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Leading the industry to zero carbon design

Sustainability By Duncan Cox, Partner, Structural Engineering – 22 March 2022

People at a discussion around the table with glass backdrop and flip chart


Duncan Cox stood in front of a green plant wall

Duncan Cox

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One of the things we all dream of is changing the world – I certainly do!

In a conversation about sustainable living that I had with an older, retired man recently, he said that “Individual people can’t change anything, it’s all down to the big corporates to make a change.” Maybe he’s right, but my experience at Cundall, and most recently with the Zero Carbon Design 2030 initiative, is that if individuals work together, we can do something good and maybe, just maybe, change the world.

When I joined the core team in March 2021, Zero Carbon Design 2030 was just a dream. It was a moon shot that every project in every country we operate in would deliver zero carbon. We didn’t know where it would take us and we didn’t know how we would get there - we weren’t even sure what we meant by zero carbon. However, given the urgency created by the climate crisis, we just knew we had to start. So, we did.

From the beginning, a key feature of the initiative has been making sure we include the voices and opinions of our people. This meant hearing from everyone - no matter what their role was - about what they want to do, what they hope to do and what they can do, and then trying then to find ways to enable that. It’s from this discussion and from the teams themselves that we have developed themes to take forward as we develop zero carbon design.

Part of this process of understanding what our people want and need in the journey to zero carbon design has involved teams putting together their own plans for how they want to achieve the goal of zero carbon design by 2030 and all the milestones in between. When we read these plans, there were a few emerging themes that showed how frustrated people were with the way things ‘just are’ in the construction and development industry.

One issue that arose in several plans was to do with Cat A fitouts – the practice of fitting out a space (normally in an office) that would allow prospective tenants to ‘get a feel’ of their future workplace. This might be only on one of multiple floors, but the ongoing practice means that this ‘practice fitout’ is often subsequently stripped out and put in a skip when the tenant decides on their layout. This is a hugely unsustainable but very much established practice, and many teams pointed out that, surely, we can do better.

Another example was recently brought to our attention by Kevin McGee, Zero Carbon Design 2030 Advocate and Associate Director on our geo-environmental team. According to current standards, gas protection membranes must be virgin polymer and tested using carbon dioxide pumped below them. The potential to use an alternative material with recycled content and test in a way that does not involve deliberately releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is not currently considered because regulations dictate the use of virgin materials. Surely this could be challenged and overcome through discussion, updating of codes and product development.

Both these issues are indicative of a cultural problem in our industry where we get stuck doing things in a certain way because ‘that’s how they have always been done’, We need to be creative and find efficient, low-carbon solutions to replace these practices. As an industry, we are failing to innovate fast enough in some areas, and there needs to be a lot more discussion around why we are falling behind our own sustainability ambitions.

This is where the responsibility thrust upon us by our own zero carbon design ambitions extends beyond our own projects to the wider industry. We are dedicated to being leaders in sustainable thinking and design in the built environment, and this gap between what is and what should be, is an opportunity for all of us at Cundall to initiate and facilitate industry discussion. There’s no doubt that we are not alone in noticing these problems, and we know there’s great work already happening but it’s clear that the only way we will solve them (and ultimately achieve our goal) is if we work together with others – and what better way to do this than with industry roundtables?

I’m all too aware that we are all busy and that at times progress toward our zero carbon design goal is frustratingly slow. It’s easy to give up if things don’t go our way but occasionally, we get the chance to move things forward for all of us, and that is truly exciting!

There’s so much that we can and should be doing on this journey to zero carbon design, but if we focus on the things that we can influence, we will ultimately have more success.

We’re already having discussions with relevant industry bodies like the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and the urbanOvation forum on how we can facilitate industry roundtables focused on finding solutions to the problems I’ve highlighted above. No doubt there will be many more to come as we go further down the road toward zero carbon design. Watch this space!

Duncan Cox is on the core team for Zero Carbon Design 2030 and is based in Cundall’s Newcastle office.