COP26: treat climate crisis as 'health emergency', experts say

An ICE-led COP26 fringe event called for built environment professionals to focus more broadly than on 'just carbon'. 

Embedding sustainability in design in a climate change world.
Embedding sustainability in design in a climate change world.

Built environment professionals should think about the climate crisis as a “health emergency” and treat it as such, according to experts at an ICE-led COP26 fringe event.

“We shouldn’t frame this as a climate emergency. We should frame this as a health emergency,” Maria Smith, RIBA councillor and director of sustainability at Buro Happold said at the event.

“While a focus on carbon is fantastic, we need to think more broadly and holistically."

Smith and other built environment experts were speaking at the UK Green Building Council’s (UKGB) Build Better Now COP26 series event earlier this week, ‘Designing a green and resilient built environment: what do we need to do now and in the future?’

“We have to recognise that there is a whole system that we are impacting, and the transition to a fair and sustainable built environment can be brought about through collaborative and strategic system-wide analysis,” Smith said.

Designing a greener built environment

Much of the conversation in this COP26 virtual fringe event focused on considerations when designing a greener and resilient built environment, with the panellists attempting to cover both mitigation and adaptation in their recommendations.

Judith Sykes, ICE Fellow and a senior director of Expedition Engineering, chaired the event. She recapped some of the findings in ICE’s What Makes Good Design report, most notably that only 15% of engineers always consider climate issues in their work.

Andrew Grant, representing Grant Associates and the NIC Design Group, said that “taking away hard built infrastructure and replacing it with soft nature-based solutions is one of the ways forward” and gave the example of the Grey to Green project in Sheffield.

The panel did not just talk about designing new structures, as 98% of the current infrastructure will exist next year. Built environment professionals need to think about changing the way that existing built environment systems operate and learn from existing real performance data. This was the sentiment of Dr Jennifer Schooling, director at the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC), who also sits on ICE’s Decarbonisation Community Advisory Board.

Sophia Kee, a principal designer at Arcadis, working in Dubai, gave her perspective of designing for areas that are typically less habitable. Here, she noted the importance of climate data, and using future climate change scenarios for design for comfort. This minimises the risk of having to knock down a building that is no longer fit-for-purpose in a changed climate.

Using the technologies already available

“How can we use existing and new technologies to help us increase the pace towards decarbonisation, and how can we capture digital data about our assets in use?” Schooling asked.

“There is a huge deployment gap, as we must maximise the roll-out of technologies already available to us,” Smith insisted.

They described how there is much we can do with current technology, in the way of maximising the use of existing structures, decarbonising building materials and reducing operational energy.

Schooling went on to describe how design decisions are often made with uncertainties about what happens further down the process. For example, she noted how on-site there is typically a 5-10% over-order requirement for concrete, which could be eliminated by using existing data and technologies to model demand.

Sykes reminded the audience that this theme of productivity is being tackled by ICE’s new President, Ed McCann.

Cross-sector collaboration

“Looking at a project holistically goes hand in hand with data sharing across disciplines,” Kee noted.

Grant agreed with this, going on to state that collaborations such as climate declarations give smaller sectors a voice. “Thinking commercially, cross disciplinary teams that understand carbon and biodiversity measurement tools will be a massive benefit,” he said.

When asked in the Q&A about the barriers to collaboration and data sharing, Schooling said that “clients have a big role to play, as they ask for the data”. She went on to note how asset owners need to lead on the collaborative effort, and create a database among clients and ask the supply chain to feed into this.

The UK Green Building Council’s 15-part Build Better Now programme of events are available to watch on its website, around three working days after the live session.

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