12th October 2020

Climate Emergency – a reflection one year on from Engineers Declare by Julian Broster

This week sees a Climate Emergency Conference organised by the Institute of Structural Engineers, one year on from setting up its emergency task force on climate emergency in October 2019.  Referenced as Engineers Declare, it works alongside, and in collaboration with similar initiatives by other professional institutions such as the ICE, RIBA, RICS. 

To mark its first anniversary we have asked colleagues in our Practice to share their personal thoughts on progress being made not only in our work, but across the industry generally.  Topics will be broad-ranging covering issues at the heart of our approach such as re-purposing of buildings, active travel and low carbon design.

Reflecting on my own thoughts of progress made, I go back to the period prior to the last recession in the second half of the 2000’s, when designing for climate change began to gain momentum.  Lord Nicholas Stern was appointed by Gordon Brown’s government to advise on climate change, specifically how economic policy could be shaped by emerging attitudes to a global deal.  His publication in 2009, Blueprint for a Safer Planet,  had a profound influence on my personal attitude to the design of our built environment, and was influential in the raison d’etre and founding of our Practice, Civic Engineers. 

The Code for Sustainable Homes and other similar regulatory tools were instigated in this period, but fell by the wayside in the midst of the financial crash and subsequent recession, when basic economic survival in our industry was prioritised over climate change action.

Ten years on, and in the beginnings of the next economic recession, we must attempt to avoid a similar outcome.  Personally, I am more optimistic this time around – the climate emergency is recognised my nearly all mainstream economists and policy makers globally.  Countries, including our own, have set ambitious, legally binding net zero carbon targets for the coming decades as a result of the Paris Accord.  The UK hosts the COP26 United Nations conference in Glasgow in November 2021. That presents a great opportunity to garner momentum and support to campaigns such as Engineers Declare.  We’ll be there.

At Civic Engineers, we published our own Climate Charter in January 2020, setting out some simple guidance as to how we were going to try and make a difference in our day-to-day practice, and specifically in our designs.  It covers key principles in promoting active travel, carbon reduction, re-purposing our existing building stock and water sensitive urban design. 

It is against this backdrop that we are now assessing our own progress, considering some of the projects where small but important differences are being made.  At Rutland Mills in Wakefield, we are rescuing and converting six vacant listed Victorian buildings into new commercial and educational space.  In Leeds city centre we have engineered the first phase of the Climate Innovation District which includes a new timber framed factory, Citu Works, and manufactured timber houses. In Delamere Forest we have recently completed the timber framed visitor centre.

Promoting more use of timber in building structures is important to us, but it is not without its challenges in a market that is facing many unhelpful perceptions and regulatory obstacles. 

40% of global carbon emissions result from the built environment, so our efforts to reduce carbon make a significant impact on helping to achieve net zero targets.  One of the changes in recent years is the realisation that reduction of embodied carbon in construction materials is as meaningful as reducing carbon in-use (this was not properly recognised in the sustainable design codes of the late 2000’s).  A speedy evolution in the Building Regulations to regulate lower embodied carbon, akin to the changes made to Part L (energy conservation) over the last 15 years, could make a difference.

Fundamentally, our industry needs to use less raw material – principally new cement and steel.  Part of this is a national effort to develop and prioritise low carbon cement, and phase out ordinary Portland cement in its current carbon-intense form, akin to the way that damaging CFC’s in aerosols were phased out in the mid 1990’s. This is important because the use of concrete is not going to disappear – this versatile material has been in use since pre-Roman times.  Similarly with steel, its strength and stiffness are too important to stop using. We need to be better at re-using and maintaining it, such that the need for producing new raw material reduces. I say with some confidence that every person in our Practice feels passionate about the Climate Emergency, as with many other like-minded engineers, architects, surveyors, builders. There is a concern  however that there remain numerous obstacles to delivering low carbon design, active travel and retro-first that are systemic amongst some funders, developers and constructors, and which remain outside of our immediate control.  We look forward to playing our part in helping to facilitate change.

Climate Emergency – a reflection one year on from Engineers Declare by Julian Broster