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Four ideas that will drive the step-change for a sustainable built environment

Globally, the built environment is an industry with huge influence on sustainability. It contributes 40% of global GDP[1] and is responsible for approximately 30% of energy consumption and associated GHG emissions[2]. This year, the World Green Building Council have set the demanding aim for the industry to become “Net Zero” by 2050.

The Green Construction Board’s Low Carbon Routemap[3] (produced in 2013) showed clearly that a step change is required in order for us to achieve the UK Government target of 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the built environment vs 1990 levels by 2050. That certainly focuses us toward significant changes in the way we address energy in buildings.

However, there are a whole range of other factors pushing us toward a step change in the way we ‘do sustainability’ in the built environment: from population growth, to the potential for extreme resource and commodity shortages; mass migration to cities across the globe, to the rise of the global middle class across developing regions; rapidly changing technologies to increasing global connected-ness. The factors driving us toward significant change are many and varied.

How can the industry respond to the sustainability challenge?

When talking with our clients and colleagues across the Built Environment sector, there are four key themes that stand out strongly:

1. Focus on user experience

We often hear the term “user experience” in the context of retail or hospitality. Thinking about buildings, spaces and cities from the standpoint of user experience provides a useful shift in perspective. It reminds us that the built environment is not an end in itself, but about creating spaces to live, work, play and develop the kinds of sustainable lifestyles we will need to see in order to meet the challenging 2050 aims.

“User experience” brings together concepts like wellbeing, the performance gap, and greening the public realm. It goes beyond that to provide a broader, positive frame of reference that gives commercial value and clarity of purpose.

2. Harness the power of big data

Within the space of the last 50 years or so, the amount of data available to us has grown exponentially. Within the built environment, the challenge is to capture and utilise that data efficiently and effectively.

The rise of Building Information Modelling (BIM)in the UK (with the government’s much-publicised aim for all centrally-procured construction projects to be BIM Level 2 compliant by 2016) and increasingly capable building management systems (BMS) have opened the industry’s eyes to the opportunities modern data solutions can provide. The challenge now is to collate and interpret the data for maximum effect.

Ideas such as ‘buildings as materials banks’, where components are tagged and logged, have potential to encourage circular economy, reduce the environmental footprint, and increase the long-term value of building materials. Modern data visualisation techniques, such as the Tableau systems our Analytics team use, have potential to revolutionise the way we can conceptualise and communicate sustainability data.

3. Embrace transparency

In a connected world, public demand for businesses and governments to be open and accountable is only set to increase. With recent scares around the construction supply chain, the need for a clear picture of supply chain impacts and influence is growing. My colleague, Katie Livesey, who managed development of the UK’s Responsible Sourcing standard sees genuine concern on where products are coming from and willingness to have difficult discussions with suppliers and stakeholders increasing. This makes good business sense as it minimises risks, can help maintain market share and build stronger relationships across the value chain.

In addition, the public expects the aims of businesses to be open to question, too. Recent public interventions, such as the ongoing Heathrow protests and the successes of ClientEarth in bringing cases against governments and big business, demonstrate the level of engagement and influence the public will increasingly expect to have. Being aware of both sustainability risks and opportunities and how these are perceived externally, alongside having an authentic strategy that articulates a company’s core values around sustainability, becomes vital.

4. Aim for net positive

The final trend, on a truly positive note, is the concept of ‘Net Positive’. This year’s World Green Buildings Week aim is ‘Let’s make all buildings net zero by 2050.’ However, many companies are already going beyond that to try to make a positive impact. From Hammerson’s objective to be Net Positive on carbon, water and waste by 2030[4] to CIRIA’s “do one thing” campaign for net gain in biodiversity[5], organisations across the built environment sector are beginning to strive to do more. They see the value, for their businesses and society, not of just doing no harm, but of demonstrating they can do some good. This, I think, will help to drive the step-change far more than Net Zero. If we want to “sell” sustainability – to the sector, to businesses and to the public – then we need an optimistic message that demonstrates value. Net Positive provides that, and if enough organisations in the sector take part  it may just help us generate the innovation we need in order to mitigate our impacts and meet our 2050 commitments.

Susan Harris is a Technical Director at Anthesis Group with over 15 years’ experience in the built environment sector. Susan’s expertise is around resource efficiency, sustainable supply chains, and engagement and training.

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References
[1] https://cebr.com/reports/global-built-asset-performance-index-2016

[2]http://www.worldgbc.org/sites/default/files/From%20Thousands%20To%20Billions%20WorldGBC%20report_FINAL%20issue%20310517.compressed.pdf

[3] http://www.greenconstructionboard.org/index.php/resources/routemap

[4] http://sustainability.hammerson.com/347/our-net-positive-objective.html

[5 https://www.ciria.org//News/blog/Biodiversity_Net_Gain_is_the_next_big_thing.aspx

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