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How can the UK’s green building industry influence future policy making?

April 2016

The building industry is sometimes perceived to be conservative and slow-moving; comfortable with ‘business as usual’ and lacking a collaborative integrated approach that is essential going forward. This has to change.

There is no more time to lose; not if the industry is to make the major leap, at the pace required, to actually contribute its fair share in reducing the impact of climate change. Scientists have been warning us for quite a while and the world leaders and businesses seem to have awoken to the call (post COP21) – but we’re far from averting the danger.

The message is clear, we have already seen that in less fortunate parts of the world the harsh reality of climate change is a fight for survival.

When the stakes are high, and at times when governments prove inadequate or unwilling to drive the necessary change – can the industry afford to stay silent and not enter the political battlefield? The obvious answer is ‘No’! We risk failing in our obligations towards society, losing investor confidence, behaving unethically and unprofessionally if we do.

So what will it take for the industry to drive change? Well, to start with, a change of mind set and an unprecedented joining of forces.

We will need to take a step back and re-think our ways: closer interdisciplinary collaboration within project teams, sharing knowledge, push the business case for sustainability with more vigour – communicate, communicate, communicate.

And what if, we managed to tackle this fragmentation of resources and missing links, and develop trustworthy mechanisms of collaboration towards a specific direction, with a clearer focus.

Yes, there are dozens of NGOs advocating and lobbying for sustainability in the built environment, hundreds’ of architectural practices and consultancies with their heart in the cause, academic institutions and research projects, engineers’ organisations and businesses that strive to do more, environmental groups and key players.

Going forward, we need to find a way to come together, share knowledge and expertise effectively, shape a vision and make it resonate with society.

I assume one partnership or another will need to take the lead and make the first (and perhaps the most difficult) step: setting up a forum or platform where all parties can come together and devise a roadmap for the industry’s role towards a sustainable future; a roadmap which sets the scene for our immediate and long-term goals; a roadmap that puts together specific suggestions (and demands) for new effective policies that will fill the policy gap and enable action in the right direction.

Supporting sustainable communities should be at the heart of our vision; and the right to high quality housing, health & well-being and sustainable employment; the need for healthy ecosystems and thriving communities should be integral to our approach. With everything so densely intertwined, energy and carbon is only one aspect of what should be a holistic proposal for the built environment to become one of the vehicles of transition to a circular economy, to a better world.

The UK Green Building Council is probably in the best place to launch this ‘emergency appeal’ for the industry to come forwards with a clear plan; it will be up to all of us to offer our skills, time and effort to the cause.   

Changing the mind set within the industry and shaping up a plan alone– no matter how well constructed- won’t get us far without economic, political and community alliances.

With governmental energy policy looking non-existent for the coming crucial years, focus should shift to local authorities and community partnerships to accelerate change, as their focus lies in the long-term; their interest in the success of their community. Most importantly, it is the public sector that needs to take immediate action if the housing crisis is to be addressed, because let’s face it – the private sector lacks the will and incentives to provide adequate new housing of a high quality.

The industry has a role to play in assisting local authorities develop progressive policies (beyond zero carbon for new builds), deliver new sustainable housing and allocate resources (e.g. carbon offset payments) for refurbishment uptake at a large scale. We must create a working group where local authorities first come to for advice; our ‘roadmap’ and resources must be accessible to decision makers.

As far as funding goes, sustainability by its very nature makes a business case for those interested in long-term investments. As ever, from an interesting article in the New Yorker (The New Economics of Climate Change, Katy Lederer, July 2015), I got to read that the obvious financial allies in the fight to curb climate change are pension funds, whose ‘scale and power is unprecedented in the history of capitalism. More conventional funding mechanisms (e.g. loans) are also available, especially for local authorities or business partnerships with a long-term focus. So money can be found, provided the vision and plan to make a change is there.

For an industry where traditionally multiple disciplines have had trouble working together gaining an insight into the world of money and talking business can be very tricky. Our best bet is to bring connoisseurs into our discussions, design teams and professional development courses, and make sure curriculums enable future professionals to develop this wider set of skills required.

The above desires, form a wish list, setting aside the multiple barriers which can hold the industry from mobilising, to defend a sustainable future.

It is true that there are more questions than answers; but it is also clear that the time has come to stand up and be counted.

Join us, XCO2 Energy, at our Green Sky Thinking Event – ‘The Policy Gap – Bridging the Zero Carbon Void’ to discuss this further. Listen, learn and contribute at an informal debate with an expert panel of policy influencers (UKGBC, Better Building Partnership, Green Alliance) and building professionals (AHR Architects and XCO2) on Thursday 28th April, 6.30pm. Book your spot here.

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