net-zero built environment
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Ron Cowley, CEO of the Active Building Centre, ponders how the public sector has a vital role to play in driving the move to the decarbonisation of buildings

I was recently privileged to chair a fascinating discussion between representatives of the Ministry of Defence, the Government Property Agency and the Infrastructure Projects Authority, debating the question: “Is the public sector a good client?”

The very framing of that topic is a tip of the hat to a longstanding preconception within the construction industry – namely, that there are certain challenges inherent to working on government-funded projects that don’t exist in the private sector, or at least not on the same scale.

Our panellists were all clear-eyed and articulate about the trade-offs, good and bad, that come with working on public-versus private-sector projects, with access to the very biggest infrastructure projects coming at the cost of more bureaucratic, painstaking procurement processes. But I do think change is coming. When it comes to what has emerged in recent years as the definitive challenge for the construction sector, it is public-sector clients who will be at the vanguard of changing the world.

Buildings

Buildings currently account for 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions. Unless that carbon footprint is drastically and radically downsized, the goal of net-zero by 2050 will be for the birds. But even that won’t be enough, given that other sectors, such as agriculture and aviation, have little to no realistic path to emissions-free operations in just three decades from now. Other areas of the UK economy will have to pick up the slack and contribute additional clean energy to offset the laggards. In short, we need to turn the UK’s built environment from a liability into an asset on the national emissions balance sheet.

That’s precisely what we at the Active Building Centre advocate, by promoting and developing the technologies that will allow smart buildings to generate at least sufficient renewable energy on-site and then intelligently store or redistribute the surplus. This will turn our buildings into a nationwide network of decentralised clean power stations, numbering in the millions.

The biggest single sticking point, invariably, is cost: like some other green technologies, active buildings require greater up-front investment. That you get a rolling pay-off in the form of reduced energy bills and income generated by selling surplus energy and providing flexibility in demand and supply to the local grid – to say nothing of the wider societal cost if we don’t get this right – can often fail to hold sufficient water in the minds of decision-makers.

Here’s where the opportunity exists within government projects. The long planning periods and processes that are traditionally highlighted as a challenge with government departments suddenly turn into the kind of longer-term perspectives needed to recognise the benefits of these up-front investments. When the likes of the Ministry of Defence adopt a significantly longer time horizon in their thinking, they weigh up the trade-offs between greater initial ‘capital expenditure’ versus recurring ‘operational expenditure’ very differently.

Nor are government departments quite as small-c conservative as is often made out. Our experience is that they’re not scared of technology. In fact, because they are subject to direct political pressure around the issue of net-zero, particularly ahead of the COP 26 summit taking place in Glasgow this November, we are increasingly seeing them act further and faster than the private sector and setting best-practice examples.

Then there is the question of scale. Simply put, the UK government owns a lot of buildings, and a lot of them are very big – hospitals, schools, prisons, hangars and other military bases, to name a handful. No single private developer can move the dial on the built environment’s carbon emissions to anything like the same extent. And the combination of proof of concept and widespread deployment will, in turn, fuel private-sector demand and drive down costs.

Zero-carbon buildings will very soon have to become the only game in town. It’s in the public sector that the early stages of that game will play out. Everything the construction industry might have thought it knew about the government as a client – slow, conservative, unwilling to invest in big-picture ideas, an ageing legacy estate – is being turned on its head. Long may that continue.

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