The next generation have a vested interested in saving the planet, the industry must do all it can to harness that determination and drive

In 2017, the American Psychological Association coined a new type of depression – eco-anxiety; defined as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. While the gravity of environmental damage may not be so severe for richer countries of the northern hemisphere, the sense of helplessness can still be foreboding. It’s less a fear of a severe weather event knocking-out society as we know it: more a fear of future uncertainty, and a sadness at the destruction of the natural world. 

Steph Crombie headshot

Source: Morrow + Lorraine

Browsing the news right now, it’s easy to see why eco-anxiety is gaining traction. We’re in the midst of a sixth mass extinction. 2020 was tied as the warmest year on record. It was also the third worst year for deforestation of the Amazon. Arctic Sea ice was it its second lowest level on record and, although we’re very much aware of this environmental damage and its implications, we don’t seem to be doing enough, fast enough, to turn things around. In this context, eco-anxiety is a sane and proportionate response to what is happening to our planet.

Sadly, we as the construction industry in general haven’t exactly been fighting nature’s cause. Globally, construction produces one third of all waste, consumes 50% of the world’s energy, and uses over a third of the world’s natural resources. In the UK, the built environment contributes around 40% of its total carbon footprint.

But if there’s something the last year has taught us, it is that when we’re honest about the scale of the problems that face us, and work together to help the vulnerable, we can alter the trajectory of disaster.

Over the last 12 months, many of the changes that were already in train have been accelerated: working from home, e-commerce, digital transformation; and critically, environmental engagement. In buildings, tenants are demanding better access to external spaces, certifications such as BREEAM and WELL are now deemed essential, and the premiums for low-energy properties are rising.

Tenants are demanding better access to external spaces, certifications such as BREEAM and WELL are now deemed essential, and the premiums for low-energy properties are rising

Not only has the demand for environmentally conscious buildings been made by those who use them, but also by those who finance them. Net-zero 2030 goals have been set by a whole host of gold-star players in the industry. Last year the Better Building Partnership launched NABERS in the UK, a design-for-performance certification, with several high-profile projects currently pioneering the scheme. Now, investors too are requiring that their assets are safeguarded against being stranded in a rapidly evolving green economy, driven in part by the rise in green investment funds and also by the change in tide caused by the taskforce for climate-related financial disclosure.

While these demands are being set from both top-down and bottom-up, businesses and buildings in the middle can often be slow to respond.

Tools such as whole-life carbon assessments, circular-construction strategies, POE analyses, social value indicators, life-cycle assessments, prioritising multifunctional and flexible spaces, future adaptation and climate mitigation measures, in-use testing, urban greening policies and above all, regenerative design principles are essential to ensuring our built environment responds to the inescapable challenges of climate change.

So, who might possess the skills needed to transform the construction industry? Enter, the Green Generation.

The Green Generation frequently sees their workplace as the institution where they have most control to make meaningful changes

Most likely to be affected by eco-anxiety, young people have the greatest vested interest in bettering the state of our planet. Quite frankly, their futures depend on it. But beyond this, as illustrated by the Friday Climate Strikes, young people are galvanized by a desire for change and optimism when it comes to environmentalism. Often with critical perspective, unwavering enthusiasm and a collective backing from their digital networks, the Green Generation have knowledge and power in ways that were inaccessible to previous generations. Highly motivated, and often climate-literate of their own accord, the Green Generation frequently sees their workplace as the institution where they have most control to make meaningful changes. Without preconceptions of ‘this is how we usually do it’, young people can invite innovative, new modes of thinking to businesses to address issues of sustainability and regenerative design.

With all eyes on the economic bounce-back expected following the pandemic this year, now is the time to harness and proactively support the ambition of those willing to lead the radical changes that the construction industry needs. Apart from their own interests, the bold ideas from the Green Generation are in line with what today’s markets demand. We’re all in this together, and industry leaders need to work with their staff in more collaborative and dynamic ways to address environmentalism in construction at all levels.

In 2020, ‘how to change the world’ was googled twice as much as ‘how to go back to normal’. If we support those who are willing and able to make meaningful strides forwards the benefits will be tri-fold: our buildings will become more adaptive and responsive to the causes and effects of climate change; our businesses will become more resilient to the changing economy and our staff will be more fulfilled by their work. But most importantly, we will reduce the reasons for eco-anxiety when contemplating the future of our planet.

Stephanie Crombie is an associate at Morrow + Lorraine