“We’ve done what we can in tackling carbon reduction, but this is the low hanging fruit, – the next move is tackling people and the environment – and that’s a much tougher job”. This a quote from Keynote Speaker, Janet Kidner of Lend Lease at Green Vision’s Cutting Costs & Carbon series, at Old Broadcasting House last week – and it’s a sentiment that ran true throughout the half day conference.

Run by Leeds Metropolitan’s Centre for Knowledge Exchange and the Construction Sector Network in conjunction with University of Greenwich as part of their Carbon, Control and Comfort (CCC) Research Project, the event saw over 40 construction and property professionals explore questions around Sustainable Technologies, Behaviour Change Initiatives, The Role of the Landlord and Controls Interventions, and all came back to the need to change people’s behaviour and attitudes if we really want to make headway into sustainable low carbon living.

Kidner also spoke of the importance of designing and planning spaces with optimum usage in mind – i.e building more stairways to stop people taking the lifts, but also to encourage interaction across teams, and strengthening of inter-company relations and business referrals. She also mentioned incentives such as providing staff with healthy breakfasts, running gardening clubs, and cycle to work schemes – all initiatives that help to create positive, inclusive attitudes of employees and a strong long-term approach to sustainable living. This all sounds great, but does it work? Providing examples of how productivity had risen in low carbon buildings, Kidner was confidently saying yes.

Controlling Occupant Behaviour?
Next delegates heard from Professor Keith Jones, from CCC, who re-iterated that technology alone won’t meet the CO2 targets set by government. He shared with us a case study of homes in Wales where controls were tested and occupants behaviour monitored. The outcome? That householders do not respond to heating and cooling controls in a structured way – and that it’s important to them to be able to actively manage their comfort…not the best news for energy companies hoping to install systems that remove elements of user control.

However, he also discussed the use of creative interventions, ranging from high-tech to low-tech appliances and was encouraged by the use of some of these, although advised that the most innovative may be cost prohibitive. What these interventions do achieve is an increased awareness of individual’s behaviour and the impact this has, on energy usage and the amount they pay for their bills. There is still a lot of work to do though, it seems, on defining the role of the landlord, in terms of the support offered to tenants to help and guide them in lowering their energy consumption, as constant reinforcement is required. In terms of driving a thirst for improving energy efficiency amongst tenants, benchmarking against peers was an approach that was popular with delegates as a way of encouraging competitiveness within neighbourhoods.

The Current State of Play
Speakers and delegate responses in the roundtables discussions and networking debates highlighted that in their experience whilst there was a real thirst for cutting carbon in the property sector, for many organisations, simply going through the motions of reducing energy usage was as far as they had got. From experience in the room, it was apparent that sustainable practices were becoming more integrated into everyday business, but the reach of these initiatives varied greatly. For some, it was as simple as using less heating and lighting, for others it was about generating their own, but only a small few had come across clients proactively looking to make long-term sustainable change having committed to driving behavioural change at grass routes levels. This is obviously a great step forward, but stops short of addressing the wider carbon footprint.

Creating the Demand
It was also interesting, and worrying, to hear that students going through the building colleges were not particularly engaged in sustainable practices –in fact only a few had an understanding of them, and very few had an interest in learning about them. Why is this? The roundtable discussing this was slightly bemused – but it all came back to money. Why would these students, many of whom are owners of small building practices, take an interest, just because we believe they should? We heard that their focus is on learning a trade that will provide a good income and that they don’t necessarily see sustainable building techniques as being mainstream enough yet to bother about – Quite an eye-opener. As very little of the curriculum is focused on sustainability this means there is still quite a skills gap in terms of training up the construction and property tradesmen. The group discussed that demand should be led from above, so training was required to reach landlords, to create a need that then disseminates to suppliers and installers, who would then have to respond.

Claire Walker Project Manager for Green Vision said: “These events always evoke lively debate. The feeling was that we are making headway in terms of getting the property and construction sector to address sustainable practices, but it is still very piecemeal, and often a token gesture. We need to work together as an industry to continue to move forward and address the very real challenge of behaviour change. Once we start to genuinely get under the skin of this, and start to create buildings and spaces with low carbon, sustainable living in mind from day 1 we can make a real difference. The bigger challenge however is how to deal with the existing properties in use that now need to be revisited and dragged into the future –this is where real commitment is needed and the buy in of all involved is crucial, from the construction suppliers, to the landlords to the tenants.”

