img(height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="")

Climate action is an legislative issue

Eleanor Young

To make COP26 meaningful, construction needs the strength of legislation instead of relying on individual initiatives, says Eleanor Young

Jumping through hoops: carbon-efficient construction would be easier to achieve  with legislation.
Jumping through hoops: carbon-efficient construction would be easier to achieve with legislation. Credit: Istock

It is sobering to enumerate the chances for action to reduce construction’s carbon that we have missed in just recent years, Retrofit for the Future initiatives never followed through, Net Zero almost defined but never mandated, Code for Sustainable Homes ditched, feeble Part L changes put on the table.

Where political will could have shifted a whole industry heading closer to being comfortingly Paris-proof, instead we must rely on individual conviction. As we have seen from the pandemic, this libertine notion leaves us free to go our own way; 10, or even two, personal choices not to wear a mask on the 8.07 departure put 50 people in the carriage at higher risk.

However, under this self driven approach, led by Stirling Prize winners in the form of Architects Declare and the RIBA through the 2030 Climate Challenge and – importantly – by the grass roots initiatives of LETI and ACAN, that conviction has turned into action. The last two and a half years have seen a groundswell of research, learning and events and putting this shared knowledge into practice on projects. 

If it was enshrined in legislation sustainability research wouldn’t rest solely on the shoulders of practice

On the upside, this can be more conviction-led, with individuals driven to seek out knowledge and urging it on projects beyond the tickbox of regulations. Mastering technical aspects of carbon reduction has broadened the profession’s base and monitoring, and performance studies of past projects are being more widely accepted as a tool for learning, even when the client isn’t funding it. 

One small practice, HAT Projects, has decided to research recycling/re-use/safe disposal information for every material and product specified and include it in Stage 4 reports as standard, whether clients ask for it or not. It is a great initiative, but if it was enshrined in legislation the research wouldn’t rest solely on the shoulders of practice. The market would scale it up with quickly accessible information for products. Without that, the demand remains far smaller. Without rules, business decisions affecting funding for architects, clients and contractors are harder. For the October 2021 issue of the magazine we searched for the sustainable exemplars of our time. We were disappointed to find no pool of ground breaking projects and better performing buildings to choose from, and 22 years on from Chetwood’s pioneering green Sainsbury’s at Greenwich it is in Germany with REWE supermarket chain that we found our inspiration today.

It is unlikely the government’s long-awaited Heat and Buildings Strategy will shift this in a meaningful way, despite its promising title, and the Future Homes Standard’s changes to parts L and F is too little too late, though the industry proposed Part Z on embodied carbon shows much promise. If the government is serious about leading the world on tackling the climate emergency ahead of COP26 in Glasgow it needs to make sustainability more than something you volunteer to sign up to.