Usual depictions of a building’s carbon life cycle fail to consider the day-to-day running of the place. Adam Mactavish of Sweett Group looks at how reimagining a building’s life cycle could improve its carbon efficiency


01 / Introduction

The Climate Change Act sets binding targets for reducing the UK’s carbon emissions. However, setting targets is not the same as saving carbon. While successive ramping up of Building Regulations and planning conditions for new buildings and deep refurbishment schemes are undoubtedly powerful instruments for change, they occur relatively rarely (typically less than every 20 years and in many cases much less frequently). Alone, these large interventions will fail to deliver the necessary reductions within the timescales required because large numbers of buildings will still be unmodernised for many years and, even when improved, they will fail to deliver their potential without strong incentives of good operational performance. Other opportunities to improve the carbon efficiency of buildings at scale need to be identified.

02 / Seeking opportunities

Work commissioned by the Green Construction Board examined the whole real estate life cycle to identify:

  1. Where the most effective opportunities lie; and
  2. Who, at each event in the life cycle, was in a position of influence and the motivations driving their decisions.

The research concluded that the usual depictions of the physical life cycle as a repeating process from inception, design, construction to use and subsequent to demolition do not usefully show potential carbon reduction opportunities. They concentrate on major and often “one-off” events , while recurrent events e.g. operational management, churn and fit-out, are less visible. These routine events are a source of significant opportunities to reduce carbon by improving building performance in use through better management or incremental changes. Routine economic events such as payment of utilities, taxes and insurance could be used as powerful triggers to inform and incentivise occupiers. At present, these opportunities are being missed; there is relatively little robust information, and no strong policy drivers, that will encourage building occupiers to seek out carbon efficient buildings and then demand they are managed with carbon efficiency in mind. So while minimum standards continue to tighten at the point of design and construction, occupiers are not demanding corresponding levels of performance from their property and facilities management teams. The incremental savings in carbon emissions that would result are being lost and knowledge is not being developed.


03 / Analysing the real estate life cycle

The diagram below provides an alternative depiction of events in the real estate life cycle. Yellow boxes represent physical or design events, while the more numerous blue boxes represent economic and management activities. This model is based on the frequency of occurrence (horizontal axis), impact on carbon reduction (vertical axis) and the estimated proportion of UK real estate affected (size of box). This alternative view of the life cycle highlights the events that materially impact the performance of our buildings and gives an insight into the areas where policy could focus to help achieve further and faster savings.

The primary motivators influencing most property decisions are, not surprisingly, a desire to maximise return on investment and to achieve statutory compliance. Going beyond compliance is only normally pursued if it enhances returns or reduces risk – although there are different timescales over which this can be viewed (some investors now consider carbon performance as a longer term asset risk, but these are a small minority). The real and perceived cost implications, combined with a lack of a price differential to support such action, means that compliance is often a performance ceiling, not a floor.

Although corporate responsibility has made energy and carbon issues reputational matters, the leaders in this field are few compared with the total market. Incentives for occupiers, e.g. differential rates or taxes, that created a powerful market demand for low-carbon buildings, would help encourage developers and landlords to maximise the performance of their buildings rather than to simply achieve the minimum requirement. This would in some ways be a deregulatory approach because the minimum standard would no longer be required to drive performance, it would simply be needed to prevent poor practice. Of those interviewed during the study, a strong majority of participants indicated that they would welcome well designed, clear and rigorously enforced regulation to help get the most from carbon reduction opportunities.


QuadrantDescriptionPolicy Aim
1 – Higher current impact: high frequencyRoutine activities that impact or are affected by energy use, insufficiently important to many to drive carbon reductions.Maximise impact by increasing the number of buildings with active energy management and planned preventative maintenance.
2 – Higher current impact: low frequencyMajor events that set the basis for subsequent performance but happen rarely or only once in a building’s life. Can only provide the platform for carbon efficiency, subsequent management (Quadrant 1) will influence actual performance. Most energy / carbon policy focuses on this quadrant.Every effort should be made to set and enforce in high standards that provide a basis for future performance.
3 – Lower current impact: high frequencyLargely economic activities that currently have little link to energy or carbon but which could be used as ongoing incentives to encourage decisions to prefer low-carbon buildings and to ensure they are managed effectively. Research shows that even small tax increments or other incentives can have a major impact.Realise the untapped potential of these events by selecting incentives that encourage occupiers to effectively manage the carbon emissions from their buildings and to seek out buildings capable of high performance.
4 – Lower current impact: low frequencyThe largely economic activities have some potential as levers to encourage carbon reduction, but are likely to be linked to theoretical performance (e.g. EPCs) rather than actual performance.Interventions can be used to impact decision making at these events and encourage poor buildings to be refurbished / improved.

04 / Conclusion

There is much about the approach to managing energy and carbon in real estate that works well, both Part L of Building Regulations and the recently made regulations on minimum energy efficiency standards act to progressively improve the potential of our buildings. This is reflected in the positioning of construction, development and design in the top right-hand quadrant of the diagram. While we need to continue to strengthen these important tools for improving performance, there now needs to be at least as much attention paid to the performance in use of buildings.

A prerequisite for any meaningful focus on performance in use is to establish meaningful data that enables building users to understand and compare their performance. Once established, operational benchmarks will inform choices about property selection and management and could ultimately provide a platform for setting performance-based incentives to drive the market. As well as increasing the effectiveness of building management, greater emphasis on performance in use would help to move items in the bottom left-hand quadrant up the impact scale. Capturing the opportunities to improve carbon efficiency with each minor refurb, fit out and even unplanned repairs could generate enormous savings, both carbon and cost, with minor intervention.

Without this focus we are missing opportunities for rapid and continued improvements across a much larger proportion of our built environment, and we run the risk of wasting some of the time and resource invested in improving the quality of the fabric of our buildings.

With thanks to Louise Ellison (Hammerson) and Sarah Sayce (independent consultant) for their additional input.