The Sustainability Narrative in Post-Brexit UK

This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

A month and a half after the historic EU referendum, you still can’t get through too many conversations without discussion of the implications of Brexit. The discussion, both hopeful and cynical, ranges from everyday life to national policy to the built environment industry. Staying in the EU or not, the UK government still has responsibilities to address climate change, the environment and sustainable development. The question remains how seriously we take that responsibility, particularly without the oversight (or constraint) of the EU. The answer, unfortunately, is not clear.

With all the changes in government, delays in triggering Article 50 and lack of strategic vision for a post-EU UK, certainty and commitment are two of the key things needed from the government to reassure the sustainable built environment sector. As expected, the construction industry is feeling a slowdown and anticipating “continued hiatus in private project starts” across sectors. Cities are particularly impacted by the funding and trade implications of Brexit.

The post-Brexit changes to government, particularly the dissolution of the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and embedding of those activities into the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) remind me of a similar shift in the City of Chicago a few years ago. At the time, the city had a Department of Environment (DOE), but in 2011 it was shut down in favour of a cross-department Chief Sustainability Officer. The stated intent was to integrate environment and sustainability issues into all departments, rather than in a silo. The result was mixed. Some departments, particularly those that received the most staff from the DOE diaspora did quite well—the Department of Transportation’s sustainable strategy became an exemplar program. But many other environmental initiatives that didn’t easily fall into the existing remit of other departments, such as waste and recycling, became weaker or fell through the cracks.

The shuffling of DECC into BEIS will be similar. Those initiatives that overlap well with existing business narratives and Greg Clark’s priorities, such as energy efficiency initiatives and decarbonising heavy industry, may continue as usual or even get a boost. Other topics potentially seen as conflicting with business growth may not.

With DECC out and Andrea Leadsom in to lead Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, climate change and environmental policies may end up at the “bottom of the government’s in tray.” There are many specific questions about the UK’s role on climate change, particularly in light of the Paris Agreement, that remain unanswered.

Evidence from the previous conservative government doesn’t provide a clear signal of their priorities. Recent policies like the Modern Slavery Act and the release of the fifth carbon budget are positive signs of the UK’s commitment to global sustainability. However, the withdrawal of Code for Sustainable Homes and the Zero Carbon standard, the dismantling of the Green Deal and UK poor performance against EU air and water quality targets indicate lack of commitment locally.

Out of the EU, there is even more at risk. Access to the EU skilled architecture and construction labour force and sustainable materials such as glulam timber could be more difficult. Long-term funding for research and for major infrastructure projects could slow to a trickle. Policies and projects within the UK already in the pipeline could be halted.

Whatever the approach, clear declarations need to be made about the driving forces behind policy change. An elected government comes with a plan and a mandate, but where does the accountability come from for this government? What is their strategy for addressing sustainability and the built environment? With the systematic defunding of Whitehall and local governments, who will be left to do the tedious, but crucial work of filling in the gaps left by removing EU legislation?

No strategy is a bad strategy

Indecision on whether to keep or change policy can lead to more risk and cost, stifling forward movement, shifting resources and creating confusion. The built environment, inherently risk-averse, ends up planning in parallel for stricter policy when direction is unclear. Withdrawal of policy without suitable replacement leaves outdated standards and conflicting requirements.

The industry needs a firm commitment as to the direction the EU disentanglement will go. Good or bad, it will allow the industry to focus our attention. In the meantime, the government should commit to hold all existing legislation and EU policies until suitable replacements have been evidenced, as they’ve started by guaranteeing EU funding that extends beyond the UK’s exit.

There is the potential for the UK to be a global leader in climate change and sustainability. Within the industry, though, we can’t be naïve and wait for it all to fall into place or remain the same. We have the opportunity to retain the best of EU policies and to improve on the rest. It could be an opportunity to radically change the way the UK does business and create a more progressive, sustainable, resilient, smart, economically viable and equitable place.

Until there is more leadership, we will have to fight battles on multiple fronts. We can’t only envision our dream scenarios, we simultaneously need to identify and lobby for what needs protecting. Frustratingly, this could mean less money, time and attention for innovation, new research and collaboration.

