Knowledge barriers jeopardize UK’s embodied carbon benefits

Building engineering organizations warn that the construction sector is failing to reap the sustainability benefits of the circular economy

A significant ‘knowledge gap’ is preventing the building engineering sector from implementing effective strategies to monitor and limit embodied carbon, experts warn.

Trade association BESA said the potential benefits of embracing the circular economy to reduce lifetime carbon emissions and building operating costs were largely ignored by the construction industry.

Significant benefits in reducing carbon emissions across the sector could still be realized if more mainstream methodologies and technological approaches were adopted by engineering specialists such as HVAC engineers, the association added.

Graeme Fox, technical lead at BEIS, said it would be vital for specialists to improve the circularity of their supply chains by emphasizing reuse, recycling and refurbishment when working on buildings. and their systems.

He added: “It may seem obvious, but it still doesn’t happen enough due to poor planning and a lack of coordination between the design, installation and commissioning phases of projects.

“Customers must also be able to see quantifiable financial benefits, so the current energy and inflationary crises will help focus minds. This is a great opportunity to incorporate circular economy principles into our processes, which will have long-lasting benefits on both the initial costs and the operating costs of the buildings.”

Sustainability impacts

BESA’s comments were made in response to findings from the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) which looked at the issue of embodied carbon in construction works.

The report concluded that approximately 50% of building lifecycle emissions can be attributed to intrinsic sources defined as the manufacturing of materials and the construction processes of a building.

The UKGBC said in the findings that implementing circular economy strategies on building projects could also deliver social, environmental and financial benefits to building operators and users.

BESA argued that the results highlighted that the most carbon-friendly building approach would be to avoid creating new buildings in favor of reusing or retrofitting existing structures.

According to BESA, around 600,000 empty buildings across the UK could be refurbished for different uses. A change in working habits during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has led to a reduction in the occupancy of a large number of offices, has added to this potential for renovation of buildings for new occupants or to new uses, added the association.

BESA cited the results of a global study by management consultancy group Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) which concluded that around two-thirds of desks are regularly unused in offices. These results examined the use of 80 different offices around the world that employ 80,000 employees in total. The report found a trend of reduced office occupancy during an average workweek compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Mr Fox argued that the pandemic has seen a seismic change in the way commercial buildings are used which needed to be reflected in the way engineers work and operate.

He said: “The way services are managed and operated can no longer be business as usual, and we must seize the opportunity to adopt a more flexible approach that can generate financial savings and reduce energy consumption. and carbon emissions. »

In May this year, Parliament’s cross-party Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) called on the UK government to introduce lifetime carbon targets that can be implemented for buildings by 2023.

A statement from the all-party committee said introducing mandatory requirements in building regulations and planning laws to assess lifelong carbon will be key to tackling emissions from the creation and operation of new buildings. These standards could impact the design and operation of HVAC systems and how they work with building materials.

Donald E. Patel