Built environment professionals can only do so much to cut carbon emissions, the rest is down to the behaviour of the people who occupy our buildings

Simon Sturgis

Since the 1970s energy reduction in the built environment has been dealt with principally through the Building Regulations. This has focused on operational emissions. More recently discussion has moved into also reducing embodied emissions, and for therefore taking whole life view of carbon emissions reduction. This more holistic approach has benefits in terms of efficiency and economics, but it is still not the whole story.

Last year the European Environment Agency, concerned that member states are not meeting reduction targets, produced a report: Achieving energy efficiency through behaviour change. In essence this recognised that building professionals can only go so far, and that Part L, BREEAM, LEED etc ultimately have a limited role in overall emissions reduction.

A central observation is that “Human behaviour is key to achieving sustained reductions in energy consumption” and more disturbingly that “it is the consumption practices themselves that are more and more energy intensive”. So it is all about you and me.

Research we are doing with Argent at Kings Cross looks at a variety of users’ carbon footprints across the whole site. Through a series of detailed questionnaires, and analysis, we are assessing what residential users, office workers, students, retail workers etc are doing when on site, and therefore what carbon emissions they generate and what proportion of their total CO2 footprint occurs on site.

It is early days, but already several things are clear. First, for say an office worker, the carbon emissions associated with food, consumables and travel over 60 years (if only we lived that long!), together amount to a lot more than those from the original construction of their office, or the operational energy demands of the building over the same period. Secondly that if you look at all the emissions associated with occupying and using a building, to a varying degree all can be directly influenced by the individual user.

Obvious? Except that typically our involvement with emissions reduction is limited to occasional use of the recycling bin. Our research suggests that even with a modest improvement in our actions through understanding and a genuine culture shift, significant emissions reductions can be achieved with parallel cost savings.

These behaviours generated emissions reductions are potentially huge and certainly cheaper than those deliverable by building owners and developers. This approach will also directly engage people in understanding the carbon outcomes of their actions, and improve their understanding of the built environment.

Simon Sturgis is managing director of Sturgis Carbon Profiling