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Walking the line between sustainability and the built environment

by BDigital_Admin
A crane towering above a row of trees

How can built environment professionals change the way they think about sustainability and navigate a route toward solutions, when there is no clear path ahead? Dr Graeme Larsen, associate dean of Sustainability at the University College of Estate Management, believes he has the answer

For companies involved in the built environment, sustainability is a huge challenge. The act of construction leads to huge amounts of energy and materials being consumed, while delivering those buildings for their intended purpose also has to meet goals around profitability and societal impact. It’s like walking on a tightrope.

Yet at the same time, being high up above the crowd can give you the ability to see further.

Our approach needs to look further than simply trying to add on sustainability after the fact. We cannot bolt on energy-saving measures once projects are in motion, or provide small and empty gestures that don’t meet the wider challenges we face.

Instead, we have to look at sustainability across the entire built environment process, from conceiving new buildings and where they will be located, how those environments are developed and built, all the way through to when those structures are changed or decommissioned.

We need to fundamentally shift both our thinking and our practices from short-term goals to more long-term visions, so all our buildings are environmentally sound structures, based on resource-efficient processes, that deliver what people want now and for the foreseeable future.

Putting sustainability at the heart

For built environment professionals, enabling sustainability relies on multiple stakeholders all carrying out their own actions to succeed. However you define sustainability, it can be fractured and fragmented across different processes and agendas. With so many moving parts involved in how construction projects are delivered, it can be hard to see where you can actively make a difference, let alone encouraging and inspiring others across your team.

Instead, a completely different approach is needed that includes sustainability in every step, rather than in isolation. We already have technological innovations to deal with many problems. The biggest challenge is how to link all these potential changes into a unified yet dynamic approach that consistently includes sustainability at the heart of every project.

This approach includes looking at how our organisations run their own businesses and where they are including sustainable thinking in their norms and practices. It includes looking at the institutions that interact with our construction and building firms around how projects are designed, built, and managed over time. And it includes us as professionals working within these institutions and organisations.

Too often, we approach sustainability using working practices that simply aren’t designed to support this approach. There’s also the potential for issues to be fragmented, pigeonholed, or miscommunicated between stakeholders, even within firms. It is difficult to identify who owns and leads the overall sustainability agenda.

Sustainable construction is necessary

However, this leadership is critical. There is a groundswell of firms making the effort to address sustainability because it can be mobilised for competitive strength, as well as delivering a long-term positive impact.

Clients are increasingly aware of the sustainability challenges associated with the built environment, too. They will choose to work exclusively with firms that can demonstrate their leadership in this space in practical and measurable ways, whilst avoiding being associated with the ‘polluters’. 

Governments are waking up to the wider benefits of sustainable communities and business. The Competition and Markets Authority has released guidance on how companies can cooperate around environmental goals. This is better late than never, as clearly no one firm or organisation is going to solve the sustainability challenge.

Sustainability is an inter-organisational, multi-country and inter-generational challenge. In the future, government organisations could include sustainability measures as requirements in contracts for built environment projects, stimulating more innovation, too, rather than it being optional.

“By combining an understanding of the bigger picture around the built environment and sustainability, professionals can lead their organisations forward and effect real change”

To anticipate this shift in approach, we all have to make changes that take all sustainability requirements into account. On energy usage, the United Nations (UN) found that the built environment sector accounted for over 34% of energy demand and around 37% of energy and process-related CO2 emissions in 2021.

In the UK, the total energy-related carbon emission figure is closer to 45%. This is because the UK has some of the oldest housing stock in Europe, with work required in order to bring those emission figures down and meet minimum energy performance standards.

However, CO2 emissions is not the only area that has to be considered; it is just one of the UN’s 17 Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs).

Reducing CO2 emissions will have little impact if, for example, the side effect is adversely impacting clean water, sanitation and life below water (UNSDGs 6 and 14) or any of the other UNSDGs. 

Sustainability cannot succeed if we focus on one goal or metric in isolation to the detriment of other SDGs. Instead, we must consider all factors, understand the interconnectivity, and take a strong sustainability approach. It is this interconnectivity and how we structure our response that makes the good leadership essential.

Sustainability needs leaders

In order to make these changes happen, we need leadership. This is not just about those at the top of companies, although they have immense sway in decisions. Instead, we need leaders across all the layers and levels that exist across the built environment sector.

As more pressure builds to meet energy efficiency, carbon reduction, and water use targets across industries, built environment professionals will need to step up and change how their companies and organisations act around sustainability. 

It will be painful to unlearn current norms and practices and develop and relearn new approaches. But this is what innovative stakeholders and organisations will be doing.

By combining an understanding of the bigger picture that exists around the built environment and sustainability, professionals across the sector can lead their organisations forward and effect real, measurable change. We can shape the future of our sector by challenging outmoded ideas, developing a knowledge base and ensuring that leadership teams have the right tools and approaches to deliver what is needed.

Rather than focusing solely on project management, environmental technical details or policy, it’s time to look at all these issues simultaneously in context. Without this leadership approach, our sector will not be able to deliver on what people want. They will face downward pressure on their quality of life, opportunity, productivity, and health. 

As professionals, we are custodians of the built environment, and society and all users of the built environment deserve better. We need a fundamental shift from short-term thinking around single projects to long-term, intergenerational, interfirm, and intercountry actions.

In short, we need to equip the next generation of built environment professionals with the skills to navigate the future when there are no maps to rely on or paths to follow.

Image credit: Snova/Shutterstock

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