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The planet's resources won't last forever

Sustainability By Lee Leston-Jones, Partner, Structural Engineering – 05 October 2018

Stylised overhead view of a city to look like a globe surrounded by a blue sky


Lee Leston Jones in office with brick background

Lee Leston-Jones

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The forces of nature that have come together to create the planet on which we live are just incredible, but since the industrial revolution it feels we have been raging war against them.

We now only have a short window to rebalance this and to start acting responsibly. To me this is an absolute responsibility to create a sustainable society for future generations. We need to adapt to live responsibly within our fair share of the planets resources and start to undo some of the harm we have caused, and this belief is something that Cundall fully embraces.

For a long time, the focus of the industry has been on reducing buildings energy consumption and decarbonisation of the grid. Given that buildings are responsible for approximately a third of greenhouse gas emissions, this is entirely rational and the results that have been achieved on driving down carbon emissions in many areas of the world are quite amazing.

What has however often been overlooked is the magnitude of the impact the built environment has on our natural resources, and the finite nature of these. The built environment consumes something like 40% of all the worlds natural resources, and with a rapid population growth this is accelerating.

The impact of this is significant from habitat destruction associated with extraction, energy consumption in manufacture (embodied carbon), and through to end of life impact from a toxicity and waste perspective. In terms of embodied carbon, with the decarbonisation of the grid, this represents an increasing percentage of the whole life carbon impact of buildings and is something we need to consider fully in our designs.

Through the Materiality Review of our business undertaken in 2017 we became increasingly aware of the impact of material consumption and embedded this as a priority impact within our Sustainability Roadmap produced in 2018.

The area of Materials and Supply Chain is a primary focus for me, and we are looking deeply at how we manage supply chain ethics, monitoring and driving down the embodied impact, designing our buildings to be adaptable to extend their useful life, and assessing the end of life impact of the materials we specify. We are committed to doing this both on the projects in which we are involved, and in our own business practices ranging from providing our staff with reusable drinking bottles through to embedding the principles of the WELL standard in our office fit-out through sustainably sourced low impact materials.

In this objective we are building on our experience of delivering projects with consideration of responsible resource consumption, and the principles of a circular economy. This includes Notre Dame College in Liverpool where we created a fully adaptable shell with 56m span glulam bowstring trusses, providing a column free environment allowing optimum change of use over the building lifecycle, whilst protecting the capital and carbon investment in the construction. In our collaborative workplace White Paper with AHMM for Google, Project Jack, we developed a system of modular units with embedded plug-and-play environmental systems, which can be readily reconfigured to accommodate changing needs by the building occupier built around the principles of a theatre with a stage and props.

To further support this key impact, life cycle and embodied carbon specialist Qian Li has joined Cundall. Qian contributed to the new RICS and RIBA professional statement on Life Cycle Carbon assessment methodology. He is one of the leading expects in this field, working on high profile projects such as 21 Moorfields, NOVA Victoria and Google HQ in King cross to identify ways to report and identify reduction options of their carbon footprint. We are presently utilising our skills to develop an embodied carbon tool for the Hong Kong Construction Industry Council to drive awareness and informed decision making.

To preserve our natural resources and habitats we need to move from a linear economy where we make, use, dispose; to a circular economy which is restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products and materials at their highest value (reduce, reuse, recycle). Ultimately, we are looking to move towards a model where buildings can evolve to accommodate changing needs, and then be reused at their highest value at end of life.