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.

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.

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.

 

Engineers build more questions than answers with the Natural Grid

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to head to the first in a new lecture series run by the Thames Estuary Partnership. The lecture was called The Natural Grid and it was given by David Weight and Andrew Cripps from AECOM about an engineering idea they’ve worked on to address concerns about water scarcity in southern England, including London.

The basic premise of what they called the “AECOM canal” (perhaps not the most modest name) is a canal that runs north-south across the UK to transport water from Scotland in the north, which is not facing water scarcity (and is in fact having more trouble with flooding), to the Midlands and London south. Using GIS and contour maps, they have found routes for the canal that would be able to follow the contours of the land to travel by gravity, eliminating the need for energy-wasting pumps. The source of the water would come from Kielder Water, a reservoir that was built for industry that never came, so has excess water capacity.

The speakers gave a laundry list of benefits. The canal could provide flood relief by lowering the water levels to accept stormwater. All the way along the canal would be built a utility chamber so energy and broadband/data would have a right-of-way across the country. It would provide clean water for the agricultural Midlands and the ever growing population of London. There would be ecosystem benefits. There’s a chance that it could be used for marginal freight, like moving waste. There could be new or improved towns with waterfront access. More about the proposal can be found in their report The Case for the Natural Grid.

It’s certainly an interesting idea. And as London Mayor Boris Johnson made clear in the an article in The Telegraph in 2011 that inspired the AECOM team, at an elementary level, it makes sense–take water from somewhere where there’s a lot and move it to where there isn’t enough. As they said at the lecture, it’s not new technology, we’ve been building canals and aqueducts for centuries. But, also as they said at the lecture, it’s not the technology in question, it’s those pesky details like politics and funding (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s basically what they said).

But for me, the issue is that when proposing a grand idea, it’s your responsibility to think through the details. This isn’t the Roman or Victorian age when you could just build whatever you want wherever. There are major social, environmental, legal and political implications that must be considered and to treat them as details to be sorted out later seems rather irresponsible. Coming from Chicago, I am all to familiar with the long-term fallout of major engineering decisions. The reversal of the Chicago river was a major accomplishment 100 years ago and vastly improved water quality and public health for the city. But the multi-million dollar proposals to deal with invasive species transfer, the changing politics that have led to higher water quality standards and Illinois’ exemption to the international Great Lakes Compact & Agreement, not to mention stormwater management, water allocation and downstream water quality implications.

Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, though. And I do believe that the public dialogue that comes from debating proposals such as this generally benefit us as a society (more people talking about water!). I’m not necessarily against an idea like this, I just think there need to be more questions answered, lessons learned from other places and projects and honesty about what it actually can and can’t do before it can be seriously considered. So, in the spirit of public dialogue (and, well, if regulatory agencies and politicians are actually discussing it), the following are just a few questions that came to mind as I listed to the lecture. Thanks to the Thames Estuary Partnership for providing a forum for discussion!

  • How would they handle land acquisition throughout the length of the proposed canal? It’s one thing to use GIS data to pick ideal routes based on contours and land use type, but it’s another to deal with actual landowners. Particularly if this happened to be a private enterprise without ability to seize land.
  • What are the implications for existing wildlife and ecosystems? What happens to wetlands, habitats, migration paths, etc. that the canal would cut through? Would there be plants along or aquatic wildlife in the canal?
  • What about invasive species? Like the Chicago Area Waterway System, would it become a superhighway for invasive species? Unfortunately, the answer they gave was a fairly dismissive “invasive species are coming anyway, this might just make the come faster.”
  • How would long-term maintenance be handled? Infrastructure maintenance is already a major problem everywhere. Again, their answer was fairly dismissive, stating that existing canals had maintenance problems because they were made with clay and this would be part concrete, part bitumen.
  • Which raises the question, if the canal is that channelized with hardscape, what ecosystem benefits does it really have?
  • What about management of the system? They talked about the ability for the water level in the canal to be lowered to allow space to handle flood waters. In Chicago, the waterway system is managed entirely by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (as I described in a past blog post). Would there be one entity to manage it, if so who, and if not then how?
  • Which begs the question, who would own/govern the system overall? Water in the UK is no longer nationalized, so the national government doesn’t really have the power to do it. Would it be a partnership between private water utilities? Would it be a private entity that bought and sold water between water utilities? Would it involve a public private partnership?
  • On a related note, who owns the water at the reservoir that would be the headwaters for the canal? Presumably that’s owned by a private water company. How would that transfer be handled?
  • How would it help towards stormwater management? If the canal itself is elevated for safety reasons, how would flood waters be redirected into it?
  • What are the implications for the Thames Estuary? The event was put on by the Thames Estuary Partnership, presumably not as tacit support for it, more for public interest, but the speakers didn’t explain how it may or may not affect the estuary.
  • What are the water quality implications from potential freight or waste traffic? What about from raising the water temperature due to cooling adjacent energy cables?
  • And, of course, the biggest question, who would pay for construction and long-term operations? And depending on who does, if there is any public money involved, what is the cost effectiveness compared to other ways of addressing water scarcity, such as demand reduction, reducing leakage, wastewater and local stormwater reuse and even desalination?