Tips for sustainability on site beyond targets and trackers

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This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

It’s the last sprint on site before the finish line. Everyone is working around the clock to finish a project. The last thing the team wants to hear is that there are sustainability targets not met that no one was paying attention to until someone highlighted them as part of the contract close-out requirements. Unfortunately, it’s a situation we’ve seen often.

It’s not enough to set targets at the beginning of a project, forget them once planning is approved, then expect them to magically be achieved by the end of the project. What does it really mean to say “achieve an air permeability of 3m3/h.m2” or “ensure materials are responsibly and ethically sourced”?

Ensuring sustainability relies on early and meaningful engagement with everyone involved. That means translating sustainability in way that helps everyone be successful:

Regulators & planners: set clear requirements and understand constraints, conflicts and implications for design

Client: set clear briefs that incorporate sustainability and work with the team to reconcile conflicting priorities

Architects & engineers: ensure designs, details and specifications meet desired outcomes by understanding implications of design decisions

Procurement: ensure tender packages include details of sustainability, that the supply chain understands what they need to deliver and prices it accordingly, not losing things during value engineering

Contractor/subcontractor: include best practices within method statements, but also engage with workforce on site and provide tools, infrastructure and training to help them succeed

Honest engagement from all sides can help not only improve outcomes on site, but advance industry knowledge by identifying what does and doesn’t work. Addressing problems head on collaboratively leads to more actual sustainable outcomes, rather than closing one’s eyes and hoping for the best or ignoring contradictions and negative data to report publicly only the positive bits.

We’ve seen many projects do things well, but many also lose money and time by doing things poorly. Here are a few tips:

  • Enable everyone to take responsibility for sustainability. Spreading the knowledge helps if staff move onto different projects, prevents long-term items from being easily forgotten and increases accountability. Plus, not all projects have the budget to have a dedicated sustainability person, so it must become part of everyone’s job.
  • Don’t hide behind procedures and documentation. It’s very easy to issue a requirements tracker or bury lines in contracts, but we all know no one reads them. The result is either death by procedure or playing the blame game after the fact. Of course, documentation is needed for clarity and liability, but more can be done to help ensure the message is communicated and that proper investment in people and resources is made
  • Educate on best practice and make knowledge sharing a two-way process (not only training operatives to improve practices on site, but also sustainability specialists learning from site operatives to understand what does and doesn’t work)
  • Understand there’s more to sustainability than compliance. The lack of resources within regulatory agencies and local authorities can mean less oversight, but it also means less assistance in the case of doing something new or difficult. Plus, there is still a duty to do what is required, and the team can be held accountable if something goes wrong later.

It’s incredibly rewarding when we see teams ‘get it’. When architects, engineers and contractors understand issues they weren’t even aware of a few months before, when they ask the right questions and challenge their own designs, the outcome is not only a better project, but better designers. They look at their other projects in a different light and increase the capacity of their own organisations, which can be a differentiator when bidding for new work.

If project teams are thinking about compliance-led sustainability requirements, the sustainability specialist can do more. Rather than chasing a BREEAM credit, the sustainability specialist can spend more time pushing the boundaries and seeking innovative solutions for complex projects.

That’s the area where KLH like to be, seeking new ideas with our industry contacts while capacity is built within the organisation of project team to meet regulatory requirements. We are seeing more and more clients requesting this type of support which is great news for the construction industry, as well as those of us that thrive on implementing new ideas!

Translating climate solutions for everyday lives

This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

Big news in the climate change world recently! With the EU and India signing on last week, 74 parties to the Paris Agreement (and counting) representing an estimated 58.82% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have ratified the agreement. This means it will now officially enter into force on the 4th of November 2016.

While the agreement isn’t perfect, its speedy ratification is great news. The momentum and united support behind it and the symbolism of global cooperation are powerful and motivating, particularly in the face of a threat as complex and massive as climate change. But for the majority of us, the memory of COP21 is likely long gone, replaced with Brexit, elections and our day-to-day concerns.

For those who live in places like the UK or the middle of the US, where climate threats are just as real, but much subtler than hurricanes, sea level rise and starving polar bears, the need to translate global goals on climate to local action may not seem as critical.

As built environment professionals, not those in front-line communities facing climate-triggered displacement, at international negotiation tables or out protesting against new mines, what can we be doing to truly “address climate change?”

KLH has done a lot of work on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London to deliberately incorporate both climate change mitigation and adaptation measures into large-scale development. Some of this has involved pulling together efforts that were already happening in the name of sustainability, health and comfort, energy efficiency or biodiversity and ensuring that they addressed the broader pictures of carbon impact and climate risk response. Many other measures were instituted directly as responses to anticipated climate impacts over time.

To reduce the contribution the development makes to climate change, we are massively reducing carbon emissions by designing very energy efficient building fabric and services, then further reducing to zero regulated carbon emissions through district heating, PVs and carbon offsetting in the local community. We are also reducing embodied carbon and energy of the building materials by 15-20% by using materials more efficiently, substituting materials and using recycled materials. The development also promotes public and active transportation and reduces potable water use which, in turn, reduces carbon emissions.

