After COP26: What’s next?

Date: December 21
Author: Hattie Hartman, AJ sustainability editor

Channelling the momentum of COP26, Barr Gazetas convened a group of clients and colleagues to share the key built environment outcomes of the Glasgow conference, and reflect on what’s next. Introducing the session, chair AJ sustainability editor Hattie Hartman highlighted two industry flash points, the rejection of Foster + Partners’ Tulip by the City of London and the controversy around the proposed demolition of Marks & Spencer’s flagship Oxford Street headquarters. Both reveal the extent to which embodied carbon and RetroFirst now feature prominently in industry discourse around the race to net zero.

Sharing his takeaways from Glasgow, UKGBC director of communications, policy & places Simon McWhirter noted that more countries, and critically, more finance is now behind the drive to net zero. The role of the built environment was much more clearly articulated at COP 26 than at previous COPs, and unlike other sectors such as agriculture and aviation, the decarbonisation pathway for the built environment is clearer. ‘We know what the solutions are. It’s more about political bravery and how to move innovators into the mainstream,’ Simon said, acknowledging the challenges of a fragmented industry and the political vacuum to legislate change. The ambition of countries like Sweden and Scotland, where UKGBC Scotland launched during COP, should be applauded. Other key initiatives include the UK Urban Climate Action Programme (UCAP) and the UKGBC Whole Life Carbon Roadmap for the Built Environment.

Most important of all was Rishi Sunak’s announcement that from 2022/23, all listed companies will have to prepare and present their net zero transition plan, a move that Simon described as a gamechanger. Others around the table concurred that the ESG agenda would mean ‘a lot of work coming down the pipeline in our sector.’ Simon concluded by highlighting the UKGBC’s current key ‘asks’: the desperate need for a national electrical strategy, an urgent focus on embodied carbon and the need to measure and disclose actual rather than notional energy use, at the same time not losing sight of the overarching imperative for a just transition and more nature-based solutions.

A debate ensued about the extent to which the industry is dominated by ‘badge-chasing’ with many investors and occupiers chasing environmental certifications without a nuanced understanding of the issues. Barr Gazetas’s Jon Eaglesham dismissed badge-chasing as the main driver and observed that sustainability is now at the very top of every client’s agenda. ‘It’s no longer a bolt-on,’ he said. Felicity Masefield of Native Land highlighted the usefulness of the RIBA 2030 targets in setting briefs, while Samantha Whellams of General Projects noted that clients need greater clarity on thorny topics such as offsetting. Hattie noted that both the RIBA and LETI targets are already increasingly finding their way into briefs though that doesn’t mean they are necessarily delivered.

Even more heated was the retrofit vs newbuild debate with Ian McTurner of KnightFrank explaining that while current letting decisions still turn on operational emissions, awareness of embodied carbon and the implication of retrofit vs newbuild is rapidly increasing. Two exemplar projects were cited: Fabrix’ Roots in the Sky, a retrofit of Blackfriars Crown Court which features an elaborate green roofscape and newbuild Lansdowne House for its structural sway frame, enabling a high degree of flexibility in future. Simon (UKGCB) noted that it’s encouraging to see clients developing exemplar projects for their long term financial value, rather than out of altruism. But Grosvenor’s Andy Haigh countered that it is not yet clear at all that the market values an EPC A over an EPC D.

Paramount for the UK built environment, heritage vs. carbon is an intractable issue that needs cracking. Andy referenced a recent Grosvenor publication on this topic. Currently heritage is consistently prioritised over environmental performance, and the consensus amongst all attendees was that the lengthy delays of the planning system, described by Ian as ‘broken’, pose major challenges. Despite a presumption mostly in favour of retrofit around the table, its advantages were not self-evident, even in carbon terms. Jon (Barr Gazetas) noted that the majority of what needs updating on a 20 year-cycle is M&P and fitout, which is identical for both newbuild and retrofit, while Simon highlighted the desperate need for innovation in the supply chain to enable historic buildings to be upgraded more easily.

Katie Clemence-Jackson of Max Fordham mentioned updating MEP plant as an easy win in historic buildings, citing the replacement of gas boilers with air source heat pumps at Wolfson College, Oxford where a 70% reduction in operational carbon was achieved. Charles Howard noted another easy win that Grosvenor is adopting: the substitution of bioethanol in lieu of diesel to supply backup generators.

