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Natural Environment

Sustainable innovation in the built environment: is it about ideas or execution?

Buildings are a major contributor to climate change, estimated by the US Green Building Council to account for 39% of US carbon emissions, and yet less than 1% of construction revenues are reinvested into research and development.

Oliver Parsons, Editor, Modus
14 May 2019

Buildings are a major contributor to climate change, estimated by the US Green Building Council to account for 39% of US carbon emissions, and yet less than 1% of construction revenues are reinvested into research and development.

Are we progressing fast enough to cut emissions from the built environment – and how can we speed up the process?

As pointed out by Antony Wood, Chief Executive Officer, Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, there is no shortage of innovation within the industry.

Speaking at the RICS World Built Environment Forum Summit 2019 in New York, he cites a number of examples, such as the NBR Osaki Building in Tokyo, which uses a system of rainwater-filled ceramic pipes around its exterior to cool the building naturally, thus reducing energy use associated with air conditioning.

For Wood, the question is less one of where the innovation should come from, and instead much more a matter of how the entire value chain of landowners, tenants, governments, builders and professionals can act in concert to execute these innovations at scale.

"We're nowhere near addressing the challenges of climate change and sustainability, as a species, in the way that we need to be.

"There's some fantastic research going on, and there are some fantastic buildings [...] but I just don't know that it's enough. We need to do our very best that we can do with every building. We need to take what's been happening at the building scale over the past 10-20 years and adopt that to big thinking on an urban scale."

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We’re nowhere near addressing the challenges of climate change and sustainability, as a species, in the way that we need to be.

Antony Wood
Chief Executive Officer, Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

This need for bigger-scale thinking is a sentiment shared by Carol Lemmens, Director – Global Leader Advisory Services at Arup. Also speaking at the RICS World Built Environment Forum Summit 2019, he speaks out on the need to translate the circular economy, and the benefits that it can deliver from the perspective of resource efficiency and reduced carbon emissions, from a design methodology into a business strategy for improved financial performance.

This approach means acting on the sources of lost value across the asset life cycle to turn them into economic opportunities. The depreciation of building materials is the most obvious of these, but Lemmens expands his analysis to the premature demolition of buildings (usually because they lack the adaptability to find new purposes in the face of economic change) and the under-utilisation or under-occupation of built assets.

However, reaching that end goal will require participants in the construction sector to break out of their working silos, and also for investors to consider how they conceive of value.

"We need to rethink how buildings and cities are coming to be," Wood concludes. "The biggest incentive is return on investment – this return on investment is, though, not as linear as it's been in the past. It's may not be directly in terms of the amount that someone's going to pay to buy or rent that space. It might be productivity gains. Research is showing that productivity gains through a better considered internal environment is higher than any of the energy savings that might be made through green technologies."