sufficient gains in developing innovations to help it to decarbonise.

James Low quoted findings presented by the management consultant McKinsey which suggested that 80% of our journey to net zero can be delivered with mature technologies that exist today.

“Innovation is important, but let’s not ignore the fact that most of the solutions we need already exist.”

Stephen Elderkin agreed that mature technologies can get the sector most of the way to net zero and wondered whether innovation is not the challenge, but investment in new technologies is.

Net zero: a matter of interpretation

But what does achieving net zero actually mean, asked Annabel Clark. “It means completely different things to different organisations.

“We need to be able to compare better to get benchmarks in place. Just saying ‘net zero carbon’ isn’t enough.”

Jamie Blunden added that “the more that we share information” around carbon, “the better the benchmarks”.

James Low added: “I really don’t think you will be able to design something that is not net zero in the next few years. No matter what your role is, I think you are going to have a part in this.”