Round Table: Setting a course for net-zero construction, but who is really responsible for effective delivery?

Sponsored by Glider

25 June 2021

As part of the Digital Impact spotlight area at Futurebuild, we sat down with a group of industry thought leaders to gain their insights into who is responsible for the effective delivery of net-zero carbon targets in the built environment.

Industry Thought Leaders
Chair: John Adams, Head of Product, Glider
Leigh Hughes, CSR Director, Bouygues UK    
Dr Vicky Hutchinson, Director of the Environment Practice, Atkins
Dr Oliver Jones, Research Director, Ryder Architecture
Elaine Lewis, Managing Director, Cadventure
David Mason, Environment Technical Director, Skanska
Colin Nicholson, Commercial Director, Airey Miller
Richard Twinn, Principal Consultant, Cundall

Climate change is a global emergency that goes beyond national borders. Investing in net-zero climate solutions creates universal value and reward.

Buildings account for more than one-third of global carbon emissions, it is, therefore, vital we prioritise net-zero buildings today to protect our planet and future generations.

So, what part does the construction industry have to play in this? As an industry, we are placing our focus on building resilient buildings and infrastructure, adapting techniques and materials through greener construction methods and tapping into the renewable energy sector.

Many businesses have begun transitioning to this new way of working with forward-thinking companies taking responsibility for reducing their own carbon emissions to achieve the UK’s net-zero emissions target by 2050.

But should these companies be responsible for driving decarbonisation along the entire value chain too? Where does the responsibility start and end?

Going green during the construction process can help UK towns and cities become more resilient to the impact of climate-related disasters and make considerable contributions to lowering emissions.

We asked our Contributors who is at the forefront of driving this change, who is responsible and what immediate action is needed? Where does the responsibility start and where does it end (or indeed is there an end?).

Although climate change has been rising up the agenda for some time, there has been a marked shift during the past 18 months amidst the global coronavirus crisis.  Do you believe the UK Government and the construction industry are making the most of the changes and potential opportunities for the long term, impactful change?  

Many people don’t know what net-zero is, therefore we need to increase awareness before any action can be implemented. The UK Government needs to make clear what is required and maintain a standard set of terminology for industry-wide learning and just as importantly, acceptance.” Leigh Hughes, CSR Director at Bouygues UK kick-started the discussion with a very valid point, that we need to know what we are aiming for and have this made very clear.

Richard Twinn, Principal Consultant, Cundall added: “It is a concern at the moment when we hear a client state that they want a net-zero building when in most cases they do not fully understand what they are asking for or indeed what makes for a net-zero building.” It quickly became apparent that consistency for both client and contractor needs to be established. “Building regulations do not account for embodied carbon! Stronger guidance is needed at government level.”

Dr Oliver Jones, Research Director at Ryder Architecture agreed: “It is clear we are living in challenging times, with an ever-changing landscape. The UK Government is trying to create an innovative eco-system focused on value and building a green economy is a good start. But as Leigh said there is a need for a more joined-up approach. We need greater industry collaboration and cross-industry leadership. However, it is not just central government, Local Authorities have a major part to play in delivering net zero and there is a clear need to provide expertise and support to help them deliver net-zero goals. Public and private sector need to come together to deliver education on what net zero means and how we get there.”

And we should not overlook the SME perspective, it is not just big business that has a role here, Elaine Lewis, Managing Director, Cadventure added as a leader of a small business, SME’s also need to increase their knowledge to understand what changes need to be made. There is a lack of incentive right now to dive in and take charge from smaller businesses – mainly because of the unknown, perhaps the green agenda should place a greater focus on direct benefits to small businesses and their part in future-proofing the industry.

Dr Vicky Hutchinson, Director of the Environment Practice, Atkins, made a strong case for the government having an important leadership role and stricter regulation. Clear government direction is more likely to attract the funding needed to drive innovation from private investors and developers.

Chair, John Adams, Head of Product at Glider raised a good point, the UK needs a steering group similar to the UK BIM Alliance to coordinate action, set guidance and implement, not just a glossary of terms so we understand the language of net-zero, but a clear action plan for delivery and who is assigned what roles.

In 2018 the UK Green Building Council launched its Advancing Net Zero programme to support the acceleration of net-zero carbon buildings to 100% by 2050 and help deliver the emissions reductions required from the construction and property sectors. Has this provided a strong enough blueprint for the industry to follow? How successful has this been so far? 

It is a good start, but it has not gone far enough. David Mason, Environment Technical Director for Skanska said that there are varying levels of ambition due to the anomaly in the maturity of knowledge and understanding for clients, which means we need to not only educate the what, but also the how. And how we do this is to set clear targets and define exactly what we are measuring. For a start we should be looking at what is the embodied impact on the infrastructure pipeline – perhaps a systems orientated approach is needed here.

Leigh added, without a doubt accurate data capture is essential, is a carbon bill of quantities the way forward with this? It is time for a new way of measuring actions.  Backed up by Oliver, who said we need to get much better at measuring and managing data in order to improve what the future will look like and evidence the improvement. The Construction Innovation Hub’s value toolkit will hopefully change cultures and behaviours, in shifting the commercial business case towards measuring value and impact, and away from reducing costs.

