Is there still life in the green building agenda?

26 February 2018

The UK Green Building Council’s offices reflect its values

The environment has slipped down the policy programme in recent years, so what does that mean for construction? CM spoke to a range of key sustainability voices from across the sector, starting with UK Green Building Council chief executive Julie Hirigoyen.

The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) has just entered its second decade, and it’s fair to say Westminster attitudes towards environmental policy are a little different today than they were in 2007 under a green-leaning Labour government – before the economic crash and then Brexit.

Recent years have seen the Green Deal collapse – it is currently undergoing a debatable reform – and the Code for Sustainable Homes scrapped. The government now has other priorities.

Despite this, the UKGBC chief executive Julie Hirigoyen is largely upbeat about Westminster policy, though she sees a stronger environ-mental drive coming from devolved regional authorities. She also thinks contractors and their clients could step up to the plate more.

“It’s clear the government has recently taken some positive steps to refocus on the need to cut carbon emissions and protect our environment,” she says.

“There is certainly recognition of the economic opportunity presented by green growth – including jobs, skills and exports – the latest ONS figures show that UK low carbon sectors are growing at almost treble the rate of the wider economy.

“We need these ambitions to be reflected in building regulations and we need a bold new Environment Act for when we leave the EU.”

Julie Hirigoyen, UK Green Building Council

“Late last year, they published the Industrial Strategy and Clean Growth Strategy, which contained some ambitious measures, including a clearer longer-term trajectory for improving the energy-efficiency standards of existing homes and a commitment to support modern methods of construction through public procurement. In January, the 25-year Environment Plan was launched.”

That said, Hirigoyen is frustrated by two “big issues”.

“Firstly,” she says, “these plans and strategies don’t commit an awful lot to law; we need these ambitions to be reflected in building regulations, and we need a bold new Environment Act for when we leave the EU.

“Secondly, the government’s own independent advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), states that the measures are not enough to bridge the current policy gap and put us on track to meet our fourth and fifth carbon budgets.

“So, we absolutely need to see bolder action from government.” However, Hirigoyen is encouraged by the lead taken by some UK local authorities.

“In the absence of strong policy measures from central government, city regions and local authorities are taking it upon themselves to show leadership and specify higher standards for their areas,” she says.

“We’re seeing fantastic leadership from the new metro mayor in Manchester, Andy Burnham, who has set an ambitious aim to make Greater Manchester one of the leading green cities in Europe. In March he will hold a Green Summit to accelerate the city’s progress towards carbon neutrality.

“Other regions, for example Cambridge and Milton Keynes, are going beyond national minimum standards, by requiring greater levels of carbon reduction than Part L.”

Hirigoyen also points to the London Plan, the capital’s statutory spatial development strategy, which requires major developments to be net zero carbon and achieve a minimum onsite carbon reduction of at least 35% beyond the building regulations. The mayor’s London Sustainable Development Commission (LSDC) – which includes Hirigoyen as one of its commissioners – promotes sustainable development and provides independent advice.

“What local authorities and city regions are realising is that building to minimum standards produces low quality housing stock, and this creates legacy problems for the council and the community, such as higher energy demand and heating bills,” she says.

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At construction industry level, Hirigoyen sees “huge opportunities for contractors to improve the sustainability of their operations”, but believes more can be done to reduce and reuse waste.

“The quantity of reused materials in construction has decreased since 1998, and few contractors are designing out waste,” she says.

This year, the UKGBC has set up a forum for its contractor members, with the aim of “identifying and openly discussing sector challenges”, Hirigoyen says.

She believes offsite manufacturing represents a huge opportunity for construction to drive down waste, but says: “It still represents a very small proportion of the market. It is important that we look to make our industry more resource efficient and embed circular economy principles across projects.

“We also need to look at how clients can set meaningful targets for contractors and measure progress against agreed metrics to deliver sustained and demonstrable progress towards the decarbonisation of the sector.”

That also applies to housebuilding, Hirigoyen adds: “The government plans to increase housing delivery to 300,000 homes a year; but what is vital is that we achieve this sustainably, ensuring that a push for numbers doesn’t jeopardise the quality of houses being produced.

