DEEP DIVE: Trends in sustainable solutions for the built environment
As we reach the end of COP27 and the attention of the world is on the climate and ecological crises, UKGBC is shining a spotlight on the innovative solutions that will help enable the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals and achievement of net zero. The UK is home to 3,189 climate tech start-ups focussed on the built environment alone. We must ensure organisations striving for transformative change across the industry are aware of what these are and how they can be effectively deployed.
With this in mind, UKGBC’s Solutions & Innovation workstream seeks to help address shared sustainability challenges within the property and construction sector by showcasing practical solutions and enhancing collaboration between innovators and corporates. This is realised via a range of activities, including the convening of UKGBC’s 60+ Innovative Start-Up members, showcasing best practice solutions and case studies via UKGBC’s Solution Library, distilling industry challenges, and highlighting best practice.
Using insights from our work, and with contribution from UKGBC members A/O PropTech and Undivided Ventures, this deep dive explores some of the key themes and trends emerging for sustainable innovation within the built environment, with examples of some of the new and exciting solutions that have caught our attention:
- Alternative and low carbon building materials
- Retrofit tools
- Smart buildings
- Air quality
- Climate risk analysis
- Next generation building design
- Renewable energy
Alternative and low carbon building materials
From decarbonising concrete, to using waste streams to create new materials and harnessing bio-based materials for construction – there is a lot of innovation happening when it comes to sustainable, low carbon building materials.
Concrete is responsible for 7-8% of global GHG emissions, and accounts for around 25% of the embodied carbon of construction. There are a variety of different approaches innovators are taking to tackle this problem. Concrete is made from water, cement, and aggregate. On the aggregate side, Low Carbon Materials has developed a carbon negative aggregate and carbon zero blockwork using plastic waste that cannot be recycled and is usually burnt. With cement being the most carbon intensive ingredient of the concrete mix, innovators are also finding ways to reduce impact here, through the use of industrial waste materials and low carbon manufacturing methods such as Mevocrete and Geoprime®. Some solutions can eliminate the requirement for cement all together. For example, Earth Friendly Concrete use a unique binder system that can result in up to 87% embodied carbons savings and BioZeroc’s BioConcrete uses a biotechnology to create zero carbon concrete that requires no cement.
Beyond reducing the embodied carbon of concrete itself, another approach is to reduce the amount required in the first place. For example, Hyperion Robotics has developed a software to optimise structural designs for 3D printing of low carbon concrete, resulting in minimal material usage, and Structure Pal uses AI to eliminate concrete over-design.
Beyond concrete, other innovators are seeking to use waste streams to create new materials. For example, Neverwaste makes panels from waste cardboard and packaging, and Storm Board from hard to recycle plastic waste. New construction systems are also being developed from waste streams. OGEL has produced a modular building system from plastic waste that can be used as flood defence, disaster relief shelter, semi-permanent homeless shelter or work from home offices. And then there is Circular11’s Greenbricks, which can slot together mechanically and are made from otherwise non-recyclable materials.
Bio-based materials such as hemp, mycelium and timber are another key area of accelerated innovation – they are renewable, healthy, breathable and absorb carbon during cultivation. Biohm is developing multiple materials in this area, including a high-performing building insulation made from mycelium, and a board material made from food waste.
The multitude of choice in this space can make choosing materials and comparing their relative benefits tricky. And it is worth noting here that local reused materials and structures should ideally be prioritised, to minimise the need for raw materials extraction and associated processing and manufacture impacts. There are platforms emerging to aid with this decision making, for example Firstplanit and 2050 Materials. These platforms enable project teams to evaluate and compare sustainability credentials such as embodied carbon, toxicity, renewability, thermal efficiency, and recycled content (among other properties).
Soaring energy prices are heightening the need reduce energy demand within our homes, which is also a vital contribution achieving the UK’s legally-mandated net zero ambitions. Innovations to help facilitate home retrofit exist and are emerging, such as Qbot’s robotic underfloor insulation, Airex’s smart air bricks to reduce heat loss, and Energiesprong’s whole house retrofit solution (to name but a few).
