The built environment: planning for a sustainable future

Date Published

22nd Nov 2021

Suzanne Wallace
Media & Communications Manager, IES

The built environment sector is on the frontline of the sustainability challenges we face as the world works toward net zero. There’s a mix of solutions but key to a successful transition is the adoption of new technology. What role will it play and how can we continue to develop buildings which are both functional and beautiful as materials, requirements and building use changes? 

This article is based on a debate held with Building Magazine as part of its Net Zero Live event in November 2021.


At Paris COP21 in 2015 the built environment merited just half a day on the agenda. In Glasgow earlier this month, at COP26, it had double the amount of time and there were more than 100 events that were built environment related. 

Given buildings are responsible for 40% of global carbon emissions - and according to 2020 figures CO2 emissions from building operation increased to an all-time high of around 10 billion metric tons – it could be argued that the built environment should receive even more attention. This is certainly the view of the World Green Building Council which has stated that buildings should be “elevated to a critical climate solution”. 

Fortunately, more are getting on board with this notion and there are now 136 countries that have included buildings as part of their climate action plans, or national determined contributions (NDC), up from 88 at the last major COP. That’s important because NDCs are the legal mechanism COP relies on. 

Ahead of the Glasgow event, the Local Government Association was calling yet again to be allowed to contribute in a much more substantive way, including through the UK’s NDC. Local Authorities, it says, are: place shapers with councils being the master planners; asset owners with significant land and building control; and convenors, bringing together key local partners.

Quite simply the effects of the climate challenge cannot be addressed without changing the way our buildings are designed, constructed, and operated. As IES’s recent report The City of Tomorrow; The Road to Net Zero states: “buildings use far more energy in operation than construction.”

The challenge for the sector is making improvements in the energy efficiency of buildings, the use of greener resources, adopting renewable energy and being less reliant on carbon off-setting. Key to this is the use of technology in delivering an ultra-low energy building.

As Ruth Kerrigan, IES’s Chief Operations Officer says, digital technology is advancing the shift from carbon off-setting and optimising local energy for buildings. She argues that those responsible for building design, construction, and management have never had access to reliable and accurate means of measuring their carbon output. Digital Twin technology provides some of the answers in the decarbonising conundrum. 

“Live Digital Twins respond and behave like their real world counterparts,” she says. “They deliver the data-driven information needed to uncover energy, carbon, capital, and operational savings while accounting for resource use, transport, social, and economic factors.”

IES is successfully applying its ICL Digital Twin technology to support the creation of a Positive Energy Block within Limerick’s Georgian Innovation District. High costs means it not yet for everyone.

According to Ruth Kerrigan companies are currently choosing a digital technology based on their needs. “New technologies need to work together to be fully effective. If we actually want to analyse how we construct buildings right through from design to end of life and have all of the various good tools in that process working together, then we can create opportunities by creating Digital Twins at a lower cost. This will help us make better decisions along the various stages of the construction life cycle which ultimately will help us have better performing buildings.”

While much technology is already available as Conor Storkey, Head of Sustainability, Mace acknowledges, yet: “maybe we are not yet capitalising on it. But it’s moving so fast, and making buildings truly smart can save a huge amount of operational energy.” 

Sarah Birki at Tilbury Douglas says some responsibility lies with the sector: “We need to sell the benefits of technology to our clients. Even though the upfront costs may be more expensive, in the long run you will save money.”

There’s other ways too. The UK Green Building Council have only this month launched the Whole Life Carbon Roadmap - a common vision and agreed actions for achieving net zero carbon. Much of the sector currently thrives on a wasteful cycle of demolition and new builds. An article in The Times earlier this year called the tearing down of an estimated 50,000 buildings a year, “A national disgrace”. 

Carbon emissions attributable to construction and maintenance account for 51% of a building’s total. It’s something that Geoff Southern, Studio Associate Director for IBI Group is concerned about: “The key here is in understanding the life span of a building and its parts and what their impact is. How do we address recycling, dismantling, disassembly of buildings and how we reuse those pieces of buildings and ensure that we do it properly so not to destroy them and in order to remake them and then how do we reincorporate them in buildings in the future?”

Yet, the new building market is a key driver in the development of advanced energy efficiency technology and investment and naturally architects have a big input. 

Padraig McMorrow is one such architect and a certified PassivHaus consultant for IBI Group who applies innovation and technology daily: “A big part of a designer’s work is cutting thermal bridges and aiming to reduce the heating and cooling loads on a building by studying how heat flows through a building, how windows are installed and how solar shading can work and look. 

“A decarbonised building can still be a beautiful space and experience for the people in there through a continuation of nature with biophilic design and the use of materials like timber for warmth and sustainability.”

The key word at COP26 was ‘collaboration’. In an emergency you needs allies and motivated friends and it’s important for a successful transition for the built environment sector. Mace already has a carbon free strategy in place and Conor Starkey says leading by example helps: “By convincing clients to do things differently, by working with our supply chain on adopting their own net zero strategies as well as driving innovative solutions by partnering with others there’s a big opportunity to save carbon.”

The biggest shift at COP26 for the built environment sector is the reference to energy efficiency in the adopted text of the Glasgow Climate Pact, which marks the first time it has been explicitly mentioned in the COP process. 

Article 36 calls for governments “to accelerate development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures. It means there is now a legal imperative for all countries to align their building regulations with a low carbon future.

As Geoff Southern says while its crucial to have tech trailblazers, also it’s: “legislation which brings obligation to do something.”

Watch our video highlights of the event.

View the full recording.

Read IES COO Ruth Kerrigan's responses to the Q&A.

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