When it comes to tackling climate change in the built environment, the prevailing philosophy seems to be that talk is cheap and action is expensive, says Félicie Krikler in Property Week.
But as the recent Stirling Prize made clear, this is not quite the truth. Goldsmith Street, the 105-home council-owned housing scheme in Norwich by Mikhail Riches, won the coveted prize having achieved PassivHaus status, the rigorous sustainable design accreditation, creating homes for residents that cost as little as £150 a year to heat.
The ascendancy of such a scheme marks a decisive moment in property, where the environmental and social factors of a proposed scheme are given equal weighting alongside the financial viability. While we have seen landmark commercial schemes achieve sustainable status, this has usually come with an exorbitant price tag. Yet Goldsmith Street shows what is possible when designers and developers get serious on sustainability.
The timing for such a scheme to be thrust into the national spotlight couldn’t be more appropriate. London has once again been brought to a standstill due to the Extinction Rebellion protests, while Greta Thunberg continues sailing around the world in her eco-yacht, inspiring children, parents and policymakers in her wake. Climate concern has never been higher among the UK public.
As an industry that is responsible for approximately a third of the UK’s carbon emissions, we have a huge responsibility to rein in and drive down our emissions. This will not happen overnight. It takes time, dedication and widespread buy-in from all stakeholders collaboratively.
Time is not on our side. The built environment has a decidedly long lead-up and operational time frame, which means that many poor-quality, carbon-addled buildings will stay in circulation for decades to come. At the same time, we have legislated targets in the UK to meet net-zero emissions by the middle of the century in line with the scientific consensus of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The window for action is closing.
If we are to face up to the challenges of climate change, then surely our modus operandi must evolve – with all buildings, regardless of tenure, looked at as long-term, operational assets, where ongoing performance is inherently interlinked with values, insurance premiums and yields.
While we are seeking to address these structural issues within the industry, it’s important that as a business we practise what we preach. It is also crucial that we collaborate to learn from each other’s experiences and ultimately save time to reach our goal; it is a common goal, not one driven by personal interest.
This action starts internally, looking at how we as businesses can improve our operations and processes and thus the environments in which we operate. Assael has recently become the first UK architectural practice to join the United Nations’ ‘Climate Neutral Now’ pledge.
As social concern continues to grow, industry must keep pace. The urgency of the issues that climate change poses makes systemic and individual change a necessity. We must push, as an industry, for a more sustainable future.