We need to be nimble enough to frame sustainability and the built environment within the narrative that dismissed experts. We need to pick our heads up out of our projects and engage with politicians, civil servants and perhaps most importantly local communities. Without the EU to oversee, we all have a responsibility to keep the UK on the right track.

Could Home Quality Mark redefine what it means to have a sustainable home?

This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

How can we make sustainable homes more relevant, desirable and beneficial to those who will actually live in them? This is question that has been on my mind for a while, but it was brought to the fore as I undertook the initial training for the BRE’s new Home Quality Mark (HQM) voluntary housing certification scheme. It appears that, at least in principle, the HQM rises above expectations.

HQM was developed as a replacement scheme for the Code for Sustainable Homes (CfSH), the government housing sustainability scheme withdrawn earlier this year. While many of the CfSH requirements have yet to be incorporated into building regulations, the BRE has stepped in to fill the gap with their new voluntary scheme.

HQM attempts to do more than just replace or even simply update CfSH, it attempts to redress the sustainability balance, moving away from a purely environmental focus with the ambition of making sustainability relevant to real people.

It is interesting to note that BRE chose to use the word “quality” instead of “sustainability” in part to get past that environmental focus. Some worry that taking sustainability out of the name means undervaluing the environmental impacts of development, but the scheme still considers the environmental aspects, albeit framing them in terms that the average person cares about such as health, comfort and cost.

The HQM training and consultation emphasises cross-sector coordination in an attempt to address the most common problems associated with delivering sustainable housing. There is an entire section of the scheme devoted to “Knowledge Sharing,” which focuses not only on measures to communicate with occupants, but also improving communication between industries to help address the performance gap. Even the implication on the financial sector was discussed, including what a “quality home” could mean for reducing insurance and mortgage interest rates.

One interesting opportunity is whether this new emphasis could stimulate broader investment by third parties in engagement-based services. Could more new businesses or social enterprises develop and professionalise resident services like building management, resident hotlines, post-occupancy evaluation, maintenance packages modelled after service warranties and web portals or apps? Similarly, BRE is considering pre-approval for certain aspects under HQM that may overlap existing processes. For example, prefabricated manufacturers could pre-certify their modules under the My Home section of HQM or developments participating in BREEAM Communities could pre-certify under the Our Surroundings section.

On the assessor’s end, there was welcome news about streamlining evidence collection and data entry. HQM aligns with BIM and SAP outputs and allows measurements taken for one credit to be cross-referenced in another, simplifying the amount and type of data collected. And there are now multiple levels of robustness for evidence, allowing partial credit for having at least some evidence.

Of course, it remains to be seen how easily the HQM’s well-intentioned ambitions can be implemented. How will this increased intention on consumer interaction be enforced and at what cost? Many of the additional issues being assessed are relatively new and untested, so the evidence required for compliance is flexible at this point. That’s good for early adopters of the assessment, but not so good for quality control. In addition HQM will be a voluntary scheme, carrying less weight than the government’s CfSH. Who will end up using it and would the energy required to get people to use the scheme be better spent trying to embed some of these issues into regulations?

Finally, it is still a certification scheme, which means it still has to make compromises between robustness and flexibility, cost and marketability. It will never be a replacement for the engagement, discussion and practical innovation that is central to sustainable development, but it is certainly trying to improve how the benchmark is set.

HQM should be out at the of November for beta testing and officially released at the beginning of 2016. We are looking forward to seeing the final scheme and how this broader focus could influence changes in the industry.

Finding the balance between experimentation and certainty

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Having moved from a role that consisted mainly of policy and high level concepts for government to an implementation role working mainly with the private sector on actual construction sites, it’s been an interesting opportunity to see both sides of how policy works or doesn’t work and what fosters progress and innovation. It’s been an interesting change to work on the ground on development after having worked in policy for so long. Mostly, it’s been great to get real world, practical experience; the side of me who likes to cut through the fluff and get things done is quite happy. But on the other side, it has been disappointing to see the stagnation and conservative, profit-oriented (or, orientated, for the Brits) thinking that prevents innovation and trying interesting new things.

