A defining decade: radically transforming the built environment by 2025

Sustainability Report 2013

We are living in an age of revolution; the change around us in attitudes, ambitions and expectations is happening at a faster pace than would have been thought possible 10 or 20 years ago. As an industry we already know many of the solutions to the environmental problems that need to be solved but the pace of change is frustratingly slow. There are many reasons for the inertia and while the economic and technical barriers are significant, the critical one remains the cost-value problem that comes with anything associated with construction.

Our experience drawn from many markets around the world tells us that it is the fear of the unknown that drives costs up. Cost efficiency comes with familiarity. This has certainly been the case in the United States. In the past decade the cost premium for achieving a LEED Platinum rating has reduced from 25% or more to just 5% today as the construction industry has fallen into line behind the process.

In the UK the recent study by the Zero Carbon Hub and Sweet concludes that the cost of building Zero-Carbon homes has halved in the past three years. This confirms my belief that with familiarity, the industry can already achieve the desired carbon emission reductions in new buildings for only a relatively small premium.

Achieving the ambitions of the “defining decade” will require a rapid change of gear from us all. This has to be an industry-led response. We cannot rely on legislation to deliver on the goals, although it certainly helps to provide motivation and to keep things moving.

As world economies begin to emerge from the gloom of the last five years, there exists a real opportunity to harness the latent energy and knowledge in the UK construction industry to continue the radical transformation of our built environment both in the UK and abroad. But to really set our course for survival, we must think more creatively about how we apply our networks and skills in order to deliver change. This will require innovation and far wider collaboration across the construction industry from the funding agencies at one end of the chain to the materials suppliers and manufacturers at the other.

The most significant and seemingly intractable pressure remains with the existing building stock. It is a well-established fact that efficiency measures on existing buildings represent the best “value” in terms of cost per tonne of CO2 abated, compared to other measures available to us (McKinsey et al). Still, the task of upgrading the majority of the UK building stock is a gargantuan one.

This issue has been much discussed in the seven years since the UK-GBC was formed, and it is now time for the industry and the wider public to get behind the three key initiatives that can drive through this transformation. The first is ‘Pay as you Save’ through the Green Deal, the second is the ‘Energy Companies Obligation (ECO)’, and finally updates to the Building Regulations, particularly as they impact existing buildings.

All of these have had some indifferent press at some time or another in the past year. Between them they could and should provide the framework for a steady improvement to the existing building stock over the next 15 years. For this to happen we badly need a period of stability and consistency from the Government on all three fronts, as well as with EPC/DECs, to allow momentum to develop and be maintained within the Industry.

Of course it is not just the Government who will deliver the radical change that is sought through either legislation or subsidy. The construction industry has in the past 10 years shown that it has the appetite to drive this agenda; the formation of organisations such as the UK-GBC, the Better Buildings Partnership, Carbon Buzz and many others being industry-led examples of the enthusiastic uptake of the sustainability message. Organisations such as these, and many others, help to frame the problems and promote deliverable solutions.

So, at the start of 2014 do I think we are doing enough? Not yet, not by a long way. But I do believe that the UK Construction industry has the knowledge, the skills and the attitude to deliver on the Government challenge. What we need is an extended period of consistent national policy to allow us to get on with delivering cost efficient solutions through experience, volume and familiarity.