New London Architecture

Getting to net zero

Friday 17 January 2020

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

The scale of the sustainability challenge facing London needs to be broken down and simplified if the capital is to hit its zero carbon targets. 

But the mission needs help from important ‘missing’ parts of the construction supply chain, including volume housebuilders and cost consultants, as well as a ‘mindset shift’ in how we use and plan cities.

Those were just some of the views to emerge in Net Zero – Key Agendas for London, a wide-ranging roundtable discussion on steps towards the capital achieving its net zero carbon targets by 2050, held at the offices of Hoare Lea.

Penoyre & Prasad senior partner Sunand Prasad said the UK produced 450 megatons of CO2 last year – equivalent to 450 million trees if you want to absorb all that carbon from the atmosphere. Other estimates are even starker, putting it at 830 megatons when imports are considered. With 25 million homes in the country, reaching net zero by 2045 will require a million homes to be retrofitted every year, but if considered from the London perspective, the capital’s 3.6 million homes would mean 142,000 retrofitted per year, some 3,600-4,000 or so per London borough. ‘When looked at like that it becomes more accessible as a target’, said Prasad. The main lesson, Prasad felt, was to simplify the picture, break it down, use absolute numbers rather than percentages, but also crucially to use local action and campaigning to aim at targets.

For Greg Jones, associate director, sustainability at Hoare Lea, it was important to remember embodied energy in the equation, and from his firm’s work, the frame is an important part of that; was it time to consider timber more widely? ‘Perhaps as a result of events we’re losing sight of the bigger aim which is to reduce carbon emissions from our environment’, he said. Designing for disassembly will also be a key component of the whole life approach, Jones added.

The session’s other main points were:

  • Some 40% of energy in building schemes goes into fit out; 300 tonnes of fit-out goes to landfill every day in the UK – Juliette Morgan, Head of Sustainable Places, British Land. But only until very recently, where the developer has been buildings its most sustainable buildings, the tenants have not always been responding with the same level of care over their own spaces
  • Whilst investors generally get this, too many developers are not sufficiently incentivized, particularly when building for sale, to create zero carbon buildings, and local authorities have only a ‘tiny’ influence on the quality of much of the private housing that is built – Mark Bradbury, Director Property and Economy, LB Enfield. Stronger regulation is needed alongside incentivisation - the planning system has ‘loopholes’. ‘The majority of residential buildings may not even achieving building regulation standards let alone anything more ambitious’
  • The built environment industry’s consultants should pledge (as Perkins & Will with Penoyre & Prasad do) to offer clients a costed route map to zero carbon. ‘That would be a great start’ – Prasad
  • There is a problem in the supply chain, however, with a skills gap in terms of contractors able to provide retrofit expertise – Dan Epstein, Director of Sustainability, Useful Projects. There is still a gap also between what we know and do, and not enough people are asking simple questions such as ‘can we reuse this building?’. 
  • There is also a skills deficit when it comes to small builders knowing how to do retrofit properly, or even concepts of air tightness – Hero Bennett Principal Sustainability Consultant, Max Fordham
  • We need to be thinking differently about who is living in our housing stock, how we occupy space and issues of under-capacity (‘a massive cultural mindset-shift’) if we are to address the housing shortage – Alison Crompton, Regional Director, Sustainable Development Group, AECOM ‘We need to be thinking differently about the building stock we’ve got’.
  • 'If investors want to do something they can really lead the change’ – Aleksandra Smith-Kozlowska, Senior Sustainability Consultant, JLL. Best practice in new construction would be useful to see. ‘But I’m not sure how to convince those big investors and portfolio holders how, and how to invest in existing stock’.
  • We also need to have a mindset shift in how we use and are building our cities – we can’t think of zero carbon inside a red line boundary – Derek Wilson, Senior Sustainable Development Manager, Property Development, TFL. ‘It’s not just how a building performs’
  • ‘I look at the list here and what I’m not seeing is a bunch of volume housebuilders’ – Wilson. ‘When I go to a meeting and say you need to be zero carbon, they say: “why? I’m gone in two years”’. Creating attractive business models for them will be crucial, but we don’t yet have an answer on that
  • The cost of NOT adhering to zero carbon targets also needs to be considered – Nils Rage, Sustainable Design and Innovation Manager, Landsec
  • Investors may in future consider schemes which are not performing environmentally as being ‘toxic assets’, and that could be a major driver. Measures such as scrapping the 20% VAT on refurbishments would ‘really gear up the whole industry’ into the zero carbon goal – Marion Baeli Partner, PDP London
  • ‘What’s extraordinary is how few technological advances there are in this space’ – Prasad. Energiesprong in Holland is one such, however.
  • ‘The problem is not that we’re not numerate or literate enough; it’s that we’re not articulate enough’ – Mel Allwood, Associate Director, Arup
  • Schemes like the Passivhaus Stirling Prize winner (Goldsmith Street social housing) have been a boon to showing that, with traditional procurement and leadership all the way through, it can be done. ‘It’s a huge game changer’ – Tom Dollard Head of Sustainable Design, PTE. But more case studies and published data are needed.
  • ‘We think circularity is something we need to treat as robustly as energy monitoring’ – Dan Epstein. The circular economy could deliver £3-5bn to the economy, but represents a completely different business model that values materials, giving to society rather than delivering profit to a single entity. It’s also not just a housing issue; it’s a societal issue.
  • ‘We cannot lease a building without a minimum energy performance. So why isn’t there a minimum performance below which you cannot sell it?’ we need to have that conversation’ – Mark Bradbury.
  • ‘Why are we still building housing that is not future proofed and designed to be low-carbon? We’re going to have to retrofit those homes 25 years from now’ – Derek Wilson. And often, advice given by QSes is preventing the business case for low carbon
  • ‘Without the right financial models or infrastructure, it’s very difficult to get circularity off the ground’ – Dan Epstein. London has taken the first steps through planning, but there is a long way to go to get it as a circular city’

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

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