Fri 31 / 01 / 20
Ethics vs Economics in construction… we’re ready to be more sustainable - shall we just get on with it?
Flo Powell captures our first Construction Voice event of the year on "Ethics or Economics: Making the case for action on climate change in the built environment."
By Flo Powell of Midnight Communications
A packed room of 90-odd chamber members gathered at the swanky PLATF9RM venue in Hove to discuss ethics vs economics in construction. My biggest take-away? Everyone seems ready to be more sustainable and, rather than waiting for government policy or investment (although welcome) let’s just get on and do it.
We’ve been talking about climate change for more than 20 years. Now that the world seems to be suffering with increasing water levels, widespread fires and extreme winters, suddenly the old warnings are being heeded.
Yes, more education is needed. Yes, Government policy and investment would be marvellous. Yes, cost is always going to be an issue. But... if the buyers (both residential and commercial) are ready to pay a premium, new methods of manufacturing and sustainably sourced materials are more readily available, lenders are switching on to the increased value of property built to deliver energy efficiencies…there doesn’t seem to be any excuses left.
The room learned from Tom Westwood, Senior Associate at Waugh Thistleton Architects, that timber is coming back in a big way. His firm is building with timber wherever possible and has recently completed a project, Dalston Works – a 10-storey building with 120 flats, which debunked the myth that timber can’t be used in tall buildings – anything over four storeys will need to use engineered timber.
Acknowledging there are some concerns over its use, Tim spoke of the importance of replanting trees and using sustainably managed forests. He also acknowledged that timber burns but explained that engineered timber is massive and would therefore burn very slowly and in a predictable manner.
Tim made the very astute point that, given the Government’s 2050 net zero goal, it is a great question as to why there isn’t any legislation at the moment regarding the use of sustainable materials in construction.
Caterina Brandmayr, Senior Policy Analyst at Green Alliance, suggested that there is growing awareness in the construction industry to invest in low carbon in order to increase competitiveness in the global marketplace.
Sponsors of the event, Willmott Dixon, are certainly singing that tune. Alasdair Donn, Head of Building Performance, commented: “Sustainability is of paramount importance to us as a business; we want to lead the way for sustainability in the construction industry and one of the ways to drive this is by supporting events such as Construction Voice; sharing our knowledge and learning, to strive for a zero carbon built environment.”
Caterina spoke of the drive to invest in off-site construction and new sustainable materials to enable retrofit of buildings to net zero. Chair of the event, Ed Allison-Wright from Haydon Consulting, asked the audience if we thought it would be easier to demolish and rebuild or retrofit – the majority voted for rebuild but Caterina was undeterred, explaining that new applications involving off-site builds of building facades, introducing solar panels and heat lamps, can retrofit a building in one step to net zero.
Quite the feat indeed. With Nick Hibberd in the audience (Executive Director, Economy, Environment and Culture at Brighton & Hove City Council) Ed couldn’t help but ask him how Brighton could retrofit its aging housing stock to net zero and what the council was doing? Nick talked about Brighton’s net zero target of 2030, a pilot scheme involving ground source heat pumps, and host of other sustainability projects. A cross party project to develop the carbon neutral project is underway, they’ve appointed a climate assembly to engage with local residents, a circular economy framework is being developed, they are working with the LEP on an energy and water plan and they are working on a new downland estates plan to rethink the agricultural land that the council owns.
There is clearly a role for Government to enable retrofit; Caterina quoted £1.3bn a year to support the project, matched by private investment, and Nick concurred that central Government could always help with funding and regulation – but in the meantime there is plenty to get on with.
Brighton isn’t alone with its target. 65% of local authorities have declared a climate emergency. Caterina suggested they start with the buildings they are responsible for and potentially raise business rates to pay for retrofit – something Manchester City Council is apparently considering.
It was felt that there is more demand for sustainable buildings in the commercial sector, with businesses demanding energy efficient offices to attract talent and reduce bills. Developers and their investors are clearly waking up to this and it is likely that new builds will be of a far higher standard in terms of sustainability than ever before.
L&G was used as an example of a company choosing to invest in property and has decided the best way to guarantee payback is to build it themselves with modular housing manufactured in Yorkshire, thereby keeping control of the whole process.
Many members of the audience are already involved in sustainable developments; Close Brothers Finance, Cityzen and Bright Green Homes to name a few. Perhaps this is unsurprising given they are all Brighton based – the only city in the country with a Green Party MP and a thoroughly more ‘woke’ community than other parts of the UK. Brighton has been banging the sustainability drum longer than most so perhaps it is our role to lead the charge.
How can Brighton do this? We need to align as a sector with local strategies using our local supply chain to drive the market forward.
We have an exciting mission ahead of us, Brighton build community, to lead the way, collaborate, learn, lobby and align our strategies. There is no alternative. There is no planet B. Let’s do this!
Thank you to Sarah Bennett Commercial Photography for photographing this event.
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