In the vital race to net zero have we forgotten that a green building is about more than just carbon?
Just as we’ve seen a huge movement towards organic food and drink, artisanal makers, provenance and slow cooking, now is the time to question how our buildings contribute to the broader health of the planet and of people.
When it comes to ethics, we seem to care a lot about whether the person who picks our coffee beans or chocolate is paid a fair wage or that a supermarket bans plastic bags, but what about the materials and labour that it takes to design and construct a building? Who will care about the conditions of the iron ore miner working to supply the building’s steel frame? Who has made sure that slave labour isn’t involved in the manufacture of photovoltaic panels or that toxic materials used like lead or cadmium don’t pollute water supplies?
Like many other developed markets, the UK has looked to Asia as its manufacturing base for many years now, meaning materials are transported half way round the world, emitting carbon at every step. Maybe in the aftermath of Brexit – and potential unpredictable import costs from the EU – there will be an increasing incentive to invest innovation in the UK again, creating the eco materials we need, with strong ethical standards, much closer to home.
In the UK, homegrown timber, one of the lowest embodied carbon materials you can find, is again coming to the fore as initiatives like Grown in Britain and the work of Wood Knowledge Wales take hold. Post Grenfell, we have seen some reluctance to use natural renewable materials like wood, but let’s not forget that the cladding materials used there were not bio-based, and that with the right treatment, timber can perform much better in fire safety tests than materials like steel.
We spend 90% of our time inside buildings as we go about our daily lives – why shouldn’t we be demanding that our homes, offices or hospitals are as good for us as the great outdoors? Perhaps now is the time for standards like the Building Biology or WELL standards – that limit toxic materials and encourage connections to nature – or Passivhaus which provides excellent air quality, to come to the fore. I believe it is time for us to care about these things as much as we cared about the use of BPA in plastic bottles or lead in petrol. It’s time for governments around the world to switch to the highest standards, instead of issuing building regulations that only require the bare minimum. Without better regulation, unscrupulous developers will always go for the easiest option. That’s not good enough – the world demands more and we hope that COP26 is the place to deliver that.
All of this requires a huge change in attitude and urgent action – by individuals, companies and most importantly, by government. In the UK, to achieve LETI or RIBA targets by 2030 – only 3,000 days away – we can’t just rely on off-setting with photo-voltaic panels. The whole design and construction industry has to act.
Reusing and reclaiming materials – just as we do with food leftovers – and not knocking buildings down in the first place if they can find another life – is essential. But there are barriers. As an example, if you want to re-use lights and get them electrically tested and re-warrantied it is currently difficult and costly in Britain. In countries like Japan however, the electronics industry is much more circular than here – materials are routinely stripped and reused at the end of life. Although UK brands like Dualit now feature products that are made so that single parts can be replaced and repaired easily. The introduction of materials passports and Digital Twins – so that building owners can quickly understand exactly how the sometimes complex underbelly of a building works – will help make this circular thinking more commonplace here, but there is still a long way to go before this becomes mainstream. And, appallingly, the UK VAT system still penalises retrofit buildings over new builds.
As we speed towards net zero, we owe it to ourselves, each other and the planet to keep all aspects of ecological design in our sights, to act quickly, but think holistically in all that we do.
Ben Humphries, Director, Architype. Lead architect for The Enterprise Centre, University of East Anglia, which will be featured in the UKGBC Build Better Now virtual pavilion at COP26.
Image credits: BDP – M&E, Structural and Acoustic engineers on The Enterprise Centre