16th October 2020

One Year on – the need to force change by Rob Westcott

It’s a year since the various climate emergency declarations in the industry. What has changed? It prompted us to collate our own Climate Charter, realising much of what we already argued for on projects sat well with this; it has also crystalised our thoughts. We advocate and use our skills to reuse or upcycle building fabric. We have further developed our ability to rapidly assess embodied carbon in new fabric, linking this to parametric modelling and making it mandatory to report and discuss this with clients on projects. We argue, cajole and try to educate authorities and contractors on SuDS, who would prefer a simple attenuation tank to maintain, rather than SuDS integrated with landscape design which also offer biodiversity benefits and play features for children. 

Is this enough? Absolutely not. We are relatively progressive, but we are certainly not alone. My feeling is the skills and desire to develop our built environment in a zero carbon, or even carbon negative way, are already here within the design community. So, what is holding us back?

The trouble seems to be the effects of the climate crises are always a few steps away from the root cause. This makes them easier to ignore or deny the link. The affected are disproportionately the people who use the least resources, but the effects are coming closer to home. The Californian forest fires, and floods we have experienced in the UK may be a good thing in the long term but the answer is not just to build more fire-resistant homes or higher flood defences. 

It has clearly been a difficult year. What Covid has shown us however is that when central government gets really scared about something they can cause or even force real societal change very quickly indeed. It would be brilliant if government’s around the world got really scared about the climate crisis and acted in the ‘we are fighting a war mode.’ 

For me, the government could start with two steps for the construction industry:

  • Significantly incentivising building refurbishment and reuse. The VAT rules on new build and refurbishment need reversing. Adding an embodied carbon tax could be a further step. 
  • Mandate use of timber on a large proportion of building fabric, in a similar way that France has done. Greater use of carbon negative timber in development is an essential ingredient in this fight. We know pure CLT and engineered timber frames can comfortably cope with buildings up to 12 storeys and this is compatible with the majority of building in the UK. There are also vast resources of sustainably managed timber. To achieve this the Building Regulations changes from the end of 2019, that banned combustible material from any part of external wall build-ups need to be refined, as they set the timber industry back several years, if not decades.  

Central Government needs to force change. Within the industry we don’t need convincing, it is risk averse outside parties that need to be sure including the insurers, warranty providers, funding banks and mortgage providers. Even well motivated developers are often held back by these institutions. One Tier 1 contractor recently told me their PI insurers had put a blanket ban on them building anything in timber. They sought project specific insurance for a timber school they were keen to build and the premium added 5% to their price. So maybe part of the answer is for the government to provide some kind of green building insurance system to avoid taxpayers money being used for these hiked up premiums. 

There is hope we can get to Zero carbon or better, if everyone takes this seriously now. My fear is issues such as Covid and Brexit distract attention, and they will take years to work through. These are years we have not got. The responsibility falls to all of us within the industry to not let the can be kicked any further down the road. 

One Year on – the need to force change by Rob Westcott