“Obviously, the carbon emissions associated with this level of construction are very significant. Again, housebuilders need to be thinking beyond compliance to deliver homes that are fit for the future and won’t need to be retrofitted in a few years’ time to meet our carbon reduction ‘trajectory’.”

Hirigoyen notes that the 25-Year Environment Plan sets out an aim for new developments to demonstrate an environmental net gain to the area in which they are built. 

“The environmental consequences of building houses go beyond carbon emissions – there are depletion of natural materials for construction, generation of waste and pollution from site activities, and the destruction of green spaces and loss of biodiversity,” she says.

“Some more forward-thinking companies are already integrating the ‘net gain’ principle into their projects – Berkeley Homes, Barratt Developments and Skanska are showing leadership in this area. The Wildlife Trusts has published new guidance for developers, Homes For People And Wildlife, so there is momentum building for nature-friendly development at the moment.

“We’re also seeing more consideration of the wider socio-economic and health and wellbeing benefits associated with considerate placemaking,” Hirigoyen continues.

“We should be asking: are the housebuilders creating a legacy of sustainable communities where they’re building houses? Is there access to green space for residents, is the development designed with air quality, access to light and air quality in mind?”

She describes the 25-Year Plan as “a very good start” but warns, “the next step to prove that the government is serious here is to see this commitment reflected in the review of building regulations and a new Environment Act”.

Jon Eaglesham, managing director, Barr Gazetas

Architect Barr Gazetas worked on the office refurbishment and retrofit for the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) London headquarters at The Building Centre.

When the project was completed in 2016 it had the lowest embodied carbon footprint ever recorded for an office refurbishment in the UK, and referenced elements of the BREEAM, Well Standard and SKA accreditations.

The practice was also behind the design of 7 Air Street, for the Crown Estate, a central London office refurbishment which was awarded BREEAM Outstanding with a score of 94% – the first “Outstanding” rated listed building against UK BREEAM NC 2011.

Barr Gazetas’ design for the UKGBC offices had the lowest recorded embodied carbon footprint for an office refurbishment

Managing director Jon Eaglesham says government legislation still drives environmental strategies in the built environment sector, but the industry’s best sustainable design practice comes from far-sighted clients, often far exceeding requirements of the existing building regulations.

He explains: “The majority of our clients always ask for more, setting benchmarks that are challenging for the industry, not just ticking boxes. The intentions at the outset of a project comes from thinking about the occupiers’ needs and the community that the project will influence.”

Caroline Hill, head of sustainability, Landsec

Landsec, the UK’s largest commercial property developer, has walked the walk on sustainability. The fit-out of its new 4,666 sq m office in London’s Victoria by ISG, completed last October, achieved BREEAM Outstanding at design stage, with a score of 92.3%.

Caroline Hill, head of sustainability, says this is a “top-down mandate”: “Our CEO [Robert Noel] is passionate about the agenda and has publicly said he wants us to be a leader. For us it’s about future-proofing the business and also being ahead of our customers.”

Landsec is aiming to reduce carbon intensity (kg CO2/m2) by 40% by 2030. In December 2016, it became the first real estate company to have its strategy approved by the Science Based Targets initiative, a partnership between charity the Carbon Disclosure Project, UN Global Compact, the World Resources Institute and the WWF.

BREEAM remains the most popular environmental rating system but Hill says the score should not be a distraction.

“We’re trying to improve and move away from the mentality that it should all be about the BREEAM rating,” she says. “That should be the outcome rather than the goal. If you focus on planning and building a sustainable, long-lasting building, BREEAM will automatically fall out of that.”

Landsec’s new London offices by ISG achieved a 92.3% BREEAM score

Bevan Jones, managing director, Sustainable Homes

Consultant Sustainable Homes works chiefly with clients in the social housing sector on their carbon reduction strategies.

Managing director Bevan Jones says recent years have been “grim” for the green building agenda.

“Some of the faults in the sector can be traced back to 2010, when there was a loss of talent and skills at local authority level during the recession,” he says. “We’re feeling the effects of that now.”

Housing associations and councils have a reputation for building energy-efficient homes, but Bevan says this has come under threat due to social rent drops and falls in government grants.

“The scrapping of the Code for Sustainable Homes and incorporating it into the building regulations was a mistake.”

“Build quality, and in turn sustainability, has fallen down the agenda,” he says.

