Taking action on Climate Change

by Michelle Agha-Hossein, BSRIA Building Performance Lead

Most nations now recognise climate change as an established, perturbing fact that needs immediate attention. We can see the effects in the worsening and more frequent extremes of weather: flash floods, droughts, strong winds, heavy snow, heat waves, etc.

UK temperatures in 2019 were 1.1°C above the 1961-1990 long-term average and it was a particularly wet year across parts of central and northern England. Still fresh in the memory are storms Ciara and Dennis in February 2020 with strong winds and heavy rain that caused significant damage to homes and commercial buildings. There is growing evidence that periods of intensely strong winds and heavy rain are likely to increase in the future.

The UK is not the only country affected by climate change. Many other countries are (and will be) suffering disproportionately. The world’s leading climate scientists have warned that we might have just 12 years to keep global warming at a maximum of 1.5°C. After this point, the risk of extreme weather conditions will significantly increase. The increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather will affect all but is most likely to bring catastrophic consequences in many less economically developed countries, where food shortages and water scarcity can trigger deep social changes.

Immediate radical action is required to limit carbon emissions, and the built environment industry can play a crucial role by changing the prevailing culture.

Most building-related carbon emissions are generated from energy use in buildings. However, there are choices that building owners/operators can make and initiatives that they can undertake to lessen the related negative impact on the environment:

In brand new buildings, the most effective way for addressing emissions is reducing consumption through energy efficient design. In existing buildings, the issue can be addressed by efficient retrofitting and effective maintenance strategy. Adopting renewable energy technologies in both cases can significantly reduce building emissions.

Steps building owners and operators can take today.

There are several initiatives/activities that can help building owners/operators combat climate change:

  • Consider ‘net-zero carbon’ targets for your building: UKGBC launched its Advancing Net Zero programme in 2018 and published the ‘Net Zero Carbon Buildings: A Framework Definition’ in 2019. The framework provides the construction industry with clarity on the outcomes required for a net zero carbon building.
  • Ensure the required outcomes for a ‘net-zero carbon’ building are achieved: As advised by UKGBC in the framework definition, initiatives like BSRIA Soft Landings should be adopted in new build as well as in refurbishment projects to ensure a net zero carbon building will be achieved. The BSRIA Soft Landings framework provides a platform for project teams to understand the required outcomes for their project and ensure all decisions made during the project are based on meeting those outcomes.
  • Maintain your net zero carbon building effectively: Business-focused maintenance is a methodology developed by BSRIA that can be adopted to help building operators maintain critical assets effectively and efficiently to sustain a net zero carbon building within budget.
  • Investigate failure quickly: Is the energy bill for your building higher than it should be? Investigate the problem as soon as you can. The first and easiest step would be looking at the energy end use breakdown to see which areas are using more energy than expected. If the issue is related to the HVAC system, check the system’s setting points and monitor the indoor air temperature and relative humidity. Thermal imaging of the fabric of the building can also help to identify, thermal bridging, missing/damaged insulation and areas of excessive air leakage.
  • Promote a healthy diet among building occupants: This is a non-technical initiative that building owners/operators can adopt in their buildings. Eating less meat and gradually shifting to more plant-based foods is vital for keeping us and our planet healthy.  It is important to think about initiatives such as using signage or lunchtime talks, to educate building occupants about healthy diets and encourage them to eat more fruit and vegetables. Research has shown that adhering to health guidelines on meat consumption could cut global food-related emissions by nearly a third by 2050. Healthy diet is also supported by Fitwel and the WELL building standard.

Building owners and operators, to play their role in combating climate change, should ensure their decisions and the way they create and run their buildings contribute positively to the wellbeing of our planet and its citizens.

So, make a start today and choose the first thing you are going to assess/change in your building to help combat climate change.

To find out more about how BSRIA can help you improve building performance, visit us here.

The wellbeing and environmental effects of agile working

by David Bleicher, BSRIA Publications Manager

How many times in the last few months have you started a sentence with “When things get back to normal…”? For those of us whose work mostly involves tapping keys on a keyboard, “normal” implies commuting to an office building five days a week and staying there for eight or more hours a day.

When lockdown restrictions were imposed, things that were previously unthinkable, such as working from home every day, conducting all our meetings by video call, and not having easy access to a printer, became “the new normal”.

One thing the pandemic has taught us is that changes to our work habits are possible – we don’t have to do things the way we’ve always done them. Since lockdown, agile working has been high on companies’ agendas; but agile working has a broader scope than flexible working. It is defined as “bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task.”

Working from home with a cat

The triple bottom line

Agile working is indeed about much more than changing people’s working hours and locations. It’s about how people work – becoming focused on the outcome rather than the process. It’s about making the best use of technology to achieve those outcomes and it’s also about reconfiguring workplaces to better suit the new ways of working. But, when considering these outcomes, we should be looking further than the financial bottom line. The term triple bottom line is a framework that also brings social and environmental aspects into consideration.

How, when and where people work has a major impact on their wellbeing. The past few months have served as an unintentional experiment in the wellbeing effects of mass home working. Some people are less stressed and more productive working from home, providing they have regular contact with their colleagues. Other people – particularly those who don’t have a dedicated home working space – returned to their offices as soon as it was safe to do so. It depends on the individual’s preferences, personal circumstances and the nature of the work they do.

On the face of it, it would seem that increased working from home or from local coworking spaces would be a win-win for the environment. Less commuting means fewer CO2 emissions and less urban air pollution. But a study by global consulting firm and BSRIA member, WSP, found that year-round home working could result in an overall increase in CO2 emissions.

In short, it reduces office air conditioning energy use in the summer, but greatly increases home heating energy use in the winter – more than offsetting carbon savings from reduced commuting. Perhaps what this highlights most is just how inefficient the UK’s housing stock is. If we all lived in low energy homes with good level insulation and electric heat pumps, the equation would be very different. Perhaps a flexible solution allowing home working in summer and promoting office working in winter would be best from an environmental perspective.

A possible long-term effect of increased home working is that some people may move further away from their offices. For example, someone might choose to swap a five-days-a-week 20 km commute for a one-day-a-week 100 km commute. If that is also a move to a more suburban or rural location with more scattered development, less public transport and fewer amenities within walking distance, then (for that individual at least) there’ll be an increased carbon footprint. Not very agile.

Impact of technology

There’s another aspect that may not yet come high up in public awareness. Remote working is dependent on technology – in particular, the video calls that so many of us have become adept at over the past few months. All this processing burns up energy. The effect on home and office electricity bills may be negligible because the processing is done in the cloud. This isn’t some imaginary, nebulous place. The cloud is really a network of data centres around the world, churning data at lightning speed and, despite ongoing efforts, still generating a whole lot of CO2 emissions in the process. Videoconferencing definitely makes sense from both an economic and environmental perspective when it reduces the need for business travel, but if those people would “normally” be working in the same building, isn’t it just adding to global CO2 emissions?

We don’t yet know what “the new normal” is going to look like. Undoubtedly, we’re going to see more remote working, but responsible employers should weigh up the pros and cons economically, environmentally and socially. Terminating the lease on an office building may seem like a sensible cost saving, but can a workforce really be productive when they never meet face-to-face? Does an activity that seemingly reduces CO2 emissions actually just increase emissions elsewhere? Any agile working solution must take all of these things into account, and not attempt a one-size-fits-all approach to productivity, environmental good practice and employee wellbeing.

For more information on how BSRIA can support your business with energy advice and related services, visit us here: BSRIA Energy Advice.

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