Developing sustainable new buildings won’t be enough to hit the zero-carbon target, writes Basil Demeroutis, managing partner at FORE Partnership. We must find ways to make the average building green
The climate emergency is the most pressing issue we face, not only as an industry but as a society. It is the great challenge of our generation.
The most recent data from May shows that atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gas hit 414.8 parts per million (ppm), which was 3.5ppm higher than the same time last year and above the critical 400 mark.
The pace of change is accelerating, well up from 1.5ppm in the 1990s, which makes the 450ppm level perilously close – the level scientists believe could result in a 2°C temperature rise, beyond which the effects of global heating are likely to become catastrophic and irreversible.
With the built environment contributing around 40% to the UK’s total carbon footprint, the property and construction industry has a huge role to play in tackling this crisis. It also presents a huge opportunity.
“Ensuring new buildings are sustainable is the easy part. The bigger challenge lies in existing stock and the significant economic barriers to upgrading them”
The importance of creating sustainable buildings is now widely recognised. This month, businesses from the built environment made up a third of 120 signatories to a letter calling for the government to adopt the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) recommendation for a UK 2050 net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target. Even better news: the government has committed to the net zero target.
This is a great start. However, there is a very long way to go – and much work to be done – before we can claim to be on track to hit the 2050 target that is so essential if we are to avoid the worst impact of irreversible climate change.
We must all work across the property and construction supply chain, from design through to construction and then post-occupation, to ensure new buildings are designed and delivered to the very highest sustainability standards so that they are fit for the next half century or more.
At FORE, we have just completed Windmill Green, an 82,000 sq ft office building in Manchester, designed by TP Bennett, which is only the second building to achieve BREEAM ‘Outstanding’ in Manchester, after One Angel Square, the Co-Op’s HQ that set a new benchmark for sustainable buildings when it was completed.
But in many ways ensuring new buildings are sustainable and fit for the future is the easy part of the challenge before us. And there is a danger in the industry thinking that, by creating highly sustainable new buildings, it is doing everything it can.
The reality is that even if every new building was now developed to hit the zero-carbon standard, we would still only be making small, incremental steps towards reducing carbon emissions. Of the roughly 300m square feet of office stock in London, we’re only building around five to 10 million square feet of brand new space per year (only a part of which is highly sustainable).
We’re just not building enough new buildings to move the needle.
So the bigger challenge lies in dramatically improving the sustainability of existing buildings, which make up the vast majority of the built environment. Ensuring that the average building on the average street is doing everything it can to reduce its carbon footprint is essential to meeting a zero-emissions target by 2050.
“What can be done to help make the average building on the average street more sustainable? Actually, quite a lot”
Yet there are significant economic barriers to upgrading these kind of buildings. An average office building of 30,000 to 50,000 square feet that may be landlocked or on a constrained site, without any public realm, with heritage value perhaps and in-place tenants, is unlikely to be developed into a shiny new, highly energy-efficient building due to these practical realities and economic constraints.
Equally, when considering refurbishing rather than re-developing a building, investment in sustainability improvements are under pressure. In prime central London, it can be possible to achieve a £20 to £40 per square foot increase in rent off the back of a deep refurbishment, leaving plenty of scope to invest in carbon reducing strategies. Elsewhere, in ‘B locations’ and in the regions, refurbishment may only generate a comparatively small rental increase, making the economic case for improvement flimsy and putting pressure on every pound of capital expenditure.
So what can be done to help make the average building on the average street more sustainable? Actually, quite a lot.
Take energy use. Signing up to a 100% renewable energy source is a good first step and, in our experience, may not have any additional cost. The respected IRENA recently reported that renewable energy costs hit new lows in 2018 and have crossed a threshold where they are now the cheapest option in many markets. Cost of electricity from large-scale solar was down 26%, for example, and onshore wind and solar PV are now often cheaper than any fossil fuel option, without government credits.
Elizabeth Rapoport, Director, Research, Urban Land Institute
Simon Crichton, Food Farming and Trade Team Manager, Triodos Bank
Basil Demeroutis, Managing Partner, Investment Committee, FORE Partnership
Other initiatives take some effort but little cost. Converting to energy-efficient LED lighting – now at cost parity to traditional lighting – and installing low-flow water taps, saves money as well as resources.
On-site solar has also come into its own. Because it can used by the building to offset the cost of electricity, the expense is now justifiable, with the average payback period having fallen to around five or six years. At a number of our refurbishment projects, we’ve installed high-tech, double-sided solar panels, ideally suited for the UK’s mixed climate. These panels absorb light from the underside as well as the top, boosting efficiencies by up to 20% and generating additional electricity through reflective light.
Ensuring all cleaning products used are eco-friendly, implementing best practice in recycling, supplying keep-cups for employees’ takeaway coffee, encouraging lower-carbon commuting through better cycle facilities and cycle purchase schemes – all of these small and low-cost measures can and should be introduced immediately by responsible businesses and landlords.
“If we implemented all of these initiatives in the 99% of real estate stock that has hardly been touched by green measures, the effect would be powerful”
They may not seem like much, but the power of aggregation would make the impact significant. If we implemented all of these initiatives in the 99% of real estate stock that has hardly been touched by green measures, the effect would be powerful.
As an industry we must not sit on our hands. We have the creativity, talent, innovation and wherewithal to prevent the impending climate disaster – and we must act.
Basil Demeroutis, managing partner at FORE Partnership, will be speaking at the Festival of Place on 9 July on ‘Climate risk in investment and development: who has woken up, and who is still asleep?’