Chris Clarke, director of performance and improvement at leading public sector procurement authority SCAPE, explains how a shift in how we cost built environment projects can help save the planet.
We have little under 10 years to start implementing the significant changes needed to reduce carbon consumption so that both we and future generations are spared the most devastating effects of climate change. And, while it’s critical that we address issues including our energy mix, travel habits and meat consumption, it’s equally important that we accelerate the process of futureproofing the way we develop and adapt buildings.
40 per cent of the UK’s carbon footprint
To put it into context, the built environment accounts for around 40 per cent of the UK’s carbon footprint. As a flagbearer for the UK government’s legally binding 2050 net zero target, the public sector estate – which is valued in the region of £515bn – has a huge role to play. However, local authorities and other public sector organisations investing in new and refurbished facilities to support local communities are doing so at a time when their finances are under extreme pressure as they try to stimulate growth while managing, in many cases, significant funding gaps.
These challenges bring the benefits of the government’s building back better ambitions into sharper focus. Now is the time to invest in a sustainable built environment
Shift in mindset
For it to deliver on the UK’s green commitments, though, a significant shift in mindset is needed; one that prioritises the lifecycle carbon of projects over their initial capital expenditure and operational cost. This approach can actually deliver considerable savings in running cost over a short-term period. When we approach a project from the initial phases in this way, we can begin to factor in the full carbon footprint of a building project, from construction through to operation and eventual decommission – including any embodied carbon.
The natural opposition to this argument is that sustainable buildings ultimately present a much more significant capital outlay – particularly in the short-term and against the backdrop of the funding issues already mentioned. Sadly, this attitude has limited the intensity of carbon reduction in the past 20 years. However, short-termism can no longer stand to reason; both from an environmental and monetary perspective.
Marginal increase in upfront cost
Our own research and development, delivered in collaboration with Morgan Sindall and a series of industry-leading designers, highlighted that a recently completed public sector building, remodelled around ‘carbon first’ principals, only represented a marginal increase in upfront cost. Moreover, it would have achieved a 67 per cent reduction in whole-life carbon and a 72 per cent reduction in upfront embodied carbon. The building’s lifespan would also have been extended and its annual energy consumption cut in half.
The project highlighted that an ultra-low-carbon approach to the built environment can achieve a swift return on any additional upfront investment and aid the objectives of those who have formally declared a climate emergency. The carbon agenda to date has predominantly been about winning hearts; now there is a way to win minds as well. This shift in mindset cannot come soon enough.