While there’s growing momentum in addressing the climate crisis, I fear there’s still too much ‘business as usual’ across the construction industry.

While there’s growing momentum in addressing the climate crisis, I fear there’s still too much ‘business as usual’ across the construction industry.

“80% of the buildings we will use in 2050 have already been built. We must urgently address the state of the existing housing stock in the UK, which is one of the draughtiest in Europe.” 

That was John Alker, Director of Policy and Places at UKGBC, in 2019. Four years later, while there’s growing momentum in addressing the climate crisis, I fear there’s still too much ‘business as usual’ across the construction industry. This should no longer be acceptable. Most of the products and technologies we need to achieve better performing buildings already exist—so how do we make them more commonplace?

Reuse over rebuild

The most impactful way of reducing carbon emissions is to make our existing building stock more energy and thermally efficient. 

Retrofitting is the elephant in the room when it comes to achieving net zero carbon, yet the operating cost of not adapting a building often ends up higher than the capital cost of improving it. And even when a building does reach the end of its useful life, we can still consider reuse of materials. Stone and timber are the obvious examples, but on recent commercial projects, we’re also reusing dismantled steel from the existing structures—something we hope can be adapted more widely. 

Developers and landlords are realising they’re going to be left with assets no one wants to buy or rent if they don’t take action. Fortunately, reuse over replacement can still lead to stunning architectural results. Good design doesn’t need to suffer!

Generating clean electricity

The frightening rise in energy costs put the need for clean energy sharply into focus. Micro and local ways of generating our own electricity, within or around our buildings, may be one solution. Installing solar panels on our rooftops or land, or wind or water turbines can help us become less dependent on the National Grid, increase self-sufficiency, and promote community-led energy schemes. There’s also the potential to store surplus generated electricity as battery technology improves, or sell it directly back to the Grid. 

Evolving our Building Regulations

The Government needs to use the levers of the Planning and Building Regulation systems to ensure any improved standards for adapted buildings are also used for all new buildings and developments.

While recent Building Regulation changes have been encouraging, many believe they’re still not drastic enough. Among my more active peers in architecture and construction, there’s a request for new Regulations that would ensure the embodied carbon of a building proposal, including all of the CO2 emitted in producing materials, is considered at design and construction stages—an assessment of ‘whole life carbon’ rather than just the short term, isolated effects of its construction.

National construction bodies, both independent and collaborative, are giving their thoughts on what improved building standards should be sought. The RIBA’s 2030 Climate Challenge, for example, suggests incremental improvements to building standards to make the changes more palatable and achievable, but is that enough?

Education and awareness

Everyone seems to be at a different stage of education about the climate crisis and what it means to be sustainable. Some have been lobbying for decades, some have been improving how they do things since the 2019 climate emergency declarations, and some are only just waking up to the issues. 

The growing awareness across the UK is encouraging to see. But I believe that professionals within the construction industry, myself included, can still do much more to create the right market demands. Demystifying terminology and techniques so they’re more straightforward will help people, particularly our clients, understand what they could and should ask for to improve the performance of their buildings, and we can make ourselves more accessible to the public by providing clear, pragmatic advice on why such changes are essential to both our buildings, and our collective future.

Sarah Lee is the current RIBA South West Chair and the Founder of Future Plymouth 2030. She will be hosting a roundtable discussion at FOOTPRINT+ in Brighton, June 6-8, discussing the relationship between net zero and placemaking.

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