To adapt to the effects of climate change in London, we looked at the potential hazards—such as flooding, overheating, extreme wind, urban heat island effect and water scarcity—their likelihood and severity and the risk for the development. Based on that, we developed cross-cutting strategies to help mitigate and adapt to those impacts. These strategies included green infrastructure, water sensitive design principles, designing for thermal comfort, resilient construction measures and building adaptive capacity.

Even when projects attempt to address climate on site, it’s important not to overstate the impacts of those efforts. Zero Carbon doesn’t literally mean no carbon is emitted. Climate Positive doesn’t necessarily mean there are no negative impacts on climate. PVs on every roof won’t help much if the building materials used to make those roofs has a carbon intensive production process. The use of some sustainable building materials may have negative impacts for energy efficiency or overheating risk. But even if one development doesn’t solve it all, the individual measures can still add up to real benefits.

Not everything we’ve instituted on our projects was driven by a desire to address climate change. There are many strategies incorporated in good design practice, which positively contribute to climate change adaption – and that’s where the real impact will come from.

It’s hard to convince some developers, designers, builders or even occupants to care about climate change as a driver. It’s important that whether by regulation, best practice design, long-term cost saving, risk management or unique selling point, measures that reduce carbon emissions and help communities adapt to more extreme weather become the norm. Only then will all developments be climate responsive projects, contributing to the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

Hands on design: sustainable LEGO homes

I was recently back in Chicago for the holidays and while searching for something warm to do downtown with my family, I took them to see the city model and exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Before we could make our way from that to the Chicago Biennial, we stumbled into one of CAF’s LEGO Build Workshops and before you know it, three+ hours had past and we were all creating architectural masterpieces.

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My sister built a bright, airy modern school building. Her partner built a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired party house. My partner built the tallest skyscraper he could (earning envious stares from nearby children). What did I build? Ultra-realist me built three UK-style terraced houses.

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But wait, there’s more! They were not just any terraced houses, they were sustainable terraced houses! Perhaps I’d spent too many hours focused on my work project the week before, but I decided to bring back a little bit of London to Chicago.

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Features you’ll find in these sustainable terraced houses:

  • Simple building form, resulting in improved fabric energy efficiency
  • Front and back gardens, providing ample private outdoor space

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  • Shallow plot with dual or triple aspects, meaning lots of daylight
  • Space for waste, recyclables and food waste/compost bins

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  • Rain barrels/water butts collecting water for use in the back gardens for the middle and one of the end terraces

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  • A greywater recycling system on the other end terrace
  • Shared roof terrace with biodiverse roof elements (ok…there were no landscaping legos, so pretend there are plants & log piles and substrates for holding water and whatnot)

Obviously I don’t win any points for originality, but for my structured mind, it was a nice creative outlet and who doesn’t like to play with Legos?

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Go big or go home: new and challenging projects to keep busy

EWS modelHappy holidays and happy new year! I’ve really not spent as much time on this blog as I’d like to (believe me, I have so many posts waiting in the wings until I have a few minutes to catch my breath!), but largely it’s because I’ve jumped head first into several new projects.

You may have seen in KLH Sustainability’s Christmas message, but the main project I’m working on is the redevelopment of the London Olympic Park! The stars aligned and I was at the right place at the right time saying the right things about the right skills and talking to the right person to get to work on this exciting project. The project is to create out of what was part of the former park lands and prior to that, derelict industrial lands, into a massive (though…from an American urban perspective, arguably not large enough) residential/mixed-use development. The two new neighbourhoods, one in the area surrounding the former media center/new Here East building and the other south of the Copper Box Arena and west of the Olympic Stadium, will have 1500 new homes and lots of commercial/non-residential development.

There’s a ton happening with the development to make it more inclusive and sustainable:

  • housing will be mixed-tenure (social rent, affordable rent, shared ownership, private rent & for sale);
  • commercial space is hoping to attract small, independent businesses;
  • all the housing is being built to Lifetime Homes standard and a significant percentage are having additional accessibility modifications made to them;
  • multi-ethnic considerations are being taken into account, including allowing for provision of BAME-oriented bathroom fittings and kitchen layouts (more on that acronym in another post…);
  • significant thought put into public realm, placemaking, context-sensitive design and more;
  • “smart city” innovation considerations and integration with the park and beyond (more on the whole smart cities concept in another post…);
  • and of course, what I’m spending a huge chunk of my life on, more ambitious sustainability aspirations than you can shake a stick at, including but not at all limited to zero carbon homes, Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4+, BREEAM Excellent and so so so so so so much more. I’d love to go into more detail, but the perils of working in the private sector (as I am painfully learning) is that you really can’t be as open as you want to be…at least, not without approval, so more details will have to wait.