I had an opportunity to opine a bit on the challenge of balancing experimentation and certainty inherent to private-sector driven investment and projects in the latest KLH Sustainability newsletter. The post can be read here and is reprinted below.

Development is a complicated business. Almost all projects arrive on the desks at KLH with a complex web of performance indicators, planning requirements and profit margins. It is an interesting challenge to make sure the many moving pieces stay on track to meet targets, while ensuring there is space for creativity, knowledge advancement, capacity building and innovation. Though these things are never mutually exclusive, in the name of certainty and simplicity, it can be easier to reduce sustainability to tick boxes and nice-to-haves, missing the big picture and the real opportunity for improvement.

In recent weeks, the media has been abuzz with news of the downfall of Volkswagen after they admitted to creating technology in their diesel cars to dupe emissions tests in the U.S. No one knows for sure their reasons for cheating as opposed to investing in research that could actually make their cars less harmful to the environment and society as a whole. They ran the numbers and somehow decided that covering up their failure was better for business than actually improving their cars. We can learn from Volkswagen; business myopia which leads to poor decision-making and rewards immediate profit over long-term value, will always back-fire…often sooner than expected.

Like corporations, new developments have many competing priorities to balance: regulatory compliance, engineering, saleability, creative design, placemaking, buildability, liability, sustainability, safety, public perception, technology, profitability, the list goes on. Each of those issues is complex on its own, but what often happens in the name of manageability, ease of implementation and certainty is that they are translated as budget line items.

Sustainability gets reduced to products, technology and accreditation schemes. In this way, they can be compared and assessed as apples to apples, which in turn can make it easier to make decisions and track progress, but also to miss nuances and lead to unintended consequences or failures of implementation.

What might this reliance on simplified definitions look like?

It might be sustainable homes that only ‘eco-warriors’ want to live in. Or the installation of grey water reuse technologies that reduce potable water use, but increase life-cycle energy consumption  and financial cost. It can be found in the post occupancy performance gap, or in the application of technology without considering the role of people, politics and society in gaining value from the technology.

In the case of Victoria, Australia, they rolled out smart meters claiming people would get energy savings, but didn’t communicate and work with residents to actually achieve those monetary or environmental benefits. When it comes to setting and reporting against performance requirements, it is easier to say “x number of smart meters were installed,” quietly ignoring whether the outcomes were as intended. This can lead to mistrust in both the technology and the implementer and can set back progress on innovation.

That is not to say breaking complex things into simple deliverables is the wrong thing to do.

Architects, engineers and developers need to progress with clarity, balancing priorities while making places that people will want to live and work. And they must do so in the face of all the uncertainty of the regulatory environment, future technology changes, price volatility and the ambiguity of working with and marketing to fickle and often unpredictable human beings.

But too much certainty may mean stifling innovation or processes that have not been tested or are too difficult to count or monetise, such as capacity and relationship-building. Like the smart meters in Victoria, many of the gains to be made in sustainability have as much to do with management and mentality as with technology. But it is harder to pin a number down on paper and put it out to bid on that alone, so we put a lot of effort and emphasis in technology, engineering solutions and countable things that can be easily pitched to investors, depicted in infographics, held up as benchmarks and subcontracted down into tiny parts.

Of course, we cannot throw out all the technologies and metrics and leave everyone to run experiments. It is not a matter of either/or. We can keep our risk management systems, but build in more contingencies and buffers to allow for flexibility or trial innovation. We can remember there are rarely simple solutions to anything and ask hard questions of anything that claims a cure all. We can value communication, including qualitative information that can add context to simple dashboards. We can make time to teach everyone from design to construction to sales how their efforts fit into the bigger picture of sustainability, rather than having them rely on a separate expert. And we can keep sight of goals and individual motives, remembering that numerical benchmarks are not themselves the goals, but the indicators for whether goals are being achieved.

