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Every building is an opportunity to kick a global goal

Climate Change By Julian Bott, Partner – 13 April 2022

Skyscapers set against a grey cloudy sky


Julian Bott in a suit in a park with grass, trees and buildings in background

Julian Bott

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When the mainstream media runs a story about carbon emissions, it’s common to see a factory or coal burning power station with plumes of gases heading into the sky. But according to the latest IPCC Working Group III (WG III) report, Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of climate change, while industrial and energy sector emissions have been trending downwards, emissions from buildings and urban transport continue to increase, particularly in wealthy nations.

In 2019, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from homes, offices and other properties and fossil-fuel reliant personal transport comprised 21% of global emissions – and the report authors say they have continued to grow substantially since. This is a very clear reminder of why Cundall has made a stand for Net Zero 2030. The ballooning built environment emissions also highlight the importance of leadership to encourage everyone in our industry to focus on our opportunity to collectively make a difference.

The IPCC Working Group identifies the power of our collective ambition when it states that if both existing and new buildings attain optimal energy-efficiency and use only renewable energy, our built environment can reduce its GHG emissions by up to 61% by 2050.

We should keep in mind that 2050 is also less than 30 years from now. That dateline should give us all pause for thought. For context, it was only 30 years ago that Bill Clinton was US President and Seinfeld was the hot TV show.

When we design and deliver a building we do so with the intention that it will be actively used and occupied for several decades if not a century or more. Anything less than that is a waste of all the embodied carbon and human effort and energy that was put into constructing it.

Therefore, any building we are working on today will most likely still be occupied by 2050. How much do we think high-emissions, inefficient, uncomfortable assets will be worth in the 2050 net zero global economy? Who is going to want to buy or live in or work in them? Who is going to want to finance them? Will anyone even insure them, and if so, what will be the premiums?

These are important questions that highlight the new value proposition we all need to embed in our work. Short-term thinking that replicates code minimum and business as usual is no longer logical or practical.

The IPCC report also notes that in many jurisdictions, regulations around building performance are not sending the right message about design and engineering. Furthermore, there is very little attention being paid to improving the performance of existing buildings through retrofits and upgrades.

We see that clearly here in Australia, where there are no mandatory performance standards for any existing housing or small commercial buildings constructed before the introduction of Section J in the National Construction Code in the early 2000s.

The goal of section J was to improve energy efficiency in new buildings, but even in the earliest stages it was clear there would be resistance, as AIRAH reported in 2008.

This resistance is mystifying in many ways, as the central value proposition is that buildings which use less energy to operate and keep people comfortable result in lower energy bills. And I’m yet to meet anyone that thinks paying less for energy is a terrible idea.

But the push-back factor in our industry can be enormous and generally cited revolves around perceptions of cost to design and deliver better buildings. However, if we start from first principles with a fabric-first approach and think passive performance and materiality through, all-electric, highly efficient assets are entirely do-able without blowing the budget.

It’s building performance 101 - good design and thoughtful delivery results in buildings that need less energy to operate.

Then add solar PV and avoid gas pipework or connections. Not only is there is a saving there in terms of gas-related labour, materials and the ongoing service fees for connection, while the price of gas continues to rise [and it is one of the most pernicious sources of both methane and CO2 emissions throughout its supply chain] – the IPCC data shows the price of solar PV has reduced by more than 80% over the past decade.

Another win available to us is incorporating local carbon capture and storage (CCS) in our built environment. This form of CCS is probably better known as landscaping and urban greening. We know that green space cools our cities, and we know that having plants around our buildings is beneficial for human wellbeing and for asset values. Carefully considering how we occupy site footprints, and balancing built form, soil and vegetation is not a costly exercise and it is one measure the IPCC Working Group report highlights as a major opportunity for our urban areas to abate emissions at the source.

We have the technologies, engineering understanding and material choices right now to deliver net zero assets. At Cundall, we have successfully achieved this for energy intensive data centres, multi-residential, commercial buildings, education buildings and public buildings. We have worked in partnership to deliver net zero precincts and are already working on net zero frameworks for entire local government areas.

This gives us every reason to feel encouraged to keep doing what engineers do best – inventing evidence-based solutions to meet human needs. The IPCC report could be a cause for doom and gloom but instead, we can see it as an invitation for our sector to aim high and build a better future for the planet.