Not a Small Problem
Construction is one of the world’s major industries, accounting for 6% of global GDP. In the UK, it contributed over £103 billion to the economy and employed 2.1 million people in 2014, mostly in Small & Medium Enterprises (SMEs), which account for 99% of the industry. However, construction is also one of the largest consumers of raw materials. As a result the industry accounts for 25-40% of global carbon emissions.
In addition to carbon emissions and associated climate change, sustainability challenges that affect the construction industry also include resource depletion and biodiversity loss. These are all interlinked and exacerbated by the scale and inherent inefficiency of construction.
In 2019, Engenuiti joined other practices in the “UK Structural Engineers Declare”, a public commitment to advocate and lead construction industry change and to target net zero carbon emissions from our buildings.
Overcoming a Mind-Set
In a typical UK residential block with basic internal fit-out, over-half (51%) of whole life embodied carbon emissions can be attributed to the building fabric. Significant improvements can therefore be made through more efficient use of materials, which would also alleviate the consumption of resources. Of the remaining emissions, 24% are due to the building’s operations. In order to further reduce these, we need to design buildings that have envelopes with higher levels of airtightness and insulation to reduce their energy demand.
The technical solutions already exist to deliver a net zero carbon building. We've completed some. However such projects are few and far between. The main challenge to be overcome is one of mind-set. In particular, we need to:
- Encourage clients to look forward. Is the project fit for the future? Is it likely to meet future market needs and technologies?
- Engage with project funders on the benefits of holistic, sustainable design, beyond short-term capital considerations. This will be difficult in the face of a challenging economic climate, but is nevertheless essential. Some clients, particularly those who commission, occupy and operate their buildings already take a more long term view.
- Encourage designers to “push the envelope” in designing out inefficiency. This includes challenging our own designs at Engenuiti and communicating this in an open forum.
- Embrace and explore the appropriate use of new and existing low carbon materials.
- Challenge contractors to achieve the standards of workmanship required, and to engage with their supply chain to source materials locally. This will demand partnerships, and a collaborative approach to project procurement.
- Continue working with government and professional institutions to tighten requirements, and promote legislation and targets that furthers a sustainability agenda. This needs joined-up thinking so that progress in one area (e.g. energy performance) doesn’t compromise progress in another (e.g. performance in fire).
Mass Timber: A Game-Changer
Whilst no one material can be the universal panacea for a planet’s worth of climate change ills, the appropriate and efficient use of mass timber is a game changer for the construction industry, if we are to stand a chance of addressing this global emergency in a rapid time frame. As one of the leading consultancies in the UK in mass timber design, we recognise that we can play a critical role in pushing the industry towards a zero carbon future. Through recent projects, such as Sky’s Believe in Better Building, the UK’s first multi-storey timber commercial office and a beyond zero embodied carbon building, and GSK’s carbon neutral Centre for Sustainable Chemistry at Nottingham University, we have demonstrated that building sustainably really isn’t as hard as people might have you think. We just need to persuade the industry that these kinds of buildings can and should be the new ‘normal’.
A Critical Juncture
A year ago, Engenuiti joined the ‘Engineers Declare’ movement and were excited to see the energy with which engineers and architects were facing up to the climate crisis. But now, in the grip of a global pandemic and on the brink of a potentially severe recession, it is vital not to let that passion, energy and focus ebb away. We call on all engineers to join us in continuing to push clients, stakeholders and design partners towards genuinely sustainable forms of construction, and to commit to designing carbon neutral structures in sustainable materials without compromise.
by Ian Hamilton and Marcos Armas
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