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If the built environment sector is to reach net zero, architects need to speak as one voice

Words:
Phoebe MacDonald

On the eve of COP26, the RIBA's Built for the Environment report calls on the government to step up the fight against climate change – but we need your help, says Phoebe MacDonald

Sharanam Centre for Rural Development, Pondicherry, India ©Jateed Lad_2
Sharanam Centre for Rural Development, Pondicherry, India ©Jateed Lad_2

In a few weeks’ time, global leaders, climate change experts and activists will descend on Glasgow for COP26. This meeting marks a critical juncture for humanity. The latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that inaction to date means that unless there are immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, then limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.

And the built environment has a huge role to play because as a sector we’re responsible for 38 per cent of global energy-related carbon emissions. 

Our latest report, Built for the Environment, produced in partnership with Architects Declare, sets out bold recommendations for governments on how their leadership, legislation and regulation can help the built environment sector reach net zero. To successfully decarbonise the sector, we must transform the way buildings are designed and constructed. 

Current building codes and regulations focus on almost exclusively on the energy use of new buildings, but do not regulate actual energy use. We know that buildings sometimes do not perform as predicted during the design process, so we must regulate their in-use operational energy performance. 

 

The most effective way to avoid embodied carbon emissions is to refurbish, retrofit and extend the lives of existing buildings

Sharanam Centre for Rural Development  in Pondicherry, India. The low-carbon campus was hand-built from earth in a landscape that has been ravaged by illegal quarrying. Nothing was wasted: sieved pebbles from the earth formed flooring finishes and excavation pits were used to harvest rainwater. A local drip system was revived, reducing irrigation water requirements by 75 per cent
Sharanam Centre for Rural Development in Pondicherry, India. The low-carbon campus was hand-built from earth in a landscape that has been ravaged by illegal quarrying. Nothing was wasted: sieved pebbles from the earth formed flooring finishes and excavation pits were used to harvest rainwater. A local drip system was revived, reducing irrigation water requirements by 75 per cent Credit: Jateed Lad via RIBA

Embodied carbon – the carbon emissions attributable to materials and products used in the construction and maintenance of buildings – remains almost entirely unregulated. This remains a huge barrier to reaching net zero.  

Retrofitting must also be prioritised. We won’t reach our climate action goals by building from scratch; we must reuse our existing building stock. It’s quite clear that the most effective way to avoid embodied carbon emissions is to refurbish, retrofit and extend the lives of existing buildings. And governments can help to encourage this by collecting, storing and sharing information on derelict and vacant buildings.  

Governments need to take a holistic view of decarbonising construction and fundamentally ensure their actions reflect the severity of the situation we face. Therefore, alongside effective regulations, we also require urgent changes to policies affecting planning and permitting systems, public procurement, grants and incentives, and supporting infrastructure. For example, procurement processes should better consider social value; contracts should be awarded on criteria such as health and wellbeing, access and inclusion, social sustainability, innovation, and resilience – not the lowest cost.  

Of course, the industry also has a role to play. Sharing information, breaking down silos, adapting behaviours and changing our approach to designing and building are key to success. I urge everyone who engages with the built environment to read, download and endorse Built for the Environment. By working together, and showing governments we’re speaking with one voice, we can make a real difference. 

Phoebe MacDonald is RIBA senior policy and public affairs advisor. 

Join our Built Environment Summit

28th and 29th of October the RIBA is hosting the Built Environment Summit, an opportunity for the entire sector to come together ahead of COP26 to share best practice and discuss the urgent decarbonisation of buildings. Expert lectures, panel discussions and dynamic participations sessions will take place across the two-day event – you can join any or all of the sessions. 

View the full programme.

 

Read more: Eleanor Young on why regulation trumps even the keenest individual actions.   

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