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Sustainable development of the AEC Industry in the UK

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How can the AEC Industry collaborate to achieve emissions targets?

The construction industry has a monumental task ahead of it, if it is to play a pivotal role in helping governments around the world to meet their net-zero emission standards.

Just look at the industry’s carbon footprint. Buildings and their construction account for 36% of global energy use and generate almost 40% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions annually. In addition, global building stock is set to double in area by 2060. This is the equivalent of creating an entire New York City every month for 40 years.

There is no question that the construction industry needs to make immediate and significant changes to meet zero-net-carbon standards. With the UN’s Climate Change Conference, COP26 being hosted in Glasgow on 1 – 12 November 2021, the AEC industry – along with other energy intensive industries – will be under ever increasing scrutiny as policymakers, industry and various other groups try to accelerate efforts towards achieving local and global emissions goals.

But with such a complex issue, how best can the different parts of the UK construction industry work together to make a meaningful contribution to this all-important goal?

Emissions targets

The UK government has set one of the world’s most ambitious climate change targets into law as of April 2021. The goal is to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035 (compared to levels in 1990) – a steppingstone towards the government’s goal of Zero Emissions by 2050.

Complicated puzzle

Stephen Holmes, Cadventure’s Professional Services Director, explained the scale and complexity of the challenge facing the industry: “It’s a real juggling act. When you select a material, for example, you have to consider everything from emission in use, construction, and sourcing. You can have a material with a low emission number – but if you have to fly it a thousand miles to get it on site, does it negate the number? The same goes for manufacturing, and even the material’s lifespan. Maybe it has a higher carbon value but won’t need to be replaced for 50 years.”

There are other, equally significant issues that should be considered, Stephen added. “There’s also the impact of the site itself. You can build in a field, but what impact does that have on transport infrastructure?” said Stephen. “It’s great building a net zero, super eco-friendly building – but if it’s in the middle of nowhere, and 200 people are driving cars there every day, the operational impact can outweigh the benefits of the construction decisions. It’s an incredibly complicated jigsaw!”

In Stephen’s view, every single aspect of creating the most optimum design needs to be taken into account. ”The more we can do to help the industry with good sources of information, the better. The industry needs to be able to make informed decisions, that’s where the solution begins – with data.”

Guidance and education

The construction industry, of course, relies on guidance and standards to steer these crucial decisions. Following the government’s Infrastructure Carbon Review in 2013, it was identified that infrastructure is responsible for more than 50% of the UK’s carbon emissions – and therefore PAS 2080 was designed specifically to address the management of carbon in infrastructure.

It looks at the whole life cycle of the carbon used on projects and promotes reduced carbon, reduced cost infrastructure delivery and a culture of challenge in the infrastructure value chain where innovation can be fostered.

“London Policy Guide also has a more plain language guidance,” Stephen said. “This can help with consideration of a building’s entire life cycle when looking at emissions – and that needs to be a part of the design and construction process in all buildings and infrastructure moving forward if we’ve any hope of achieving the government’s emissions targets.”

So how do we embed these important considerations throughout the industry? In Stephen’s view education is a huge factor.

He said: “We’re working with ‘Class of Your Own’ – the UK-based creator and provider of the award-winning ‘Design Engineer Construct®’ (‘DEC’) Learning Programme for secondary school students across the UK and internationally. We have developed and now deliver software skills training to DEC teachers to inspire young people to explore and access career pathways within the AEC industry, supporting teaching on the sustainability message. Our goal is to gives students a thorough understanding of the modern construction industry with hands-on experience of the latest cutting-edge software for building and infrastructure design.”

Optimising technology

BIM’s ability to capture and predict energy performance is a real game changer, according to Stephen. A key strength is that from inception to design to construction, BIM can accurately calculate long-term energy costs, building performance, and operational energy performance. It can also evaluate the impact of decommissioning the building.

“It’s a really smart way to see the tangible long-term impact each design will make – providing the data is accurate. Again, this whole thing starts with good data.” added Stephen.

Where does the buck stop?

One of the most important questions facing the industry is identifying who takes responsibility for the emission reduction.

“In short, we are all responsible. But we must also acknowledge that this is all a big learning curve for the entire industry. How we measure emissions, how we plan, design, and build in a sustainable way – what does ‘good’ look like? There’s work continuously happening to try and come up with some of these answers – and that needs to continue at pace if we’ve any hope of reaching Net Zero by 2050.”

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