“What we hope to achieve with Green Vision is to open up discussions and debates that can help delegates in their own organisations, taking learning’s back to their teams, and helping to drive change. We had a great response from all who attended and are already looking forward to the next one!”

Green Vision highlighted many diverse views and opinions, but all delegates were glued to the screen to listen to Max Richter, from Perkins & Will Architects in Vancouver on CIRS, the Center for Interactive Research in Sustainability, as he shared his experience, thoughts and findings on ‘The Greenest Building on the Planet’ via a Skype call into Leeds.

Run by Leeds Metropolitan’s Centre for Knowledge Exchange and the Construction Sector Network in conjunction with University of Greenwich as part of their Carbon, Control and Comfort (CCC) Research Project,  the event saw over 40 construction and property professionals explore questions around Sustainable Technologies, Behaviour Change Initiatives, The Role of the Landlord and Controls Interventions, and all came back to the need to change people’s behaviour and attitudes if we really want to make headway into sustainable low carbon living.

Richter reiterated this with his case study of CIRS as he talked about ‘a giant leap forward’ being required, alongside the need to develop an appetite of celebrating sustainability.

As he discussed what was involved in designing a building that has now achieved the status of being net positive in embodied carbon, making it possibly the greenest building in the world, what stood out was the unique nature of this place now it is occupied, in that it’s providing a living breathing research lab.

They see the people in the building as active participants in the building, not merely occupants. They are integrated and ingrained into the success or failure of this property being truly sustainable.

Makes perfect sense and I’m sure we’d all agree this is the way to go, but discussions from earlier in the day highlighted that whilst we all know this is the way forward, in very few instances is this actually happening. This backdrop made Richter’s presentation all the more inspiring as he told of true integration of the vision and the reality at CIRS.

Having achieved the Living Building Challenge status, lowered the carbon footprint and energy costs across the Uni campus and created what has been termed as ‘a living eco laboratory’ it’s no wonder that this project attracts a lot of attention but Richter was keen to stress it is no novelty.  He believes that the learning’s found at CIRS can be and should be transferred widely to more traditional developments.

He clearly was proud of the green construction elements that play a key role in making this building special, such as it being constructed entirely of wood. Glue-laminate beams with dimensional lumber decking are used throughout the build. We heard that while the intent was to use wood as the primary structure material, the design team compared the carbon footprints of steel, concrete or glulam for the building structure. Relative to the embodied carbon in a structural material, wood has a clear advantage over concrete and steel as trees sequester carbon dioxide as they grow. The net carbon footprint for the wood structure, including the harvesting, milling and transportation of the timber, was -0.90 Tonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide (CO2-e) per cubic meter. The project team estimated that the wood used in the building is sequestering the equivalent of 600 tonnes of CO2-e. This is greater than the 525 tonnes of CO2-e generated from the manufacturing and transportation of all other building materials used in the construction, making the construction of CIRS carbon negative.

And obviously the renewable energy sources at work such as the rainwater harvesting, the reclaimed water, living roof and heat exchange systems play a huge part in the building’s success too. We heard how one of the most important goals of the CIRS project was to achieve net-positive energy performance and how by harvesting renewable and waste energy, CIRS is able to supply not only its own energy needs but also a portion of the needs of an adjacent building, by capturing and sharing energy.

All of this and the monitoring and adaptation of these systems are invaluable but what really got Richter exited were the design elements that enable human interaction with the building and the sustainability touch points that provide a greener way of life, as a natural way of being.  Things such as more open staircases across the building so people across different business areas interact more often, free healthy breakfasts offered in a shared canteen, gardening clubs and community initiatives established and run by enthusiasts…all this brings the sustainable values to life.

They call this ‘sustainable building inhabitant interplay’. With a Sustainability Charter, Inhabitant engagement programme and assessments of inhabitants productivity, health?and happiness they really are practicing what they preach.

With CIRS being: “…An open place for researching and teaching sustainability; supporting collaborations between academia, government, industry, professionals, non-governmental organizations and the public; and spreading the seeds of sustainability through its interactions with a wide range of people” this case study provided a fantastic backdrop to the rest of the day’s events.

We were left with an understanding of what is possible and an excitement about what can be achieved. Thanks to Max for taking time out of his manic schedule to share his experience with us.