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Net zero: a whole life view


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The record temperatures and drought conditions that have hit the UK over summer 2022, have been a stark reminder as to why so many local authorities have declared a climate emergency, with the most extreme impacts of climate change becoming more tangible.

From working with local authorities, we know that regenerating the ageing public estate will play a significant role in helping to achieve the UK government’s 2050 net-zero target and the 2045 equivalent in Scotland. Indeed, the built environment is responsible for more than 40 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions, and the UK’s public estate, valued at roughly £515bn, makes up a significant chunk of that.

Therefore, low carbon outcomes should be an important consideration when it comes to investing in public buildings and community-focused regeneration projects. However, this is easier said than done when there are higher associated upfront costs and the UK is about to enter a recession.

While this uncertain environment naturally impacts upon project decisions, it’s vital that public sector investors and local authorities don’t lose sight of their long-term objectives. Particularly when investing in low carbon assets goes hand in glove with combatting spiralling energy bills.

Emissions in decisions

Changing the way that we consider the cost of projects will therefore be instrumental in making our towns and cities more sustainable.

That’s why we – along with 18 of the UK’s largest construction and consultancy firms – wrote to the government late last year to encourage a step change in industry practice that would make whole-life cost and carbon assessments a statutory requirement for the delivery of new-build and refurbishment projects in the public sector. (A Bill that would require these assessments is now moving through Parliament, and we’re looking forward to seeing how it progresses.)

At the heart of this proposed change is the idea that property-owning clients can’t keep basing their project investment decisions on up front capital requirements alone. Continuing to focus solely on up front costs will lead to higher lifetime costs for buildings and infrastructure. This is because the quality of design and materials is often sacrificed in the name of affordability, leading to higher running costs in the long term through frequent maintenance and higher energy use.

Asking for carbon emissions to be considered in investment decisions invites each project team and investor to address a very simple question: will this building cost the earth? Whether this question is meant literally or not, the life-time impact of a building has to be our focus.

Evolving approach

Circular Twin visual

Tangible examples of this approach in action are always far more powerful at encouraging change.

In 2021, we worked with Morgan Sindall Construction, HLM Architects, Cundall and Lungfish Architects on research to highlight how decisions based on carbon emissions, not cost, can improve a project’s lifecycle performance. The landmark project, known as ‘Circular Twin’, involved digitally rebuilding an existing school – originally completed in 2017 – from start to finish, with each decision and design choice amended to ensure a lower carbon outcome.

The new version of the school, which maintained the educational design standards required by government, achieved a 67 per cent reduction in whole-life carbon and a 72 per cent reduction in upfront embodied carbon using market ready products and materials. The school’s annual energy consumption was also modelled to be halved, paying back the projected uplifted capital cost in less than six years.

Critically, Circular Twin demonstrated how a shift in approach to projects can help local authorities to save money in the long term, as well as reduce emissions significantly enough to support their net-zero ambitions.

If we are sincere in our commitment to cut carbon from the construction and use of buildings, then we need to start measuring carbon in every project. This will include using information about emissions as criteria in project investment and design decisions.

Construction frameworks are now being designed with carbon in mind to better support local authorities. For example, partners on our frameworks are selected based on their ability to manage carbon and the quality of their reporting.

However, the pace of this change depends upon the willingness of government to mandate change from the top, but also on visionary local government clients backing up their climate emergency declarations with tangible action in their project commissioning behaviours.

Whatever the motivations, if we take this approach, the future of the public estate will be cheaper to run, cleaner to operate and built to last due to the higher material standards we will adopt. And we also have a better chance of hitting net-zero.

Chris Clarke headshot resized for web

Written by:

Chris Clarke
Performance and Improvement Director, SCAPE Group