6 May, 2021

Two of the four themes in The UK Green Building Council‘s new guidance on delivering net zero buildings sit firmly with those of us working with design teams on new buildings. Those themes are design and innovation. 

Aligned with the RIBA work stages, the UKGBC guidance identifies seventeen barriers that stand in the way of achieving net zero, and groups them into four themes. As Project Managers the most significant opportunity we have to help shift some of them out of the way comes from working with our clients to establish project briefs which set ambitious targets from the outset. At the same time, we need to find new and innovative ways to deliver buildings. That means making sure every part of the process from design, procurement and construction, through commissioning to occupation and use, makes a material contribution to the achievement of objective and measurable performance targets. 

Shifting the paradigm to net zero social cardFor our clients, especially for those working in competitive, commercial sectors of the market, there is understandable concern about departing from recognised market norms. The institutionally funded office market in particular has always worked to prescribed building specifications largely driven by the perception that these performance standards will meet the broadest range of occupier needs and, at the same time, embed long term value in the asset. Cost is an issue too. On the face of it, the idea of spending more to make a building that does less looks like two business mistakes in one. But it’s time to recognise what the customer really wants. The institutional investment community’s appetite for highly sustainable, low energy, low carbon buildings is almost insatiable. Businesses too, see the buildings they occupy as highly visible expressions of their own ESG values. When it comes to sustainability, there is tangible value in virtue. There seems little doubt that market momentum is now aligning behind the net zero agenda.

Sentiment is one thing, but how we get there is quite another. Bill Gates’ insightful book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, suggests we may be looking at the problem from the wrong perspective. However strongly we may feel about climate crisis there’s little incentive to move towards a world where we’re no longer allowed to drive or fly. Gates says that’s a false choice. We need to look for ways in which we can continue to do what we do now, but without paying the deadly price in emissions. He sees the need for radical change in the energy industry coupled with innovation, not just in technology and buildings science, but in policy from every government across the globe. Arguably, there is a lesson we can learn from the pandemic about innovation. The extraordinary pace of vaccine development shows just how fast we can move when we face a global crisis.

Meanwhile back in the room with the design team, what does a move towards net zero look like? It means reducing embodied and operational carbon by setting net zero outcomes from the start and being absolutely clear about the impact that will have on building performance and user experience. That shift may be key, because it will need a change in our expectations about what our buildings look like, how we make them and how they support the activities we want to use them for. But the right project ethos - led by the client - will support and encourage the design team in key areas; more intelligent design choices, the careful selection of materials and systems, a whole life cost approach and proper consideration being given to reusing materials. Digital technology has a huge role to play too, giving us the tools to use energy sparely and only where it’s needed, and unlocking new efficiencies at every point along the building lifecycle. At the same time, we have to recognise that while innovation is happening, the pace needs to quicken to give us any chance of hitting the target. That means we must challenge many of our own defaults and ask how we can do things in a different way, a better way.

Full service real estate businesses like CBRE have an advantage. In our role as project managers we’re able to maintain a dynamic dialogue with our market-facing colleagues who are engaged every day at the cutting edge of leasing, valuation, funding and investment. Together we can work at evolving the critical interface between the kind of buildings we deliver and the markets in which they must compete. It’s an iterative process that enables us to encourage one another further down the road towards net zero, taking the market with us on that urgent and vital journey.