23rd January 2024

The realities of delivering Net Zero: takeaways from our 2023 UKREiiF expert panel


For the built environment, designing and delivering Net Zero at every level is no longer a choice, it’s a necessity.

Yet the built environment industry is significantly off-track from the trajectory required to meet the UK’s national net zero commitments, according to new insight published by the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), which we are members of. Simply put, things need to be done differently to achieve the Net Zero set goals.

Last year and in partnership with Hawkins\Brown, we gathered some of the industry’s foremost thinkers together for an expert panel at the UK’s Real Estate Investment & Infrastructure Forum (UKREiiF) to discuss how this could be achieved.

In the run up to UKREiiF 2024, which we’re returning as a partner to, we’re reflecting on what our expert panel had to say:

Designing from ‘District to Doorknob’

Ewan Graham, partner at Hawkins\Brown, kicked off the panel by explaining that the industry needs to ‘design from district to doorknob’ when it comes to Net Zero. “On the one end, we’re looking at 100,000s of square-feet masterplans, and on the other, we’re looking at small projects like the refurbishment of two Georgian townhouses in Bloomsbury. All of these are the same in that they must be ‘serious about society and human about architecture.’”

Our panel discussed how information sharing among design teams, clients and developers remains one of the industry’s main challenges. “When it comes to Net Zero, we should be asking, ‘is it about the life cycle, circularity, or the social impact?’ They all come under the headline of sustainability.”

Jennie Colville, head of ESG and sustainability at Landsec, reflected that the current focus is arguably too narrow. “We need to consider how we are taking actions to transition to Net Zero, but still think how those actions impact social equity and economic growth.”

Nicola Rigby, principal at Avison Young and chair of the panel, moved the conversation on to what project teams need from a client. Ewan emphasised the need for clients with strong preferences. “What we need from clients is to show a willingness. We need an ability to think about the building over its lifetime, and to accept when we turn around and say, ‘that design may not be for now.’”

Engaging communities and future generations

The focus should be on what we mean by sustainable development and what we are trying to achieve, not only for people today, but for future generations, advocated Colville. “It’s about making sure you are engaging communities and bringing them along in the designing and development process. We also need a commercially viable product. It’s the triple bottom line.”

Louise Duggan, interim head of regeneration at Greater London Authority, suggested both the public and private sector faced challenges when it came to engaging with, rather than co-opting, communities. She noted: “Communities shouldn’t be brought in just to be put on the banner. They should be shown the business model we’re working with and our flexibility.”

“We’re being put under significant pressure by investors and customers to up our game,” said Selina Mason, director of masterplanning and strategic design at Lendlease. “Investors are looking for developers to demonstrate value on projects, both on an environmental and social level.”

So how can we achieve carbon efficiency in the built environment, and is there an issue in the fact we don’t have a perfect definition of Zero Carbon, from a design and development perspective? Ewan responded: “It would be lovely to think there’s a one-size-fits-all perfect definition. But the reality is that no two spaces are the same. It would be silly to chase perfection at the cost of getting somewhere. Efforts to try should be the first step.”

Long-term goals

Our panel moved on to discuss the long-term management and responsibility of infrastructure. Stephen O’Malley, our CEO, added: “We need new ways of dealing with this different type of infrastructure. One of the emerging ideas is having an EcoBID, like we have with Business Improvement Districts.

“An EcoBID becomes a ring-fenced vessel that contributes funds to climate-mitigation contributions for biodiversity, and net gain obligations that are held and overseen by a board representative of the community, institutions and landowners. The difficulty is that they can be political.”

Our success as an industry relies not only on changing our delivery and methodology; but on our open attitudes to change, engaging in new habits and our willingness to collaborate, listen and learn.

Thank you to everyone who took part in the panel. Led by the UK’s leading property events company Built Environment Networking and supported by some of the biggest UK property and infrastructure companies, the third annual UKREiiF event will be held in Leeds on 21-23 May 2024. The forum will attract inward investment, generate economic growth, and drive a more sustainable and inclusive culture within the property and construction industries. See you there!

The realities of delivering Net Zero: takeaways from our 2023 UKREiiF expert panel