The Edge

Opinion Piece by The Edge

Positioning ourselves for COP26 and beyond – a plan for the built and natural environment

Discussing Covid 19, Sarah Gilbert, the creator of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, has said, “We had been warned. But again we weren’t ready”. Unfortunately, and over a much longer period, the same is true of climate change and the destruction of the planet’s natural environment. We now only have 48 months to deliver on the Committee on Climate Change’s requirement for net-zero carbon emissions from all new buildings and need to start now on the demanding programme of refitting all existing buildings if we are to hit the overall 2050 net-zero deadline. Biodiversity loss needs to be stopped and reversed very soon – if not immediately.

Fortunately we are part of a country and an industry that has declared we are going to deliver. Now we just need an action plan to get us there. Due to the size of the programme and the pace required, adopting such a plan will mean that achieving it becomes the predominant focus and purpose of our working lives at least for the next 30 years. We have been given a mission and, having chosen to accept it, we must put all our efforts and resources into it: government, property owners and funders and the whole construction industry – all of us. We will need to go on something close to a wartime footing.

What might such a plan look like? Various bodies; including the Edge, the CIC and the Construction Leadership Council, have been working on the problem.

It would certainly need to start with education, initially at school, from nursery years onwards, and particularly for both new entrants to the industry and its existing members. Indeed educating for delivering a zero-carbon built and natural environment should become the main purpose of university and college courses, CPD and technical training. Curricula will need to be overhauled and rewritten and teaching staff reskilled. This will need to be backed by an effort to put everyone in the industry through practical training programmes – learning through doing and making mistakes – and by professional and registration bodies reformulating their entry and skills improvement requirements. Regular training and testing will become the norm for all practitioners, whether site workers or established professionals.

Protections for the natural world will be enhanced and nature-based solutions to climate change become an essential part of every designer’s toolkit. Projects will focus far more on working with what already exists, or can be reclaimed, than new construction. Substantial natural features will need to be incorporated into all developments.

Overall the construction industry has to transform itself in an extraordinarily short term. It needs to learn how to convert and repurpose existing buildings to run on minimal imported energy as its main and default activity and only occasionally to build new (but very high performing) developments. Resource use, especially of anything with a high-embodied carbon content such as concrete, will be controlled and recorded. Performance will be continuously monitored and lessons learnt and applied immediately. Detailed information and data will be collected and shared, and standards and regulations reviewed and upgraded in real time. This all suggests a modernised, data-rich and responsive industry – a far cry from where we are now, but achievable if we are willing to make the effort.

How to achieve these aims will be discussed on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th of March

Simon Foxell, The Architects Practice and the Edge

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