As with most things, the trick is finding the balance between getting it right and getting it done.

Part of why we simplify things is to make it easier to act on, but we need to balance this with making sure that what is done is still worthwhile. Something is not always better than nothing. Doing it the right way is usually harder than ticking off boxes. We are keenly aware of this at KLH, so we approach each project with a strategy bespoke to the needs of that project and the people working on it. We pair number crunching with discussion, data analysis with data gathering, all in an attempt to continually work to reconcile certainty and simplicity with flexibility and complexity.

The end of Zero Carbon Homes means more than the loss of sustainable housing

This post originally appeared in KLH Sustainability’s blog.

Over the last decade the UK, local governments and private sector industries connected to development have been working toward common definitions, workable requirements, innovative products and new processes to make “Zero Carbon Homes by 2016” a reality. This month, those efforts were tossed aside under the guise of easing regulatory burdens to speed up the construction of new homes.

George Osborn’s Productivity Plan, Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation, promotes the decarbonisation of the UK’s energy sector, yet states:

“The government does not intend to proceed with the zero carbon Allowable Solutions carbon offsetting scheme, or the proposed 2016 increase in on-site energy efficiency standards, but will keep energy efficiency standards under review, recognising that existing measures to increase energy efficiency of new buildings should be allowed time to become established” (p. 46).

This disappointing decision has very real long and short-term consequences.

  • Money down the drain. Responsible builders have been preparing for the 2016 target for years, so backing down from it means a waste of not only effort on their part, but also money. As stated in an open letter response from more than 200 businesses, this type of abrupt change undermines “industry confidence in Government and will now curtail investment in British innovation and manufacturing.” Having no or unclear benchmarks means uncertainty, which means even more cost.
  • Squashing innovation. All of this uncertainty means confusion about what standards industry research should be working toward, which means fewer businesses are capable of investing in innovation. No standards also means no incentive to improve and no reward for delivering what used to be labelled as an achievement.
  • Pervasive fuel poverty. House building is not just about the quantity, but also about quality. Standards like Zero Carbon are more than just feel-good sustainability add-ons. Energy inefficient housing may be cheaper for builders, but it ultimately pushes the cost to occupants who will have to pay more for power and heating. In the UK, 19.2% of the population lives in fuel poverty, the worst among 12 EU peer countries, and more than 31,000 deaths in the winter of 2012-13 have been at least partially attributed to fuel poverty and poor insulation. This was the stroke of genius in the previous ‘allowable solutions’ – it offered an opportunity for the UK to improve its existing stock as well as investing in new.
  • Favouring unsustainable housing. Lower standards for energy performance mean lower standards for homes overall. People do not want to spend more of their income on ever-increasing fuel costs, and savvy consumers have come to expect improvement in building technology over time, particularly in sustainability and health.
  • Threatening the UK’s ability to meet Climate Change Act obligations. Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the UK has a statutory target to reduce emissions by at least 80% from 1990 levels. Just last month, the Committee on Climate Change released a report on the UK’s progress and recommended actions, stating that to ensure that the UK continues to meet the long-term targets and complies with the requirement to show all new buildings are nearly zero-energy after 2020, the “zero carbon home standard must be implemented without further weakening.”
  • Increasing carbon emissions from buildings. Let’s not forget the point of the Zero Carbon Homes standard: to reduce carbon emissions from buildings and their contribution to the UK’s emissions. A Parliamentary environmental audit found that without significant measures, the contribution of the housing sector to the UK’s 2050 carbon emissions target could rise from 30% to 55%.

All of this erodes the UK’s position as a leader on regulation for, and products to meet, energy and carbon targets. The Zero Carbon Home standard was far from perfect, but it was a defined, common goal for the industry to work towards. It was also a vehicle to showcase the UK’s leadership and innovation potential.

Not all is lost. The progress achieved so far and the learning that has been integrated into standard practice means that the momentum toward energy sustainability will not stop dead. Many of our clients are continuing to maintain strong standards, even in the face of the uncertainty, because they know as well as we do that sustainability is more than just standards, it’s part of the long game.