A blueprint for truly sustainable buildings

Global temperatures are rising.

28 Jan 2020

By Stephen Kent

children's hands planting a tree
Climate change is barely out of the news today. Once the province of lone eco warriors, the mass mobilisation of teenage activists has now weaponised the urgency to stem global warming and turned it into an assertive, planet wide movement. Alarming images of flash floods, bush fires and melting ice caps are forcing many – but regrettably by no means all - governments around the world to come together in a desperate bid to make change. But governments and politicians who rely on popular support face a huge dilemma; addressing climate change may mean curbing many of our freedoms, like cheap flights, owning a car, access to year-round imported food, affordable consumer goods and lower prices. If we do nothing, politicians could be walking their countries towards greater climate volatility and with it, many more significant consequences. It appears indisputable now, global temperatures are rising. 2019 was the second hottest year on record, and nine of the ten warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2005.

Despite the noise around climate change, the politicians are still not sure if we really mean it. Once we’re standing in the privacy of the polling booth will we really vote for having less, relinquishing the things we enjoy and accepting greater limits on our lives? This time though, it really does feel different. The tidal shifts in opinion are significant and the movement is broadly based. It’s about much more than the collective views of concerned individuals now, and it may have the momentum to open a pathway leading to the introduction of more aggressive legislation. 

That would mean major adaptation for all of us as we move away from ‘business as usual’, even accepting the risk of impairing economic growth, especially in developing economies where there remains greater reliance on fossil fuel to drive development. This need for change is being recognised globally. China, although no longer a developing country has recently banned single use plastics and is looking to diversify the energy mix with a greater reliance upon renewable energy.

This cultural change is also shaping our values and choices as individuals. Businesses are being forced to acknowledge that their reputations will be judged on whether they operate with a clean conscience; consumers have become hungrier than ever to live ‘guilt free’. Investors want to see their money used in ethical and sustainable ventures and this ethos also influences the money going to fund the development of our new buildings. However, a look around the built environment reveals mixed results, as many buildings come low on the sustainability scale and are ill-equipped to withstand the effects of climate change.

2019 saw a three-fold increase in the number of high-rise buildings under construction in London compared with the previous year. While these shiny new towers may look like beacons of cutting-edge design, many will not be sufficiently sustainable, properly equipped to withstand global warming, or capable of keeping occupiers’ energy usage to a minimum.

In spite of the government‘s headline sustainability position, initiatives like Net Zero have been overshadowed by ambiguity and lack of detail. On top of that there’s extensive disparity between regions, with some local authorities pushing developers to think carefully about long-term occupancy while others pay it little more than lip service. Add competing political imperatives to the mix, and the most ambitious policies have been held back by cyclical cabinet and central office reshuffles which have stifled progress and limited our capacity to keep pace with the rate of climate change itself.

As a result, too many new developments simply follow the minimum compliance, ‘tick-box’ approach to sustainability. It’s only after completion, when operators or occupiers move in, that the real limits on their capacity to meet occupiers’ evolving needs over time become apparent. As our increasingly unpredictable and unforgiving climate takes its toll, the shelf life of these buildings will inevitably be shortened, prompting the building cycle to resume prematurely. This will lead to problems in the future, especially as data show that around 40% of UK’s total carbon footprint is made up by the built environment, with buildings contributing to at least 50% of all greenhouse gases, globally.

At least at the supply end of the industry, developers and real estate investors have a better understanding of the returns that innovation and longer-term thinking can yield. They are increasingly turning to materials and energy sources that counteract climate change. But the gap remains. Occupiers’ demands for environments that engender wellness, from light-inducing designs, water features and planted indoor landscapes, to fitness and mindfulness zones are still often overlooked at day one. Businesses that have these features see a demonstrable impact on productivity, absenteeism and brand value, which from a corporate perspective are more important than ever in a fiercely competitive market.

In our day to day work as sustainability experts we’re active in every real estate sector so we get to see how the supply and demand sides both work up close. We can also see the critical areas where they fail to mesh effectively. More often than not when that occurs, true long-term sustainability is the casualty. So how can we be better, achieve more and pay our debt to future generations?

This gap between design and performance, where actual running costs can be double the assumptions made at design stage, can only be closed by a truly collaborative and holistic approach that brings together everyone involved in a building’s life from start to finish; developers, investors, operators and, of course, the occupiers themselves. It pays to collaborate; investors vying for long term value know that going green can boost returns and enhance reputation, but the developer’s challenge is the affordability of investing in design longevity and performance flexibility while remaining competitive in today’s market. Investors and lenders need to help drive a transition to a longer-term investment perspective, so the market rebalances, and all new buildings meet this higher standard.

Smart technology can play a vital role in bridging the performance gap, but it can’t succeed on its own; collaboration is key. A longer term focus is the objective; a cohesive, building specific strategy from the outset to design resilient schemes able to withstand climate change and flex to meet occupiers’ changing business and wellness needs, in the most sustainable way possible.

While there’s much to do, a look at the achievements of our international peers offers some encouraging models. Australia’s NABERS (National Australian Built Environment Rating System) scheme, for example, has encouraged true developer and occupier collaboration, and resulted in much enhanced operational performance. Importantly, it leaves no room for ‘greenwashing’. Developers, designers, landlords and tenants are accountable if buildings don’t perform in the long term as they were designed.

It’s evident that legislation and the regulatory framework both have big parts to play. Policy makers need to have the courage to impose tougher life time performance standards on our buildings because that’s what we are telling them we want. It need not all be stick; tax incentives, more favourable planning conditions, even lower business rates are all available as measures to move us toward the ultimate goal of really putting our money where our mouth is and only building truly sustainable, enduring, low energy buildings. Buildings capable of making a meaningful contribution to the fight against climate change as well being designed and equipped to withstand its impact.

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