“The scrapping of the Code for Sustainable Homes and incorporating it into the building regulations was a mistake. Housebuilders and developers can effectively do what they want now – the building regulations are so low when it comes to carbon performance.”

Jones would like to see more focus on the performance gap of completed buildings, and suggests a retentions-style payment system for the project team tied to energy performance.

He also argues that post-occupancy evaluations (POEs) should be mandatory.

James Willcox, principal sustainable development lead, Willmott Dixon

Contractor Willmott Dixon has been at the forefront of the green agenda, building the UK’s first zero carbon school in Islington, north London (pictured), and several BREEAM Outstanding projects, including the first office outside of London.

But James Willcox, principal sustainable development lead, feels that current government policy needs a sharper short-term focus.

“The 25-Year Environment Plan has just been launched but we need more achievable, short-term goals,” he says.

In particular, Willcox sees the need for more focus on retrofitting and addressing the performance gap of existing building stock. He is also critical of the “unsuccessful” Green Deal and current attempts to revive it.

Willmott Dixon’s Ashmount school in Islington is the first zero carbon school

“The messages we get from clients are they are concerned about the energy performance of existing buildings, and we have been working with them to help reduce the running costs of their estates and make them more energy efficient,” he says.

Additionally, Willcox says clients are now “connecting the dots” between sustainability and wellbeing and see it as increasingly important for end users.

“It has been driven partly by corporate responsibility and also companies realising the productivity benefits of a healthy and happy workforce,” he says.

Kirsten Henson, founder, KLH Sustainability

KLH Sustainability is an environmental consultant which has worked with architects and contractors to achieve high sustainability ratings on major construction projects.

Its portfolio includes the St James’s Market mixed-use development near Piccadilly Circus in central London, where it worked alongside Balfour Beatty for client the Crown Estate. The project achieved a BREEAM Excellent rating at both design and construction stage.

Founder Kirsten Henson says that one of the dilemmas faced by clients is whether retrofitting or new-build offers the more sustainable approach.

“Retrofitting and refurbishing an existing building can work where the structural frame is architecturally appropriate, with the right floor-to-ceiling heights and column spacing, and where the facade is in good condition,” she says. “But we have yet to see a major retrofit that has a full life-cycle carbon analysis associated with it.

“We have yet to see a major retrofit that has a full life-cycle carbon analysis associated with it.”

“It would be beneficial to know if the incremental performance improvement possible through new build [over the whole life cycle] offsets the additional embodied carbon created in the build compared to a retrofit.”

KLH’s work extends to sustainability in the supply chain. “The Modern Slavery Act has increased awareness of supply chain transparency and responsible sourcing within the industry, with most medium and large firms having a modern slavery statement, not just those required by legislation,” she says.

“While many contractors already do quality checks on their supply chain, it makes sense that buyers take a personal interest in the fair sourcing of construction products, rather than relying on external certification of their supply chain partners.”

Emma Nicholson, founder, Women in Sustainable Construction and Property

Emma Nicholson, who sits on the CIOB Sustainability & Environment special interest group, works as a senior project manager for property design and management services company NPS Leeds.

She is based in Leeds, one of the UK’s large regional cities where the local authority is seeking to drive environmental performance.

Nicholson cites the city’s Temple Green and Elland Road park and ride projects, developed by NPS Leeds with Leeds City Council, as examples of sustainable schemes – reducing air pollution in the city by taking cars off the road.

At the Temple Green park and ride, the entire length of the building’s canopy generates electricity through solar panels. Both park and ride schemes are self-sustainable in terms of energy with surplus supporting the electricity needed for electric charging points in the car park.


Currently shortlisted for RICS 2018 Awards in the categories of infrastructure and community benefit, these schemes contribute to the City of Leeds’ vision for a smart city for the future, through the use of electric charging points and solar PV panels.

“Leeds wants to create healthier, more productive environments across housing, education and commercial projects and be a high-ranking sustainable city,” she says.

“The Climate Innovation District, the largest sustainable development in the UK, is another example of this.”

This city centre development, by local developer Citu, will deliver low carbon homes, plus leisure, offices and climate-resilient public spaces, and aims to build a healthier, smarter and better-connected zero-carbon hub in the city.

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