The project is still in planning and going through consultation. I’m really excited to be working on this project and wanted to share a bit of what’s been keeping me away from being as active outside of work as I’d like to be.

Read more about the project on the KLH website.

In addition to this project, I’m also working on the final stage of the Olympic Stadium Transformation (is anyone interested in massive numbers of seats from the stadium???), some smaller sustainability projects, just became a qualified Code for Sustainable Homes assessor (and the future Home Quality Mark), recently presented at the International Water Association (IWA) World Water Congress, kicking off a project with my IWA Specialist Group on digital engagement and water and been trying to get increasingly more active with Urbanistas London, several UK water groups, some local community groups in my home neighbourhood and more!

I don’t really do new year’s resolutions, but I do hope this year to be able to spend more time on here exploring new ideas and projects. Thanks for following!

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.

Making time for big thinking

Green Sky Thinking @ Buro HappoldThis post originally appeared in KLH Sustainability’s blog.

It’s easy to get caught up in the details of our daily jobs and the problems immediately at hand, but thinking sustainably often means thinking holistically, which means finding the time and space to step back and look at the big picture. Green Sky Thinking Week, a week of events organised by Open-City in London highlighting innovative practice on how we ‘design in’ sustainability, provided a great opportunity to think outside our usual projects.

I attended Engineering the Futurehosted by BuroHappold Engineering—a sort of science fair for engineering professionals. Some of BuroHappold’s young engineers were given time and resources to put toward creative problem solving on an issue outside their daily work load. The event was a showcase of the preliminary work they were able to experiment with, to address some of London’s most pressing questions. Topics included:

  • Using real-time data to optimise the design of NHS waiting rooms
  • Ways of expanding the evidence base for supporting public use of parks
  • Developing a model for comparing multiple interrelated variables in sustainable building design
  • Modular building design for interior design, and
  • Many more.

The event was a chance for young engineers (who usually work as part of a larger team) to develop their own innovative ideas and get public exposure. The projects were great conversation starters and the format of the event allowed us to talk to each of the 10 project teams in small groups, to gain insight into their approaches and provide feedback on how to improve them.

One of the biggest things I noticed was that – perhaps due to the limited time they were able to devote to the projects – some of the groups did not seem to fully incorporate social factors—a critical part of designing sustainably—into their projects, such as how the method of data collection may not capture an even sample of London’s demographics, or how much personal space people in NHS waiting rooms might need, or the role of property prices and amenities as neighbourhood attractiveness parameters.

While the projects were only side projects (with clear limitations), the work they produced and the event as a whole was a great way to try applying creativity in problem solving and get conversations started. The event ended with attendees voting for what we thought were the most promising ideas. The theme of the projects that rose to the top was resource efficiency—one of KLH’s top priorities and something we are always working on to continue to creatively address.

Integrating People, Not Just Parts, at Ecobuild 2015

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This post originally appeared in KLH Sustainability’s blog.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend a day of Ecobuild, billed as the world’s biggest event for sustainable design, construction and the built environment. I’d heard mixed reviews of it before I went, some saying that what had started as a grassroots movement had turned into a run-of-the-mill trade show. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the running theme through the sessions I attended was a focus not on parts, but on people. So often the focus is on the technological innovations required to develop sustainably, but it’s critically important to invest in the people part of the people-profit-planet triple-bottom line, which was emphasised throughout the panels.

Many of the sessions highlighted the performance gap (the disconnect between the way sustainable buildings are designed and how they operate) and the role that early interaction and communication with occupants plays in reducing that gap. Developments are more successful from a technical, environmental and social standpoint if people are an integral part of the design process rather than having design solutions imposed on them.

Chris Twinn, chairing the The missing link: Engaging and empowering residents to optimise building performance session, indicated that we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of “educating” people, but rather, we should be “working with” them.

The road from technological innovation to user integration can be like a game of Chinese whispers (that’s “telephone” in the US), attempting to relay product instructions from inventor to supplier, to designer, to developer, to sales team, to property manager, to occupant. This results in lack of confidence about products, scepticism about policies promoting them and fundamentally poor sustainability outcomes.

To counteract this, promising, people-focused solutions suggested at Ecobuild included:

  • developing better user integration into products;
  • improving behaviour change messaging by appealing to emotion and value instead of only economics;
  • integrating intuitive feedback loops into smart systems instead of hiding efficiency behind a black box;
  • communicating to audiences through local community leaders through spheres of influence;
  • developing programs that train local representatives to be able to explain, troubleshoot and repair smart systems; and
  • end-user focused approaches that measure comfort, wellbeing, health and other factors that people looking for homes and businesses care about.
Successfully integrating people throughout the process of sustainable development takes work. Unlike pipes, valves, computers and other complicated, but engineer-able solutions, humans are complex. Remembering that humans are a key aspect of successful sustainability means adapting practices and systems to fit how people think, how we act and what we value.