We know we really should be building more sustainably, so let’s gather the facts that make the construction case incontrovertible, says Sadie Morgan
The world is not faring too well on its goal to combat climate change and avert the catastrophe of exceeding a 1.5C level of warming. At the time of writing, the US’s legal stance on climate change is hanging in the balance, with voices urging President Biden to declare a national climate emergency and help secure a climate action legislative agenda in congress.
In the face of wider economic discord, Biden’s billions-of-dollars package envisioned to support a conversion to clean energy is now up against serious opposition. Meanwhile, in Europe, the ongoing war in Ukraine has placed pressure on the EU’s commitments to climate action targets, with infighting between member states growing as the scenario of winter gas cuts grows more likely if Russia’s supply is severed.
And, here in the UK, over 40 homes were destroyed by fire on the hottest day ever recorded in the history of this country. Professor Stephen Belcher, the Met Office’s chief scientist, said of the 19 July 2022 that, “in a climate unaffected by human interference, climate modelling shows that it is virtually impossible for temperatures in the UK to rise to 40 degrees celsius”.
It will be science, facts and evidence-based thinking that puts us in the best position to act more strongly and quickly in our fight against climate change
This is science, not speculation, and – as we edge closer towards global deadlines for making significant changes in energy and carbon emissions – it will be science, facts and evidence-based thinking that puts us in the best position to act more strongly and quickly in our fight against climate change.
Earlier this summer, it was announced that our practice, dRMM, and the Quality of Life Foundation that I founded and chair, would join forces with Edinburgh Napier University to launch a study titled Measuring Mass Timber. The study, which is funded by the network and grant-making accelerator Built by Nature, will involve developing a whole-life carbon and quality of life assessment methodology for mass timber construction.
In our pitch to win funding, we based the need for the study on the fact that current findings from mass timber analysis only come from piecemeal methodologies and assumptions. We believe that this interspersed knowledge can be built upon, that gaps can be bridged, and that we can create a data-driven system that will allow us to truly understand the benefits of building with timber at scale.
In short, we want to deliver on the promise of timber as an unparalleled sustainable material through robust, unshakable evidence. To do so, the collective team for this study will be creating an open-source set of performance data from five existing timber buildings of varying types in the UK.
The data set will comprise whole-life carbon assessments, wellbeing indicators such as air quality and overall experiential aspects, and other project data including comparisons with industry benchmarks.
In the case of our study, we are promoting evidence-based design around the case for timber – an argument our practice has been making for over two decades. But this is just one of the many segments of sustainable practice in architecture and construction that will benefit from more rigorous analysis.
If we can find unequivocal, data-driven ways to back up best sustainable practice, then we will make great strides in ensuring joined-up, industry-wide conviction in sustainable construction pathways
Our industry is often criticised for greenwashing; but, if we can find unequivocal, data-driven ways to back up best sustainable practice, then we will make great strides in ensuring joined-up, industry-wide conviction in sustainable construction pathways; quelling inertia around sustainable policymaking; and ultimately, convincing clients that building sustainably is the only way forward.
There already exists significant guidance in our industry around what it will take for us to build towards carbon reduction targets – the RIBA 2030 climate challenge targets; the LETI carbon alignment ratings; the RICS’s guidance on whole-life carbon; the RIBA post-occupancy evaluation primer; and the TDUK paper on carbon assessment in timber buildings. What we now need are more evidence-driven methodologies that will help us to reach those targets.
We are only eight years away from 2030, the year to which the RIBA has set its performance targets to align with the UK’s future legislative goals. The challenge aims to help practices to realise the significant reductions necessary to have a realistic prospect of achieving net zero carbon for the whole UK building stock by 2050.
Reports have shown that we might not have eight more years before we see more heatwaves of the kind we saw this summer. We certainly don’t have the time it will take for higher powers to get their disparate agendas in order and treat the climate crisis with the urgency it needs.
So let’s allow facts to help our industry take matters into its own hands – and work hard towards building more sustainably because we know we have to.
Sadie Morgan is a co-founding director of dRMM, chair of the Quality of Life Foundation and a design advocate for the GLA