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NLA: Designing for a Changing Climate

Divisional Director, Paul Scriven and Associate Director Annie Marston attended the NLA: Designing for a changing climate event on Tuesday 17 September, which focused on the environmental impact of the construction industry.

The first session discussed the impact of climate change on the construction industry, with a third of the global population being exposed to extreme heat every 5 years. Data collection is currently underway to help understand the map of London and how to improve the city in times of extreme heat, for example, the introduction of more tree cover. Tree cover and green infrastructure can help with the construction of future developments in the enhancement of our environment. However, questions were raised about whether greening our buildings meets our embodied carbon ambitions or whether it is a false economy?

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Climate change is complex and delivering this for a city such as London is a shocking reality and challenge that the industry needs to face imminently. In order to prevent further impact and harm to our planet and future generations, our cities must align with the 1.5 degree target.

The session then went on to discuss homes, and how the demolition of homes and rooms is not a great carbon story for our planet. Ultimately, we are locking carbon into our buildings and new builds will need to last the test of time, but the pressing reality is that the majority of general new builds will rarely last more than 40 years without the implementation of some form of added carbon, with the worst case being demolition of existing stock.

The below diagram clearly depicts our knowledge of embodied carbon being the major influencer in reducing holistic carbon.

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The questions of the session are, how long will it be until we begin to see existing verses new embodied carbon assessments being part of our planning requirements for proposed new builds on brownfield sights? Does a structural change from concrete to wood outweigh the passive cooling benefit of concrete? Let’s not forget that in most cases, we generally replace a cut down tree as opposed to planting to offset tree removal. Will we need to rethink our global approach to achieve a sustainable future?

Roughly 70% of our buildings are homes, in one way or another, and around 33% of homes are under occupied by at least two rooms. When examined by age group, over 65’s are the worst offenders with 55% of rooms being unoccupied (this is emphasised primarily in the South West). These statistics support the case for large scale residential buildings in our cities being flexible to adapt usage type and future proof the embodied carbon without the need for a short life span or demolition.

The aforementioned global zero carbon approach is an excellent example of where HDR | Hurley Palmer Flatt’s energy and sustainability team are assisting and leading clients to a low/zero-carbon future. For more information on the team’s work, take a look at the latest edition of Critical Thinking and feel free to get in touch and assist our drive to delivering a true low to zero carbon future.

The session also focused on temperature, the below photo depicts historical temperatures, with a sharp increase in the 1900s and temperatures still rising.

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Temperature is an ongoing issue, with the number of heat related deaths set to increase to 7,000 per year by 2050, equivalent to 4x road traffic fatalities per year. Arguably, it is a shame that we have to be led by legislation in order to deliver sustainable buildings and environments fit for purpose. Furthermore, on the temperature issue, increased temperatures lead to an increase in sleep deprivation, which is already a developing issue in many countries.

The issue of air quality and noise also continues to affect the industry, with its ability to impact the effectiveness of natural ventilation. Electric vehicles will aid this air and noise aspect, provided the added noise requirement (for safety) doesn’t hinder the benefit to residential safety.

The session also raised the question of why every flat roof isn’t a green roof? While the industry is getting there, it can be argued that green roofs should be a requirement for all new builds and refurbishments, including roof replacements, especially when we consider the benefits!

The primary question is why it is only forward-thinking clients that are interested in blue/ green infrastructure? The Greater London Authority have recently picked this up and the introduction of policy will hopefully continue to drive it forward.

A key take away is that we need to change the way that we talk about our buildings. Buildings provide an internal environment for specified usage(s) type, therefore when we create flexible buildings, we are really creating flexible internal environments for a multitude of usage types. The understanding of wellness and wellbeing in our buildings is developing, however the fundamentals are still there. We have been delivering high quality buildings for years, they just appear to be the minority rather than the required majority!

More than anything, the first session of the conference simply highlighted the quality of the Energy and Sustainability department we have at HDR | Hurley Palmer Flatt with industry leading knowledge and experience on hand for our clients.

The next session saw the speaker talking about triple glazing, insulation and air tightness in Victorian homes. It is becoming more and more important for our industry to refer to the English Heritage guides and consider how and why the existing building has stood the test of time. It is key to do good, not harm in our industry’s strive to a low and zero carbon future.

The below graph highlights the fact that 100 homes that have been retrofitted have saved 70% emissions. However, the risk of cost versus return can be difficult, but if we were to consider embodied carbon in our market outlook then maybe this current hurdle would be reversed to support financial investment.

A key point in the conference was how we only have 11 years to meet the 1.5-degree Paris target, therefore every ongoing project in the industry needs to react and not rely on projects down the road.

From looking at the unprecedented temperatures experienced in Europe this year, we saw people using public fountains and blue and green infrastructure as a means of finding cooler environments or simply the ability to gain a sense of coolth.

A takeaway of the conference is that we need to be selecting the right solutions, methods and materials for what we are doing. We’ve seen how initial costs reduce when an item gets used more, e.g. PV Panels, modulization etc. Furthermore, our industry is not the only one embracing the change. So while change can have a cost impact, the sooner we embrace it the quicker the economics stack up.

The UK Green Build Council (GBC) have begun to set out the early principles of Net Zero Carbon and who pays in an effort to encourage change.

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This month also saw Global Climate Change Strikes – the UK Green Building Council strive to bring building professionals together outside the Building Centre in London, ultimately influencing history! Another significant step in the right direction for Climate Change was the 2,000 signatures from over 17 countries on an industry led petition to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency.

For us, the conference closing session highlighted that it is time for the Government to openly table where all carbon taxation is being invested back into the industry, so that we can have a more open approach to resolving the challenge that faces us as opposed to seeing taxation as a negative item, so it can be seen by the industry as an additional investment into achieving our joint goals for a more sustainable future!