Building a greener future – why construction data is the answer

Russell Haworth
8 August, 22

The built environment is responsible for 11% of global carbon emissions, that’s why it’s startling to find that green achievements have gone backwards over the past decade. Our recent research of 600 construction professionals found only one in three now hit green targets, whereas a decade ago it was one in two.

The bad news doesn’t stop there, 20% of construction professionals don’t measure or report sustainability metrics on projects. Under half of those we surveyed haven’t worked on a net-zero project in the past year, and just one in twenty only worked on net-zero projects.

Despite the climate emergency, the construction sector’s ambition to create greener buildings, there are key barriers to building more sustainably.

Barriers

The siloed and fragmented approach to construction projects is one significant issue and when this is coupled with a lack of client demand, inconsistent and unambitious Government policy, along with data blind spots around construction product information, it’s clear why we’re not making greater progress.

When asked what drove them to aspire to green projects, almost nine in ten construction professionals said ‘personal values’, followed by half saying leading by example. Around a quarter of those surveyed said client demand, company policy and legislation had driven sustainable work. It’s not an exaggeration to say we’re now facing the biggest crisis of our lifetimes and with construction responsible for 25% of UK emissions, this is too big to leave to personal choice.

Push from the financial system

However, as the financial system becomes more aware of climate risk and carbon costs, this will provide a powerful push for construction to become greener. Soon projects will be uninsurable and unable to secure loans without evidence of their green credentials.  So, it’s imperative we focus on the four Cs – climate, carbon, compliance and cost. Linking these together will be the ever-growing need for data and transparency.

According to the UK’s Treasury and Green Construction Board, embodied carbon has the most potential to be reduced at the design and planning phases. Anything else has a substantially lower chance of reducing carbon. To leverage this fact successfully, specifiers and the broader project team need access to much better information, and to be using technology to its full potential.

The roadblocks cited by our respondents include lack of client demand and the perceived higher financial costs of sustainable projects.

Buildings already standing

80% of the buildings likely exist in 2050 are already built, and so it should be expected that a focus would be on de-carbonising existing buildings.

The findings show light refurbishment projects are less likely to achieve sustainability than new builds. Nine out of ten surveyed said they thought there should be more Government help to support existing buildings become net-zero.

That said everyone needs to play their part on a micro-level, and that’s why I’m proud that NBS was awarded carbon neutral status in May this year with a 56% reduction in operational emissions since 2019.

Where next?

While there clearly needs to be a robust policy framework, and an increased insistence on sustainable options by construction clients, along with action at an individual business level. I believe a powerful impetus will come from the needs of insurers and banks. They require ever-greater insight about how buildings have been constructed and maintained. Part of this will be for the pragmatic commercial reason around risk. Insurers are now frequently asking for proof that construction projects will meet sustainability standards, and they are becoming more interested in the construction and composition of buildings. They also want proof that buildings have been designed to cope with changing weather and are able to withstand greater temperature extremes.

Simultaneously, banks will become more interested in greener construction as they have to report on carbon emissions and climate risks in their loans and investments.

Accredited construction products and techniques will be part of evidencing this, along with digital records required to not only verify what was specified originally, but what went into the actual building. Building owners will also have to demonstrate robust maintenance has taken place. While all this has been technologically possible for years, there hasn’t been the push from financial institutions. When this element is combined with a new policy environment, lasting change will result, as without insurance and finance the construction sector will seize up.

Nowadays there are not only the technological tools to make this a reality, there’s also a movement to ensure consistent classification and to allow for interoperability. When you’re looking at buildings that last decades, technological longevity has to be front of mind.

It’s going to be tough, but construction has to move off amber to green.

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