The conversation moved on to embedded carbon and some of the barriers to progress. Structural engineer Anna Beckett of WebbYates described the dramatic increase in demand for embodied carbon assessments over the last couple of years, and the practice’s own initiative to undertake assessments of past projects as useful comparisons. Anna stressed two points: the importance of challenging BCO guidelines and analysing structural loads in retrofits in terms of current requirements which tend to be considerably less than design loads in older buildings and the need to design with bolted connections for ease of dismantling in future.

Andy (Grosvenor) referenced two relevant initiatives, SteelZero and ConcreteZero, to be launched imminently.

Tom Whalley of Multiplex reiterated the important industry focus on embodied carbon and the need for more accurate measurement and disclosure, stressing the need for policy change such as the proposed Part Z. Ollie Morris of CBRE concurred, pointing to the current update of RICS guidance from 2017 by the Whole Life Carbon Network as a welcome initiative. Kavita Kumari of Cundall also agreed, noting that the current RICS guidance does not account for the embodied carbon in demolition. Simon highlighted the need for an embodied carbon policy that sets out a clear pathway that can be ratcheted up over time in order ‘to take the industry with us’ and mentioned that UKGBC is in ongoing discussion with BEIS around this topic.

Equally important, given the current industry concentration on embodied carbon, is a continued focus on reducing operational emissions. Reducing overall loads and ensuring everything is correctly metered is essential. Katie Clemence-Jackson of Max Fordham highlighted the importance of accurate vs. notional monitoring. Hattie mentioned that her recent book Energy|People|Buildings (with Judit Kimpian and Sofie Pelsmakers) spells this out in detail. For example, a practice like Architype reviews a project’s BMS Operating Manual to be sure the system is set properly. Kavita mentioned the Australian tool NABERS, still not widely known in the UK, and reiterated the importance of industry upskilling in understanding whole life carbon.

In terms of circularity, Barr Gazetas’s Jonathan Allwood described Holbein Place as Grosvenor’s most pioneering project to date, noting that Grosvenor is successfully reusing steel across its portfolio, sourcing steel from a project in Bermondsey for reuse in Belgravia. However, Jonathan emphasised that it’s still early days for circularity of materials: while reclaimed raised access floors are increasing being used, sourcing large quantities of reclaimed brick through Globechain remains challenging. Katie shared a lighting industry initiative that promotes leasing and take-back of fittings.

Jon Eaglesham concluded by stressing the importance of a strategic assessment of the brief at the outset of a project, noting that this had even led Barr Gazetas to refuse certain jobs. The practice has developed a 10-page worksheet to evaluate projects. Whole life carbon assessments undertaken at feasibility stage provide a thorough basis for comparison of options, but this should be done with a full consultant team and adequate time, ideally four to six months. ‘Strategic thinking enables good decisions,’ he said.

The crucial importance of collaboration and knowledge sharing surfaced throughout the discussion. ‘ Barr Gazetas decided early on not to own sustainability, but rather to collaborate’ said Jon. Katie noted that as part of its Engineers Declare commitment, Max Fordham has developed an open source Net Zero Carbon Guide which is continuously updated. Felicity (Native Land) similarly highlighted the importance of knowledge-sharing, describing a recent event where a developer turned down by an insurer for use of timber on a project learned from another developer that timber had been approved by that same insurer for their project. ‘That type of shared intelligence can encourage you to keep pushing the agenda even when you’re being told ‘NO’,’ she said.

The animated discussion had to be cut short. Jon thanked everyone for attending and for their many insights and suggested another event in the new year to continue the conversation.

Anna Beckett, Webb Yates associate
Katie Clemence-Jackson, Max Fordham partner
Andy Haigh, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, director of Climate Positive Solutions
Charles Howard, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, director of offices
Kavita Kumari, Cundall associate
Felicity Masefield, Native Land development executive
Ian McCarter, Knight Frank partner co-head, London office leasing
Simon McWhirter, UKGBC director of communications, policy & places
Ollie Morris, CBRE associate director
Thomas Whalley, Multiplex sustainability coordinator
Samantha Whellams, General Projects assistant development manager
Jon Eaglesham, Barr Gazetas managing director
Jonathan Allwood, Barr Gazetas director
Hattie Hartman, AJ sustainability editor, chair

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