As construction is the bell weather of the economy, it will also be the means by which society adapts to a lower carbon lifestyle.
Schools, offices, housing and factories, joined up by roads, rail and air transport, powered by energy infrastructure, will all require the tools and innovation provided by the construction industry.
Demand for new office construction, or refurbishment, has lessened, but the focus of the remaining projects is for green office space. As larger organisations have ESG obligations to meet the 2050 net zero target, there will be a stimulus for low carbon real estate. In addition, the recent shock of high energy costs will prompt all asset owners to review how their buildings can be more efficient.
Of course, construction professionals can help their clients to develop the brief for a sustainable project utilising the tried-and-tested alongside the new-and-innovative. The construction industry has made substantial progress in its transition from traditional methods, to being a cultivator of innovation.
"Innovation is the practical implementation of ideas that result in the introductions of new goods or services or improvement in offering goods or services" – Wikipedia
The implications of climate change are so large that it is often difficult to know where to start. However, the consensus now agrees that a failure to act would cost us more in the long run.
In 2003 it was time for the Institution of Civil Engineers to adapt the definition of civil engineering penned by Thomas Tredgold in 1828 from "the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man" to "the art of working with the great sources of power in nature for the use and benefit of society". It took just three words to shift the focus from a Georgian mindset to a realisation that collaboration with nature will work better than directing nature. It seems like nature is directing us now.
The sustainable design, construction and operation of built assets is becoming more mainstream. It could be said that its genesis was a result of the 1970's fuel crisis, so after 50 years you would expect results. There is a sense that the industry is ready to implement new methods and materials, assisted by accurate measurement and modelling, but with the army of robots charging their batteries in readiness, there is reluctance.
The construction industry is plagued by historical challenges. The over-cladding of residential buildings was intended to improve thermal efficiency, but in doing so, failed to prevent the spread of fire. The focus of designers, builders, approvers and employers was on sustainable design with regard to preventing heat loss. It could be considered an oversight and a symptom of design & build contracts, value engineering and minimum compliance. It was also due to a blind spot regarding the fire safety regulations and a complete misunderstanding of the cavity barrier concept. We must learn from this if we are to succeed in our future attempts to create a sustainable built environment.
The predicted change in climate is towards a large increase in hotter weather days per year and a much smaller increase in colder weather days (IPCC 2001). So efforts to reduce heat loss from buildings is part of the solution, but dealing with hotter conditions will be a significant requirement. In response to this, a new Building Regulation has been added, Part O dealing with overheating, which applies to new build residential projects and shows that the industry is responding and adapting.
- Timber framing has less embodied carbon than steel or concrete, but has increased vulnerability to fire during construction.
- Retrofitting a distribution warehouse with robots running on an electrified grid framework, prevented firefighting access during a fire.
- Gas detection systems that create false alarms so often that they are ignored.
- High rise residential developments are on hold while regulators deliberate on second staircase requirements.
- The Government has appointed Buro Happold to create the modern methods of construction Standardisation Research and Kit of Parts.
- Sustainable construction materials include building blocks made from sugercane fibre with a fifth of the carbon footprint compared to making concrete blocks.
- Sustainability assessment tools include BREEAM, Passivhaus, SAP, LEED, SUDS and The Code for Sustainable Homes.
- Cement free concrete used on London power tunnel project, cut out 82 Tonnes of embodied carbon.
- RIBA Climate Guide book published 2023.
The construction industry and its investors cannot operate without insurance, seeing it as a silent partner and safety net. Policies are provided to cover designer's risks, risks during construction and then warranties to cover the first 10 years usually.
Insurers do not see themselves as a safety net out of obligation to the cause. The insurance market has complexities of its own, which are mostly a mystery to construction policyholders. Cover can be restricted and limited, or be withdrawn all together. Policies are provided using statistical analysis of limited parameters based on past performance. Indemnities must be balanced with premiums, based on an understanding of how the construction industry and design of builldings has traditionally been done.
If the construction industry is not going to build in the traditional way, then how do insurers assess the risks? Insurers have asked me directly if I think that costruction innovation will increase risks and it is difficult to say it won’t. Therefore, at least in the short to medium term, insurers will be cautious and premiums will be higher.
I would like to think there is a way of mitigating a defensive insurance position and perhaps the construction industry innovation should include a way to inform and reassure insurers that the new risks are being well managed. Construction has done this before in tackling the challenge of health and safety. Numbers of accidents and fatalities have reduced significantly over the past 20 years.
The tools are available, with sophisticated digital modelling of every stage, risks too can be modelled and should be a part of the construction process. This information can be made available to insurers, with some insurers already involved in the assessment of risk throughout. This should be seen as a partnership that would benefit both industries and might also, dare I say, save the human race!
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