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You know we’re in trouble when even the green experts are greenwashing

Will Hurst
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A conference on sustainable construction seemed in denial about the significance of embodied carbon in new buildings, writes Will Hurst

A climate emergency conference was held yesterday morning (Wednesday 30) in a hulking great new London skyscraper. What could possibly go wrong?

The event, run by the US-based property event firm Bisnow at the Foggo Associates-designed 70 St Mary Axe tower, AKA the ‘Can of Ham’, should in many respects be applauded for its choice of topic.

After all, looming climate breakdown isn’t exactly the subject on everyone’s lips in the deal-fixated property industry. As Jonny Anstead recently pointed out, a Passivhaus-standard council housing scheme taking the UK’s top architecture prize might have been shown live on the BBC and reported by papers ranging from the Daily Mail to the Guardian but it barely seemed to register with those who deliver or write about residential property.

The sustainability credentials of the glazed behemoth we were all sitting in were celebrated without question

Yet yesterday’s conference, London Building for the Future: Creating a Sustainable Britain, skirted around the toughest questions for an industry no longer seen as environmentally benign but a major part of the mess we’re in.

Early speaker John Gummer, chair of the Committee on Climate Change, sounds a lot less outspoken in the era of Extinction Rebellion. Still, he blended optimism about the industry’s new-found sense of environmental purpose with the blunt warning that humanity has just 10 years to achieve a paradigm shift on greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet there was an elephant in the room when Gummer acknowledged the Pope’s recent observation that climate emergency is a symptom of the way we live, only to then argue that UK architects who have signed up to ArchitectsDeclare should keep designing major global airports because ‘somebody is going to build that airport’.

A bigger elephant appeared as soon as the next panel discussion got going – supposedly about how the industry can transform its sustainability credentials.

Shutterstock can of ham

Shutterstock can of ham

Source: Shutterstock.com

70 St Mary Axe, London, aka ‘The Can of Ham’

Challenged by architect and net-zero expert Simon Sturgis on embodied carbon – the upfront emissions associated with construction, which make up 30-50 per cent of a building’s total emissions over its lifetime – the panel struggled to convince given the small matters of that emergency and that 10-year window.

‘We’ll get to net-zero operational carbon first and then we’ll definitely focus on embodied carbon as well, realistically that will come in a bit later,’ said Abigail Dean, the head of sustainability at Nuveen Real Estate, developer of the heavily-glazed Can of Ham.

‘That’s why we’re accelerating our ambition to achieve net-zero operational carbon [in] more like 2030 than 2050 and then the embodied piece will come in as well, before 2050. It’s a bigger challenge because we’re more reliant on our supply chain and all the other parties.’

The panel, which included Buro Happold partner Alasdair Young and British Land’s head of sustainability Cressida Curtis, clearly knew its stuff and acknowledged the need for deep retrofit and increasing use of low-carbon materials such as cross-laminated timber. Yet the sustainability credentials of the glazed behemoth we were all sitting in were celebrated without question.

The casual observer could easily have left the event with the idea that resource-hungry demolition and rebuild is just as valid a response as refurbishment and reuse. One was left wondering just how far the commercial property sector, or even the slightly more woke architectural industry, is willing to adopt the principles of the circular economy, much less disrupt ‘business as usual’.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • If it always comes down to money, then the powers that be need the rules. 0% VAT on retrofit/refurb and 20% VAT on new build. That would certainly be a start...

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