Progress Built on Firm Footings

6 Jun 2019

With Parliament passing a motion declaring a climate emergency, the UKGBC has launched a framework to deliver net-zero built environment emissions; a move that ties in with their work to promote a circular economy in construction.

This progressive step should be well received and, from a concrete perspective, will help bring many of the material’s merits to the forefront of design decisions concerning whole-life carbon and cost. Applying the principals of a circular economy in design does however introduce a new challenge, namely the ability to carry out meaningful lifecycle assessments and comparisons of construction materials.

To be equitable and accurate requires an approach founded on proven science and robust environmental performance data. At present, it can be argued that neither has matured sufficiently, so we should perhaps proceed with caution until the actual emissions to atmosphere over the full carbon cycle of construction materials is better understood, particularly in respect of biogenic carbon.

A new report ‘Emission Omissions’ from the International Institute for Sustainable Development provides a useful insight to the issue, which few policymakers are probably cognisant of.
The need for adaptation measures to be embedded in new-build represents another climate challenge that should sit alongside carbon cutting initiatives when new regulations are drawn up.

Understandably perhaps, adaptation is taking a back seat at present, with the focus firmly on emissions. It is also a term largely absent from the MMC conversation and in the government push for factory produced systems in housing and government-led building projects. Given the typically lightweight nature of these new systems, they will need to demonstrate their resilience to the likely impacts of climate change including an increased risk of flooding, overheating and other extreme weather events.

This point was recently picked up by the Environmental Audit Committee, in its heatwaves enquiry, which expressed concern about overheating in modular homes and advised the government to stop directing financial support to modular housing. In terms of net-zero carbon, MMC also needs to demonstrate sufficient longevity and durability to minimise its whole-life carbon footprint; a key tenet of a circular economy. Of course, not all MMC is lightweight, and there are both well-established and new systems, such as H+H’s storey high aircrete panels, that can meet all these challenges.

Overall, my concern is that a housing policy focused chiefly on speed of construction and numbers could, to some degree, be at the expense of longstanding design wisdom. Though not perfect, this still has much to offer in respect of the new challenges we face; evolution not revolution.

To put it another way, progress is the overall process of invention and innovation, but must build on our collective experience and design lessons from the past. This is a view recently echoed by building scientist Bill Bordass who, writing in the CIBSE Journal, talked about a practice he has come across recently in academia where technical papers over ten years old are often disregarded in new research.

He also went on to say that “Now there are very few scientists and technical professionals in government and, in my experience, those that remain are seldom listened to. Instead, we go off in search of blue-sky innovation, while forgetting history and ignoring evidence under our noses.”

In many ways, these are challenging but exciting times for designers and architects moving towards net-zero carbon buildings. But let’s hope policymakers shaping future regulations and compliance tools ensure these are underpinned by sound science and, where helpful, progressive technologies that tick the innovation box without overlooking established design lessons.

Read our latest Concrete Quarterly Summer 2019 | Issue 268

By Tom De Saulles Senior Manager, Building Sustainability at The Concrete Centre