There Are No Borders in a Climate Crisis - Building Responsibly

This November, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, more widely known as the COP26, was held in Glasgow, Scotland. The conference attracted news headlines across the majority of industries all over the world, showcasing a clear shift in voice to bring the term “Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG)” into the forefront of discussions as the conference was well-represented by representatives across 197 nations.

adf-web-magazine-climate-has-no-borders

Globally, building and construction industries are responsible for 39% of global carbon emissions, whereas energy to operate buildings take up 28%. The real estate, architecture and construction industry is, therefore, no exception to this call to act on ESG. An article by Savills UK also highlighted concern over the UK government’s ambition to upgrade all homes where “cost-efficient, affordable and practice” to EPC by 2035, by estimating that the rate of retrofit needs to be seven times greater than today’s rate to meet the target set. Seven times, and we’re only talking about houses in this example.

According to the UK Green Building Council, the UK construction industry uses approximately 400 million tonnes of materials per year. In the UK alone, the built environment is a major contributor to the climate issue, accounting for 40% of emissions similar to the global levels and 25% of waste. In 2016, the UK's new home carbon neutral target was axed, but it does not make the issue any less urgent. By June 2019, the UK announced the 2050 net-zero emissions target; the new target will require the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. Net-zero means emissions would be balanced by schemes to offset an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, such as planting trees or using carbon capture and storage technologies.

Take housing as an example, there are long stages for the effects of the change to trickle down. Looking from the big picture to a property’s end-user, there's first the national economy wherever you are based, national policies which will need to adapt the planning policy, design criteria, investment periods, construction periods and occupancy. Each and every stakeholder that’s involved in the building process has a part to play in elevating the industry to build responsibly.

Net-zero emissions, energy efficiency and sustainability are topics that were deeply planned into the UK’s architectural education, imparting the message to future architects that these issues are a major crisis and architects have a part to play in it. Over time, my understanding of the crisis deepened, consciously and subconsciously considering the decisions in my work, eg. specification choices. I feel a sense of responsibility through my work because architects are given this unique opportunity to make a choice, and my preference has always been to build once and build well. Whenever I come across information on how to build better, my enthusiasm means I take an interest to read and try to understand them, but I must admit that I have not actively followed it very closely.

The Committee on Climate Change is the UK’s independent climate advisory body, making recommendations on the UK’s 2050 net-zero targets. The report Reducing UK Emissions: 2020 Progress Report to Parliament highlights five clear investment priorities in the months ahead. One priority calls for the real estate, architecture and construction industry’s attention:

“Low-carbon retrofits and buildings that are fit for the future”

Architecture practices are actively working to combat climate change. Architect's Declare Climate and Biodiversity Emergency, originated in the UK by architects Steve Tompkins and Michael Pawlyn, is for everyone working in the construction industry. There’s no denying the role that buildings and construction play in the climate crisis with evidence accounting for nearly 40% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. "Together with our clients, we will need to commission and design buildings, cities and infrastructures as indivisible components of a larger, constantly regenerating and self-sustaining system." It is no surprise that Architects Declare quickly gained a following, including early signatories by 17 Stirling Prize award recipients. Since then, a global hub has also been established for non-UK based practitioners called Built Environment Declares.

For us working in the built environment industry, construction industry, architecture industry, design industry or the real estate industry, the message is clear - we must start playing our parts because the evidence shows how severe and urgent the climate crisis is. As architects and designers, we have a role as stewards for design that is rooted in Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG). There is an opportunity for those working with real estate investors, asset managers, property developers, property owners to reduce the gap between ESG aspirations and actual buildings that perform to what it takes to achieve net-zero. Because collectively, the collective difference will be able to drive a more significant difference. It is not about being sustainable anymore, but about being responsible.

Energy efficiency and carbon emissions will become core considerations when building — just as important as cost and aesthetics.

Jenny Salesa, New Zealand’s minister for building and construction

When designing a new scheme, architects have the unique opportunity and ability to contribute by consciously deciding on the strategy, the process and the materials that it takes to create places, buildings and developments. Today, a building’s lifespan on average spans between 70 and 100 years. We need to ask ourselves: Is this the best we can do? How can we make the right decisions to create the best value with the limited resources we have?


If you have any questions or would like to share your thoughts on this topic, please do not hesitate to contact me via email at von@vonxarchitects.com


pwa