However, despite demand, many homeowners are left frustrated by the confusing and under-digitised journey towards energy efficiency. In response, digital platforms such as Baupal in Germany are providing energy audits and a streamlined customer experience for single family energy retrofits. As well as identifying which retrofit measures are most appropriate, finding appropriate financing can also be a huge challenge. Solutions like Tallarna are joining up the retrofit value chain by using AI to identify the best retrofit options for a building, and then calculating the risk of underperformance enabling projects to be insured and therefore financial outcomes guaranteed.
Large commercial real estate and multinational corporations are also feeling the impact of rising energy costs and mounting pressure to decarbonise their real estate holdings. Digital platforms like Skenario Labs and MortarIO are aiming to make information on entire portfolios more easily accessible and transparent, enabling the prioritisation of retrofitting measures including risks and financial impacts. To help companies with large portfolios identify assets with the least thermally inefficient building envelopes they are turning to new innovators such as Satellite Vu, which will be launching the first of its constellation of satellites in Spring 2023 to measure the thermal efficiency of every building on Earth.
Digital retrofit can play a large role in reducing the energy consumption of the UK’s building stock while reducing costs, automating processes and providing more insights on how spaces are used. Various solutions – BlockDox, Demand Logic and Metrikus – are available to monitor buildings through operational data sets and/or sensors that track occupancy, energy consumption and indoor air quality levels to create actionable insights for building owners and occupiers. Development in Internet of Thing (IoT) solutions are helping make some of these platforms possible, for example LighFi sensors that are able to monitor occupancy, Co2 levels, air quality, temperature and humidity.
Solutions like Arloid and Ecopilot focus on HVAC to enable optimisation and autonomous control of systems that can result in energy savings of up to 50%, extended life of HVAC systems and often improved air quality (especially in the case of Urecsys). In addition to these benefits, solutions like the R8 Digital Operator and BrainBox AI, are optimising buildings to work with the local electrical grid, staggering each buildings energy consumption to avoid peak times when electricity is dirtier and more expensive. If scaled up to city level, these sorts of activities have the potential to significantly decrease pressure on the grid and use minimum energy during fossil fuel intensive periods.
In the wake of COVID-19, health and wellbeing has shot up the agenda, specifically relating to indoor air quality. In addition to the smart HVAC solutions mentioned above, solutions range from Airlite paint which produces air purifying ions to CityTree and CityBreeze which combine the filtering power of mosses with smart IoT technology to filter dust from the air. AirScore assesses and benchmarks air quality for clients and suggests remedial actions. Redcube’s Aura Air Pollution Management solution improves air quality by filtering 99.9% of viruses, bacteria, mould and VOCs while also monitoring air quality in real time through an app.
Climate risk analysis
While reaching net zero is critical, it is also important that we acknowledge and prepare for the climate changes we are already experiencing and locked into. A variety of solutions exist to help with climate risk identification and analysis, targeting both public and private sector stakeholders. Physical climate risk data and analytics platforms such as Climate X, EarthScan and Intensel are enabling real estate firms, corporates, and other stakeholders to determine their assets’ physical climate risk exposure more accurately. In addition, geospatial urban intelligence platforms such as UrbanFootprint, are layering GIS software with a number of datasets, including physical climate risk, to help decision-makers understand where to allocate public investment that fortifies utility assets or EV charging networks.
UKGBC’s recent ‘Retrofitting for Resilience’ innovation challenge also cites a variety of solutions for improving the resiliency of buildings once climate risks are identified.
Next generation building design
New generative design platforms, which enable the quick generation of high-performing design alternatives, are helping architects evaluate real-time carbon, pricing and other material-related data impacts from the earliest stages of the building design process. One example of this is Modulous, which use a generative design software to deliver buildings using a standardised kit of parts through a distributed network of approved installers. When it comes to detailed and technical design workflows, platforms such as SWAPP are automating design documentation/construction document control, generating a near complete BIM from a concept design model that allows sustainability information to be calculated.
Amid rising skills shortages, the introduction of automation to the design workflow will prove a key enabler for both improving architectural firm efficiency, and for scaling the application of new sustainable building materials and prefabrication systems beyond bespoke uses cases. This also includes an increasing focus on modern methods of construction which has a range of benefits relating to speed, safety, quality and waste. Examples range from modularised construction systems like Project Etopia, to whole house models like Energy Positive Asset’s “The Risby” where three times as much energy is produced than used.
