Engineers love to solve complex problems, they just need the right environment


In her last act as prime minister, Theresa May has pledged to implement the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change by creating a legally binding net-zero carbon target for 2050. This has been universally welcomed, and now we must all begin the task of assessing what role we take in enabling it to become a reality. For the engineering and construction industry in particular, we arguably have one of the most critical.

Buildings are responsible for more than 40% of global energy usage and one third of greenhouse gas emissions

Buildings are responsible for more than 40% of global energy usage, and as much as one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. There is a clear need to reassess not only the methods used in construction, but also how buildings are designed and managed. 

We recently analysed over 100 commercial buildings and found that energy systems were designed with up to 50% more capacity than they will ever need. Our experts calculated that, when applied to the 11.8 million ft² of offices currently under construction in London alone, this over-design is costing the UK £70m in capital expenditure and 23,000 tonnes of CO2 per year – bad news for both the bottom line and the planet. 

The analysis showed that often this is down to the industry over-designing in its efforts to achieve technical compliance and adhere to current codes and guidance, inadvertently resulting in excessive building system capacity due to a significant gap between predicted performance and reality. In addition, pressurised consultants commoditising and reusing “safe” designs, compounded by a procurement system that stifles innovation by focusing overwhelmingly on price, is adding to this inefficiency. 

In working to deliver leaner and more efficient buildings, we need to encourage innovation and think outside the box. This can involve taking lessons from extreme environments – at present we are working with the British Antarctic Survey on the first phase of the Rothera Modernisation Project in Antarctica to reduce their energy consumption by 35%. To bring confidence to the proposed energy strategy we developed a parametric modelling tool that identified the combination of inputs that would provide the best performing, or “fittest” solution, reducing the time needed to identify these by 88%.

Engineering based on actual performance data, combined with modelling tools enable us to more accurately predict the performance outcomes and benefits for building users. This is not only challenging the conventional wisdom in our approach to design, but we are beginning to evidence the endemic over-design that exists in UK buildings by applying this thinking across other disciplines. The results are potentially transformational.

As an industry I’m sure we can all quote numerous examples of innovation using data and digital toolkits, and so my point is this: engineers love to solve complex problems, they just need the right environment. 

So how do we get started? I believe there are four key steps the industry must embrace:  

The first is to learn from others. For example, the Nordic countries are well ahead of us. Copenhagen will be a carbon neural city by 2025, having adopted a Climate Plan in 2009. Copenhagen airport recently been certified as CO2 neutral based on Climate Compensation, and aim to eliminate carbon emissions by 2030, thus reducing their climate compensation.

The second is to use the Construction Sector Deal to focus on stragic innovations, such as delivering new sustainable performance standards for the built environment. We will simultaneously elimate waste in design and reduce CO2 emissions.

Thirdly, the government must introduce a clear set of policies to accelerate the pace of change. If we leave it to the industry we run the risk of becoming embroilled in self-interest, and this needs to be avoided. The introduction of Part L and other similar requirements demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach.

Finally, we must use this target as a catalyst to finally move procurement away from lowest price, and towards added value. Both we and our clients must create a framework in which environmental performance is a clear measure of success. 

Mathew Riley is managing director at Ramboll