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Green King – the man trying to make Lendlease zero carbon

Paul king 1 anthony coleman
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Green activist Paul King has headed Lendlease’s sustainability programme for nearly five years. But how much can he truly change a multinational that uses the equivalent of 62 Eiffel Towers-worth of steel each year? asks Will Hurst 

Paul King, the man in charge of sustainability at Lendlease, is getting a hard time from his colleagues right now – not that he’s complaining.

‘I’m now receiving lots of emails from across the business due to the climate activism we’ve seen recently,’ he says cheerfully. ‘People have an invitation to challenge. Some [emails] are pretty confronting … they are saying that we’re not doing enough.’

I meet the affable and relentlessly positive King – managing director of sustainability and social impact, to give him his full title – at the Australian property and construction giant’s European headquarters in Regent’s Place. It’s the week of the UN climate action summit in New York, and the sight of built-environment professionals ‘striking’ for climate action outside London’s Building Centre is still fresh in the memory. 

It must be a strange time for King, given the way in which Britain’s political parties now clamour to underline their eco credentials. A decade ago, his drive to radically cut the carbon emissions of buildings, first at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) through its One Million Homes Campaign and later as the first chief executive of the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), was bearing fruit. 

Through a combination of cajoling and brinkmanship, King was instrumental in persuading the Labour government in 2006 to adopt the 2016 zero-carbon homes target, giving the sector a challenging yet achievable target to aim at. 

The Conservative/Lib Dem coalition kept faith with the policy but, in a move widely condemned at the time and which now seems almost criminal, the incoming Tory government, shed of its coalition partner, scrapped the policy in 2015 just as housebuilders were gearing up to deliver.

We worked out how much CLT we’d need for the Google HQ. As a result, our suppliers accelerated the certification of forests in Scandinavia 

‘You have to feel frustrated,’ King says mildly. ‘It’s sort of the story of the environmental movement, and perhaps lots of other movements, that the tide comes in and goes out again. If I can muddle my metaphors, we are at a near high water mark in terms of awareness of climate change.’

He accepts that austerity, along with Conservative ideology against state intervention in the market, helped kill off the zero-carbon homes programme. Yet he’s also keen to avoid pointing fingers. King remembers David Cameron once likening the threat of climate change to the threat of your house burning down, in what he calls an ‘extraordinary pre-echo of Greta Thunberg’. He laughs when I suggest these were also ‘empty words’ but won’t be drawn further. 

Elephant park futurehome

Elephant park futurehome

Lendlease’s Passivhaus Futurehomes, designed by Maccreanor Lavington, at Elephant Park, London

So what now, given Extinction Rebellion, Architects Declare and other movements? King believes we do urgently need new policies and regulations ‘to raise the bar’ in terms of building emissions but also that industry is ‘best placed to figure out what the solutions are’.

He adds: ‘We’re a long way off from getting people away from GDP [growth targets], but we are constantly learning and innovating … and last time I looked, 230 councils had declared a climate emergency, including many of those we are working with.’

In three months’ time, King will have been at Lendlease for five years and he is keen to talk up its recent achievements in the sustainability sphere. The firm’s former chief executive Dan Labbad was also a founding member of the UKGBC, later persuading King to join him at Lendlease.

‘I came to realise through Dan that Lendlease was a bit different and that sustainability was deeply embedded in the psyche of the organisation,’ he says. 

So why isn’t Lendlease delivering net-zero targets already? ‘Arguably we are,’ King responds, although he concedes that ‘we could be more consistent’. 

We’ve left it too late to prevent human-induced climate change

He points out that the firm’s energy performance standards for commercial and residential development are ‘significantly higher than the regs’ and that its homes are ‘at least 35 per cent more efficient that Part L 2013’. 

Working with architect MaccreanorLavington, Lendlease also recently delivered the first Passivhaus homes in central London, the so-called ‘Futurehomes’ at Elephant Park (pictured right).

Meanwhile as the contractor on the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games village, Lendlease is endeavouring to install an electric heating system rather than the communal gas one that had been on the table. This one move will save around 2,000 tonnes of carbon over 15 years, it estimates.

But surely as a major customer of the carbon-guzzling steel and concrete industries, Lendlease could be doing a lot more to reduce its whole-life carbon impact?

King says that 85 per cent of the multinational’s carbon footprint ‘is outside our direct control’ but agrees it has significant purchasing power which could influence the production of raw materials.

‘That’s something we are working on right now,’ he says. ‘We estimate that we use about 62 Eiffel Towers-worth of steel a year globally. I can’t give you a similar estimate for concrete, but it’s a lot.

‘We absolutely don’t just want to talk about the lights in our offices but also our supply chain and see what we can do to enable sustainable living – this is a social and an environmental issue.’

One example of this is Lendlease’s increasing use of cross-laminated timber (CLT), which many point to as a potential game-changer for low-carbon construction as long as forests are properly managed and substantially increased in scale.

‘I could reel off many examples where we’ve made brilliant use of CLT,’ King says. ‘Sometimes there are problems and when we worked out how much CLT we were going to need for the [Heatherwick and BIG-designed] Google headquarters and we spoke to our suppliers, they said: “We don’t think there’s enough FSC-certified CLT”.

Paul king 2 anthony coleman

Paul king 2 anthony coleman

Source: Anthony Coleman

‘We asked how we could get more sustainably-certified CLT and, actually, that’s a good example of where we leveraged our demand. As a consequence, they accelerated the certification of forests in Scandinavia with the FSC such that there was a supply-path for us.’

On the question of retrofit versus demolition and new build – the subject of AJ’s RetroFirst campaign – King is more reticent but points out that Lendlease is involved in several very large refurbishment projects, including the huge Millennium Mills building in London’s Silvertown.

And what is the role in all of this for architects? Given all the talk of a marginalised profession, can they hope to influence the charge towards net-zero carbon using the springboard of Architects Declare?

‘Absolutely,’ he says. ‘We need help in terms of the people who are best equipped to help us see where we can have the biggest impact. In terms of the choice of materials, the specification of materials, the quantities of materials, these are crucial pathways to reducing our impact.’

But given all the U-turns and foot-dragging we’ve seen by central government combined with the increasingly dire warnings from scientists, how hopeful is King in general that catastrophic climate change can be averted?

He offers three questions and three answers: ‘Have we left it late? Yes, I don’t think there’s any question of that. 

‘Have we left it too late? Yes, we’ve left it too late to prevent human-induced climate change. 

‘Have we left it too late to mitigate the worst outcomes? No we haven’t; but we have to get serious pretty fast.’

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