Solar power is identified as a critical need – particularly for homes – within UKGBC’s Net Zero Whole Life Carbon Roadmap for the Built Environment. The democratisation of solar power for individuals otherwise unable to access it is an increasing focus for innovation. For example, Filia Solar has developed solar blackout blinds that enable those living in apartments to gain direct access to solar power, while also decreasing overheating in summer and increasing the surface area able to generate solar power in dense cities. And Allume Energy’s SolShare enables the connection of multiple apartments to a single rooftop solar system.
Decarbonising heat is also a critical part of reaching net zero, with heat pumps playing a vital role. The Government’s Heat Pump Ready programme is funding innovation in this space, including Q-bot’s free Heat Pump Home Survey and Design Tool, Kensa’s Highly Flexible Storage Heat Pump and Thermoelectric Conversion Systems’ two-stage heat pump with greywater energy recovery.
Other solutions integrate renewable energy into more holistic strategies, often relating to home retrofit. Wondrwall Energy combines AI-powered home automation, gas-free heating (energy saving infrared, underfloor heating and smart hot water cylinders), solar PV and battery storage to create intelligent net zero homes.
As we move to a grid with a higher proportion of intermittent renewables, we need to consider how we can make our buildings flexible to match their demand to when zero carbon energy is available and avoid peak times of consumption when the carbon intensity of the grid and cost of electricity is higher. Demand can be balanced by utilising energy storage or timing non-essential uses to during off-peak periods. Solutions in this area include Time of Use Tariffs (e.g. Octopus Energy’s Agile Tariff) and Vehicle-to-Grid energy where EVs act as distributed storage to buffer the grid at peak times.
Biodiversity enhancing solutions are on the up, perhaps linking to anticipated upcoming UK legislation around Biodiversity Net Gain. A fundamental first step is to gather comprehensive data at site-level to understand the existing biodiversity. NatureMetrics is empowering businesses with the tools to generate better data on nature using DNA, with technologies that are easy to use on the ground and can be scaled across business units. At the other end of the scale Gentian uses satellite-based data and other open-source data to assess plant metrics, habitat categorisation and species identification. It can monitor sites over a 30-year period as ensuring effective Biodiversity Net Gain strategies requires long-term monitoring. Sabbio also helps local planning authorities and land developers track biodiversity across the full 30-year monitoring cycle while ensuring monitoring is straightforward. Natcap has a joined-up approach, enabling the measurement, enhancement, valuation and reporting on natural capital.
As industry takes further steps towards a sustainable built environment, we will likely see more solutions like these embraced and new areas of development emerge. With this in mind, in 2023 UKGBC will be working with our Innovative Start-Up Members to produce a series of deep dives into key themes and emerging trends in more detail – watch this space!
Thank you to the following contributors to this deep dive:
- Adam Schuit, Investor at A/O PropTech
- Catriona Hyland, Research Analyst at A/O PropTech
- Amie Shuttleworth, Principal – Head of Sustainable Investment at Undivided Ventures
Due to the expanse of the built environment and the rapidly changing landscape of the industry, this list is by no means exhaustive and is instead intended as a source of inspiration.
If you know of any innovative solutions or start-ups doing important work on the sustainability of the built environment then please encourage them to submit their solution for inclusion in our Library. To find out more about UKGBC’s work on Solutions & Innovation and to explore collaboration opportunities please email email@example.com.
 Tech Nation (2022), Climate Tech Report 2022. Available at: <https://technation.io/climate-tech-report-2022/#key-statistics> [Accessed 07.11.2022]
 Construction Leadership Council (2022), Low Carbon Concrete Routemap. Available at: https://www.constructionleadershipcouncil.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Low-Carbon-Concrete-Routemap_27-April-2022.pdf
 RICA (2021), Are biobased materials the key to a more sustainable construction industry?. Available at: https://www.rics.org/uk/wbef/megatrends/natural-environment/are-biobased-materials-the-key-to-a-more-sustainable-construction-industry/ [Accessed 07.11.2022]