BLOG: The state of sustainability: overlaps and gaps

Sophia Cox, Membership Engagement Officer at UKGBC
COX, Sophia

Published on

November 10, 2017

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As part of our ten year strategy, UKGBC set out an ambition to help the industry measure its progress against tangible metrics. The first iteration of this project was to bring together the most robust and reliable information on the state of sustainability in the UK built environment into a series of infographics. Since their launch these have reached a wide audience and we hope that they will be a valuable resource for the industry.

For us, researching the state of sustainability in the UK built environment was an illuminating process in itself. It acted almost as a gap analysis; exposing the areas where there was sometimes a worrying lack of research and highlighting interesting overlaps between seemingly disparate issues.

For me, the overlaps serve to remind us how interrelated the challenges we’re tackling are, but also how one solution can address many problems. But the gaps are even more important, as they serve as a call to action for the industry to fund more vital research, so we can start better measuring impact of the built environment at a national level.

Overlaps

Resources, energy and carbon are inextricably interlinked, which meant it was often hard to categorize data into either the climate change section or resource use section of our infographics. One dataset which would easily be comfortable in either section is the number of solar panels on buildings. Creating buildings that generate their own energy is a vital to decarbonising building energy use, but it is also a key to a built environment which uses resources in a more circular way.

Government data shows us that our social housing is becoming increasingly overcrowded while our owned homes are increasingly under-occupied. This is a worrying direction of travel for our society and will only serve to exacerbate inequalities; but it can also be seen as an issue of resource inefficiency. Our buildings are a resource in their own right, and maximising their utilisation will limit the amount of resources the built environment consumes.

The section on Nature and Biodiversity was naturally the most interrelated to the other sections. The strongest links were with our health and wellbeing, but it’s clear that nature underpins all sustainable outcomes. For me, this is illustrated best by the benefits of urban trees: they aid the drainage of storm water, clean our air, sequester carbon, cool our buildings and make us happy.

The sustainability of the UK transport system is heavily influenced by the way that the built environment is planned; good transport infrastructure can give us better air quality, better quality of life and reduce the UK carbon footprint. To the extent that direct emissions from transport have traditionally been included in the 42% of UK carbon footprint attributed to the built environment. Although this is controversial, the recent growth in electric charging points is reminding us of the important role the built environment plays.

Gaps

Perhaps the most worrying lack on data was on the resource use in construction. The latest data we have on the amount of each raw material that is used in construction is from 1998, when the industry was very different to what it is now. We also have no oversight of how much of that material is sustainably sourced.

It is also very hard to understand the extent to which construction in the UK is moving to a more circular model. We don’t know how much recycled content is being used in building materials (though we know it’s a growing trend) and there isn’t any recent research on the amount of re-used materials in construction. It would be timely for the industry to undertake another BigREc Survey to see if re-use of materials has continued on a downward trend.

The bulk of the data on the carbon impact of the built environment came from an unpublished update to the Green Construction Board’s Low Carbon Route-map and government sources (often interpreted by the Committee on Climate Change). Despite a relative wealth of data in this area, there is still a need for it to be brought together to set clear built environment carbon targets alongside each of the carbon budgets, in line with the trajectory to 2050.

The Draft London Environment Plan is the only resource we have found that directly attributes poor air quality directly to emissions from buildings and construction. Much more data is needed in this area. Likewise, there is little consensus around typical levels of poor air quality inside buildings. It is likely that this situation will improve in the next couple of years as air quality monitoring technologies get wider uptake.

GiGL have pulled together detailed data on greenspace in London, but its shame that this hasn’t yet been replicated in other UK cities so that we can have a general feel for the state of greenspace in urban areas in the UK.

If you are a university, research body or other interested party and you feel like you could play a role in delivering some of the vital research which is either missing or out of date, please contact Sophia Cox.