“We need a green skills strategy for the built environment”

Lucy Dixon spoke to Amanda Williams, CIOB’s new Head of Environmental Sustainability.

How’s the construction industry doing on sustainability?

It’s really important to say that there are numerous examples of great work on sustainability in construction. Only last week, I visited a fantastic development down in Bridport in Dorset, which is going to be the UK’s largest cohousing development with 53 homes focused on sustainable building practices and achieving carbon neutrality. It had a localised electric microgrid, being fed from a large number of PV arrays across all the residential units, with overnight storage capacity. They had whole house mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) systems and so on – clearly an exceptionally sustainable project, but of course we’re not building all houses to those standards.

The construction industry is an extremely diverse industry and while there’s a lot of great work going on to address a wide range of sustainability issues, there are of course different levels of maturity and we can’t hide from the fact that collectively we still need to do more – just like every other industry does, actually. And wherever the different parts of our industry are on that journey, I think it’s important that professional bodies like ourselves are there to help them through the publications and resources we provide, the courses we offer, plus the research and the policy work that we do.

Is embodied carbon on enough people’s radars?

This is an area, again, where we’ve got some great examples of what people are doing, but there are many of us that haven’t got to grips with this subject yet. There’s some great collaborative work going on in the industry at the moment such as the development of a UK net zero carbon building (NZCB) standard. This is going to help inform a standardised approach to taking account of both operational and embodied carbon emissions of buildings. That work is going to almost certainly raise the profile of embodied carbon, but it is an area that lends itself well to policy intervention. We’ve joined calls from the industry asking UK government to introduce embodied carbon requirements in a new section of the building regulations, which was proposed originally by the Part Z initiative.

A requirement to carry out embodied carbon assessments and some limits for embodied carbon on some projects at least might be needed to accelerate work in this area. We also need the support of other industries in the value chain, because it’s about the carbon emissions of building materials from their extraction through their transportation, construction, maintenance, replacement and end of life treatment. It’s a complex topic and one of the challenges is around transparency and data sharing throughout the material and building lifecycle. So for example, we’re going to need manufacturers to publish environmental product declarations (EPDs) for their products. They need to be conducting lifecycle assessments to improve the availability and quality of that data at product level to support their customers in the construction industry.

Where else would you like to see government policy going in terms of sustainability?

The built environment is directly responsible for a quarter of UK emissions and we will struggle to achieve our legally binding net zero targets without a really comprehensive set of measures to decarbonise the built environment and ensure progress towards targets is being made consistently in all stages of construction – and that applies regardless of who is in government. I’ve personally been quite disappointed to see the UK government rolling back a little bit from the leadership role that we had claimed on the global stage on net zero, just as we were seeing all these warning signs that global heating is accelerating here in the UK, there was an apparently deliberate move from policy makers to slightly slow the pace of change with delays to the phasing out of fossil fuel boilers and the abolition of the Energy Efficiency Task Force. This is a worrying trend in the government approach to decarbonisation.

The CIOB joined many voices from our industry in appealing for continued leadership on net zero, otherwise we risk undermining the progress that the built environment sector has made and losing momentum. I think more specifically we’d like to see the government make a commitment to a comprehensive national retrofit strategy to drive down emissions from operating and using buildings, which currently count for about 19% of the UK’s carbon footprint. And of course many of the buildings that we live and work in today will still be here in 2050.

The other area of policy to mention is biodiversity net gain, and we welcome the new biodiversity net gain requirement in England, which will be mandatory from January. This should contribute to the recovery of nature impacted by development, which has got to be a good thing. And I think that a greater focus on restoring and regenerating nature is needed. We need to not just do less harm but do more good, and that’s where that net positive impact is really important. Climate change and biodiversity loss are so closely connected, we shouldn’t look at these in isolation as issues.

Have we got enough skilled people to deliver energy efficient buildings?

Construction is a major employer which provides stable, skilled and interesting career paths for those in the industry. It’s also a fairly lucrative sector to work in. Despite this, the industry is struggling to recruit enough talent to maintain demand. On the sustainability skills element of that particularly, I’m really passionate about the importance of developing sustainability knowledge and skills in because, if we’re not doing that across all industries – not just construction – we are not preparing people to operate effectively in a world that is going to need those skills and a job market that’s going to demand those skills. So not only do we need highly skilled and knowledgeable environmental professionals working in construction, but we also need all workers to understand how they can contribute to sustainability targets in their roles, whatever they’re doing in the industry.

We need people to understand the environmental impacts of the built environment and the drivers of climate change and the biodiversity crisis so that they can design in and implement solutions for climate mitigation, climate resilience, resource efficiency, nature-based solutions and so on. And we also need people with the hands-on skills to support new methods of construction and maintain the innovative technology that we know is going to be necessary to deliver on net zero.

CIOB’s position is that we need a green skills strategy for the built environment. The work required to design, retrofit, construct, adapt and maintain the built environment in response to climate change is going to require a large number of technically skilled workers, so government should be developing a strategy for a workforce with green construction skills in tandem with their wider strategies for sustainable development. This would provide greater certainty and ensure that the industry can deliver on its net zero and environmental targets, but also hopefully attract and retain new talent into the industry.

How confident are you that we’re going to meet our net zero targets and that the construction industry is going to play the role that it needs to?

I’m still very much confident that it is possible but, if I’m really honest, I’m not confident that we are on track to deliver it just yet. I’m sure that the construction industry has the ingenuity and the skills and the resources to be able to make a strong contribution, but across all industries, we need to considerably accelerate our efforts. The window that is available to us to limit the most dangerous effects of climate change is narrowing day by day. There’s no time for delays or procrastination and we can’t wait for all the solutions to be in front of us. So we must be making bold decisions now and showing leadership for the sake of those future generations.