Opinion Piece by Gillian Charlesworth,
Chief Executive Officer, BRE

Build back better

The phrase Build Back Better has become one of the political rallying cries of 2020 in response to the global pandemic. In America, the US Presidential candidate Joe Biden unveiled the phrase as his campaign slogan in July, around the same time as our own Prime Minister Boris Johnson first used it in a speech in Durham.

Like all the best political ideas, Build Back Better is not quite as new as it sounds, the phrase having been coined in the early 2000s to describe an holistic approach to disaster relief recovery and resilience which was adopted by the United Nations. It encompasses physical restoration of infrastructure, revitalization of livelihoods, and the restoration of local culture and environment.

From my own vantage point leading an organisation which has been at the heart of the building industry for almost 100 years, I see major challenges and opportunities; some of an existential nature. These drive and motivate me to lead, grow and strengthen BRE to play its part in raising standards, providing assurance and shifting performance.

Even before the pandemic the built environment sector was facing a number of major structural challenges such as climate change, a widening skills gap, limited innovation and a poor record on diversity and equality.

The devastating tragedy of the Grenfell fire and the subsequent review by Dame Judith Hackitt showed us that building back better was also a very practical and urgent imperative.

Lockdown has disrupted the working lives of many people and forced us to re-examine the suitability of our homes as places to live and work in comfort. Whilst it is probably premature to call time on the city centre office, it seems clear that the way commercial buildings are used and occupied is going to change substantially.

All of this presents us with an opportunity to bring about positive change in our industry. Throughout its history BRE has been at the heart of research and assurance in the built environment providing expert advice to governments and business, combining scientific rigour and creativity to drive innovation.

Since 2019 we have led an important joint research project into the benefits of biophilic office design. Biophilic design acknowledges that we are genetically connected to nature and that a human-centred approach can improve many of the spaces that we live and work, with numerous benefits to our health and wellbeing and efficiency.

The scientific evidence for the positive influence of biophilic design, on the health and wellbeing of building occupants is substantial and growing. In an office environment this drives improvements in productivity, wellness and a reduction in days absent due to illness.

As we face the increasing challenge of extreme weather events, our work on making our buildings more resilient is also critical. Analysis from the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment indicates that the built environment will be increasingly affected by extreme weather events, and that incidence and severity of flooding will increase in addition to higher temperatures and changing rainfall patterns.

At the BRE Innovation Park at Watford we have built a home which has been adapted to be resistant to flooding from water up to 600mm deep, and also to be resilient to the effects of being flooded beyond that – in other words, it is designed to dry out quickly and be suitable to move back into in a very short time after a flood incident.

Resilience also means creating places that can adapt to accommodate our needs as we age. This means greater focus being placed on designing, refurbishing and creating dwellings which can support occupants at every stage of their lives reflecting the reality of the ageing process.

Enabling elderly people to remain at home for longer is becoming one of the UK’s policy priorities. The cost to the NHS of the inability for elderly patients in acute care to return home in a timely fashion is £0.9 billion per year. The BRE’s Dementia Friendly Home project show’s how a typical Victorian house can be adapted to cater for different types and stages of dementia and provides a test bed for ongoing research on buildings and technologies which impact on health, comfort, safety and dignity.

Bringing new thinking to the physical aspects of how we build and maintain our environment is simple when compared to the more abstract challenge of creating an industry which is truly diverse and offers equality of opportunity to everyone. The promotion of equality, diversity and inclusion is not only morally and culturally the ‘right’ thing to do, but there is a compelling business case for it.

Construction and engineering professions still have materially worse gender diversity than any other UK industry, according to analysis of Office for National Statistics (ONS) data and statistics for Black and LGBTQ+ individuals is similarly poor. It is incumbent on leaders in our sector to drive change in this area, because without it we risk losing out on an exceptional pool of creative, innovative and passionate individuals who really enable us to Build Back Better.

The rhetorical simplicity of Build Back Better is appealing, it trips off the tongue and sticks in the brain. In many ways it is the ideal slogan for the age of social media, where a 280-character tweet can count as a substantive political speech. And yet it has the ring of a much earlier political age.

In 1933, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched his New Deal in response to the devastating social and economic impact of the Great Depression. The programme was summarised by the 3 Rs: Relief, Recovery and Reform. Relief for the unemployed and poor, Recovery of the economy, and Reform of the financial system to prevent another depression.

The New Deal was a hugely ambitious political undertaking, comprising financial reforms, massive public works projects, regulations to protect workers and the introduction of Social Security. By any measure it resulted in major economic, political and social change in America which is still evident.

Many would argue that a similar scale of ambition is needed in the world today.

Gillian Charlesworth is Chief Executive Officer at BRE
Scroll to Top