We must not sleepwalk into an unsustainable future

Words by Bill Ritchie for The Times

The built environment has to make the best use of limited resources

This year we have witnessed record wildfires in California and Australia. Add to these droughts, flash floods, rising sea levels and reduced agricultural yields. The consequences are dire, and it has been estimated that there could be as many as 300 million climate refugees by 2050.

These headline news events are starting to make people sit up and recognise that we live in a planet with limited resources and that we have been poor custodians of it for too long.

For some years now, claims of sustainable development have resonated around the tables at every construction industry awards ceremony – yet the reality is far from what has been claimed. We have come a long way in the 20 years since I first started to promote sustainability, but I truly despair that we continue to deliver a built environment that really does not make the best use of our limited resources.

The Scottish Government claims to be a world leader and at the forefront of the transformation to a zero carbon society.

The facts, however, tell a very different story. According to the 2020 Progress Report to Parliament entitled Reducing Emissions in Scotland, as a country, there was an actual increase in operational carbon emissions in buildings between 2014 and 2018.

More incredible is the fact that the current Technical Standards or building regulations do not mention embodied carbon – the carbon expended in the creation of new buildings – and the jury is out as to whether this will be considered for the forthcoming refresh to the Standards in 2022.

The forthcoming change to legislation is a belated move in the right direction and will punish the use of fossil fuel. I say belatedly because, only in the last ten years, gas was being promoted for use in new developments above electricity in Scotland.

The task ahead should not be underestimated and there is a real danger that we are sleepwalking into a situation where the country’s infrastructure cannot keep up with the move to all-electric buildings and the need for electric vehicle charging. We are already witnessing instances where the electrical network is struggling to support development – and this situation is likely to get worse.

The biggest challenge for the built environment, by far, is the existing building stock which has been left largely unaffected until now. Funding to reduce energy consumption has not gone much further than improving insulation in existing homes. Assistance in the form of Feed-in-Tariffs and Renewable Heat Incentives have either stopped or will cease in early 2022.

CRUCIAL REVISIONS TO the existing building energy section of the Standards have been slow in coming. Forcing change that involves financial outlay on homeowners is clearly not a vote-winner.

For new non-domestic buildings, the Standards do not foster free thinking or allow our buildings to truly embrace passive design. Opening windows are less attractive to incorporate – instead sealed buildings are promoted through the compliance software.

The result is that the industry is directed to design energy hungry buildings which then look to offset through expensive onsite generation.

It is clear that the politicians’ laudable declarations are not being matched with action or investment to allow the industry to deliver. With our hands firmly tied behind our back through inappropriate and outdated legislation, our opportunities to make a real difference look slender.

The public sector and large corporations alike are now looking at the post-Covid era and witnessing that their employees are looking for better if they are to return to the workplace. What is exciting is that we can deliver this with increased investment, the right legislation and a recognition that green healthy buildings are starting to realise enhanced asset values – while helping to reduce our impact on the environment.