Richard commented: “What we have delivered so far is good, but it is not enough to get us through the next phase of transition. Influence versus control over emissions are two different things and we need coordinated action, we need to all be using the same measurements and metrics.

“We have the capabilities to learn from history and avoid previous errors, we have the opportunity to get things right from the very start and by putting clear, sound metrics in place now will allow us to monitor progress and really make a difference to how we meet zero-carbon targets” continued Leigh. “We need a vertical supply chain, where all levels and tiers need to buy into this, we need to be adding in a new column “carbon” to our operational workflows and tracking embodied carbon from the beginning of the project.”

Do we need to first address the immediate risk before looking to the future? What action can we take right now, today?

Colin Nicholson, Commercial Director, Airey Miller commented: “The housing sector is compliance led, it is almost impossible to build a net-zero carbon house right now, but we can offset a great deal of emissions and plan for the future. The government is considering many proposals including poor EPC ratings for homeowners selling houses could mean a higher level of stamp duty being paid or a stamp duty rebate for better performing higher EPC Ratings!” Vicky continued: “This is a difficult and dangerous area for homeowners and politicians as richer sections of society are more likely to be able to afford to invest in retrofitting their homes and then benefit from financial incentives like this: we could unfairly disadvantage poorer sections of society.

Oliver strongly expressed there is a need for a fundamental shift in the way we think as an industry and that starting small with net-zero new build homes is not as far out of our reach as we may think. It is absolutely not over-ambitious to expect zero carbon homes and materials, this should be the way of the future and we need to start acting on this now, it is the entrenched housing providers focused on short term profit over progress and our lack of a joined-up approach throughout the supply chain that are our biggest barrier here. Re-using materials, retrofitting existing housing stock, and employing advanced materials to reduce onsite emissions are all ways in which we can build up our carbon credits. Vicky agreed that to retrofit existing building stock was paramount.

Colin continued that we need to look at cost versus long term benefits. “It is predicted the cost of building a net-zero home is 11-12 % higher than a traditional build. How can we influence clients, developers, contractors and end-users to spend more money short term?” David said: “Typically the design has already been set before we can determine what the emissions output will be!” Does it, therefore, come down to predicted performance outputs over actual outputs, post-build we know what the performance is because we can measure this accurately – but by then is it too late. We need better collaborative thinking at the design stage to identify lower emissions outputs and map this against costs

Less carbon-intensive and more environmentally efficient methods of construction are key drivers in the sustainability agenda, however, we often focus on processes and technologies rather than improvements in materials. Should we be demanding more change in our construction materials and invest more as an industry into innovations in alternative products? Such as the development of more sustainable materials which contain lower embodied carbon?

John asked is there a bigger debate on materials here? “Yes” replied David. “There is so much scope to do more with construction materials and we need to give clearer direction to manufacturers as to what it is we want.” Elaine added, just as with developers and contractors, there is a greater cost to building sustainably, manufacturers also incur cost hikes in the development of new products and in turn pass this on to the buyer. Smarter thinking is needed.

Taking timber, for example, Colin said approximately 80% of construction timber in the UK is imported, which is why it is in short supply and high in cost.  We need more incentive to source locally for our sustainable materials. “Have we improved understanding of the benefits of timber over concrete and steel?” asked John. “If we can answer this it will be one of the biggest developments of the industry” replied Colin.

Richard said there is no correct answer as to whether we stick with tradition or look at innovative new materials – both have their merits and indeed we should embrace both for what they have to offer. “Right now we can’t eliminate the use of concrete for example, but should look to de-carbonise it!”

Trying to get the market to shift to the use of innovative new materials isn’t as hard as we think added Oliver. The increase in development for biotech solutions such as mycelium products is growing exponentially. This is a whole new world of product development and it is taking shape right now, being pioneered by chemists and biologists who are passionate about realising a net-zero future and driven to disrupt.

David also added into the mix the question on insurance, there are concerns over new and alternative materials and if there are questions on whether a building is insurable due to their use, this again will turn people off from their use. Another reason for government intervention and new legislation. We see there are some incredible pioneering products on the market right now, but barriers remain as to how brave we can be in their implementation. Oliver proposed that it is incumbent upon industry thought leaders to work with advanced material manufacturers and our certification and testing bodies to get these products to market and into our buildings.

The group agreed that the government may have set the industry on the right path with the setting of targets but this is by no means a quick fix to all climate-related issues – even if emissions meet net-zero by 2050 (which is unlikely) we will still experience significant climate change impacts beyond our control.

Vicky commented that despite many years of fighting climate change we still have a very long road ahead, more support is needed for the industry to build climate change resilience.

Positive steps are being taken within the construction industry to encourage sustainable behaviours and to put tangible goals and measures behind government commitments and we are seeing that some parts of the industry are taking an active role in addressing the challenge. Many questions remain unanswered but we can take a significant amount of positives, particularly on the passion to fight climate change collectively as an industry.

We close on one final comment from Leigh with food for thought: “It is easy for governments to write a target, but how do businesses make this achievable?”.

There is no clear answer, but what we do know is that by working together, the industry will stand a better chance of meeting our net-zero carbon targets. And as to who is responsible, we all are.

The Digital Impact area returns to Futurebuild 2022 offering a spotlight for digital construction and emerging technologies within the digital built environment. Find more information here and contact us to enquire about showcasing your innovation at Futurebuild 2022.


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