Issue 89How can government support the decarbonisation of the construction industry?

FCBStudios' Dr Joe Jack Williams joins construction industry sustainability leaders at parliament to advise government.

Construction Industry calls for: whole life carbon regulation, upskilling across the industry and Government to take a lead in de-risking circular economy and timber construction at Environmental Audit Committee.

During an inquiry by the Environmental Audit Committee into sustainability of the built environment and the best routes to net zero for our future building needs, seven industry leaders, including Dr Joe Jack Williams, were questioned by MPs. 

The session, in two parts, focussed on understanding what is being done by the industry to reduce the carbon impact of the materials used – concrete, steel and timber – and the opportunities and barriers to assessing and reducing the carbon impact of buildings.

Joe Jack Williams, FCBStudios was on the panel: “What we are seeing is a groundswell from within the industry looking at embodied and whole life carbon recognising that an urgent response is required”

Since 2019, the industry has been working together to report on, and benchmark embodied and whole life carbon, to inform this response.  Joe explained “There are a number of different standards out there and we have been trying our best to align them. They have all been written for specific purposes.

Louisa Bowles, Hawkins\Brown and LETI continued: “What would be really helpful from the government is a line in the sand to say ‘this is the standard approach.' The GLA standardised approach is incredibly useful as a leveller across the industry. People are understanding it and it's starting to filter through”

Barriers to measuring and benchmarking embodied carbon are starting to erode. The LETI guidance uses embodied carbon benchmarks, which have now been adopted by the RIBA 2030 challenge. Louisa continues: “However, our industry recommendation is that we measure whole life carbon to benchmark – there is alignment to be done.”

FCBStudios and Hawkins\Brown have released free tools – FCBS CARBON and H/BERT to help to measure whole life carbon data. The architecture industry is engaging in the issue, but there is an upskilling required across the whole supply chain.

Louisa again: “For example, EPDs (Environmental Product Declarations) are a competitive advantage. But there is no central database – collated, free and accessible. The skills are there to read them but getting hold of up-to-date material is time-consuming.”

Materials

Detailed discussion of materials, the supply chain, manufacture, and their suitability for different types of buildings put the emphasis on hybrid solutions. As Joe Jack put it: "There is no one saintly building material when it comes to net zero. It's how you use the material that's important".

Louisa: “Mandate whole life carbon reporting for different building types and scales. Rationalising what you are doing to reduce the embodied carbon. Designers have the knowledge to reduce the amount of material in a building, for example, reducing the grid size of a concrete span will reduce the quantity of concrete required. The process needs to allow designers the time to plan a building with whole life carbon in mind."

“But”, Louisa continued “and we have seen this within the LETI evidence, sometimes because of procurement routes, what we have designed and specified isn’t what is delivered.”

Joe Jack concluded "Currently, we’re able to deliver a project for a fixed fee, and it should be no different for carbon. During design and construction, we should be able to swap and change elements, so long as they are functionally equivalent and the overall carbon emission targets are met. Government could help to set that in stone with carbon budgets and targets as well as financial targets, to encourage the procurement of low carbon technologies.

Timber

For new buildings, the panel advocated the use of materials including timber and stone, cement-free concrete, and recycled or reused steel – reducing reliance on traditional concrete and steel that have high embodied carbon. Joe Jack again: “There is a real role for hybrid solutions – it is widely applicable.”

Prof Ramage explained “Timber is a good solution to reducing carbon in the built environment. by any measure it is the best one – timber sequesters carbon, and if you build with it, cities can become carbon sinks. “

He continued to advise that it is possible to use timber for 90% of current buildings. “Industry knows how to do this, one building at a time. We need systems to unlock potential through government regulation and government procurement”.

Although planning regulations allow limited use of structural timber to be used in domestic buildings and non-domestic buildings, the evidence is that it isn’t happening. Anecdotally, this is due to difficulties insuring the buildings, advice at pre-application stage, and supply chain issues.

Renovation

Concrete and Steel are very long-lasting materials. “Design for durability – long life, loose fit with a 100-year life span as standard.”  advocates Elaine Toogood of the Concrete Society. “Demolition should not be a word.“

The panel agreed that within whole life carbon calculations, we need to have more emphasis on what happens at the end of a building’s life. Prof Michael Ramage called for VAT to be reduced on renovation – bringing it in line with new build - alongside a focus on reusing and repurposing buildings where possible, to avoid the need for construction of new buildings. He continued "If ‘demolition’ is deemed the only option, ‘deconstruction’ should become the norm, to facilitate the reuse of materials."

Joe Jack: “Rather than recycling, there needs to be a wider, more natural network around circular economy and how to implement it: Networks, Storage made available, cataloguing processes, enabling materials to be stored, checked and warrantied within a resource you can access. This needs to happen at scale and be nationally mandated, with the role of government being to take on the risk of insurance and warranty.“

Prof. Ramage added “Performance verification and the insurance market need to catch up.” with Joe Jack agreeing: "That would be a very strong signal that this is something that government is underwriting – which would unlock commercial opportunities which they want the private sector to take on."

Summary by Jenny Stephens

This session of the Environmental Audit Committee into the Sustainability of the Built Environment took place on Wednesday 17 Nov 2021 as two sessions with the following witnesses: 

  • Witness(es): Michael H. Ramage, Director, Centre for Natural Material Innovation, Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge; Louisa Bowles, Representative, LETI (London Energy Transformation Initiative), Head of Sustainability, Hawkins Brown Architects LLP; Dr Joe Jack Williams, Associate, Researcher, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios; Elaine Toogood, Head of Architecture, MPA The Concrete Centre, Representative, Mineral Products Association
  • Witness(es): Will Arnold, Head of Climate Action, The Institution of Structural Engineers; Sam Liptrott, Director, OFR Consultants, Fire and Risk Consultants; Rhian Williams, Principal Strategic Planner (London Plan), Greater London Authority

The full session can be viewed here and the briefing note is available here.

Images

1. Environmental Audit Committee into the Sustainability of the BuIlt Environment Panel one. 
2. The Houses of Parliament, Berit from Redhill/Surrey, UK, CC BY 2.0  via Wikimedia Commons
3. Dr Joe Jack Williams, Associate and Researcher at FCBStudios speaking at the Environmental Audit Committee into the Sustainability of the Built Environment: panel one. 
4. Proposed Part Z Embodied Carbon Building Regulations 
5. Will Arnold, IStructE and co-author of Part Z speaking at the Environmental Audit Committee into the Sustainability of the Built Environment: panel two. 

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