19 May 2022

Time to consider morality of new construction projects

Café area of a university building while the brief was for a low energy design.

Claiming that “wasteful steel-and-glass buildings fuel global climate injustice”, climate expert and University of Bath Professor of Zero Carbon Design David Coley is calling on the construction industry to consider the environmental impacts of new projects as a moral imperative.

In an essay co-authored with John Cryer MP for the All-Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group, which works in Parliament to advance understanding of policy issues surrounding climate change, he calls for new ways of thinking about construction. Policy Connect is a membership-based, not-for-profit, cross-party think tank.

“Are buildings evil?” states that high-carbon buildings are morally indefensible, and could even be considered racist, given that the impacts are more likely to be felt in the global south.

The report highlights need to reframe as indefensible the widespread usage of materials and design features that do not drastically lower energy usage and carbon emissions
Government must incentivise zero-carbon building, and efforts must be made to educate and shift public opinion toward zero-energy projects.

“Architects, contractors, planners and construction clients must consider building projects from a moral standpoint based on their lifetime carbon impact,” Coley argues.

He says that Government must support developers in reducing emissions by providing incentives and tax relief for zero-energy building, and that we must look at our buildings as harmful emitters. Given that a disproportionate amount of this harm, in the form of rising sea levels and temperatures too high to farm crops, will fall on the non-white population of the global south, he argues that designing and constructing energy-intensive buildings fuels global climate injustice and is therefore morally offensive, and potentially a form of unconscious institutional racism.

Reshaping public opinion

With the UK committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, Professor Coley highlights that while construction accounts for 40% of all carbon emissions in industrialised nations such as the UK, decades of work to decarbonise the industry have proven relatively ineffective. Therefore, he says, efforts need to be repositioned to draw a link between sustainability, desirability and moral values.

“We urgently need to rethink our approach to construction and adopt zero-energy practices,” Coley explains. “The largest proportion of our carbon emissions come from our buildings, not industry or transport, as is often assumed. We know how to build, and have built, some exemplary low-energy buildings, so our failure to adopt them as the norm can be viewed as deliberate.”

The report proposes reviewing the use of common design elements including high levels of glazing and excessive use of steel and concrete; and increasing renewable energy generation from buildings (by using PV solar cells, for example).

Coley also points to research showing that even triple-glazed windows lose 10 times the heat a well-insulated wall of the same area does. He estimates a large building walled entirely with double-glazed windows could ‘leak’ as much energy overnight, when not even in use, as the average daily consumption of 1,500 UK homes.

Reframing unnecessary energy usage as particularly unappealing is key to creating this new way of thinking, Prof Coley says. He explains: “Deep changes in society are often triggered by a popular movement or demand, and public opinion has the power to force developers to prioritise sustainability. We need the public to demand zero-energy buildings, developers to set zero-energy briefs and architects to draw zero-energy buildings – and all because they find anything else unacceptable, even repulsive.”

Incentives for zero-energy buildings?

The authors argue that the Government needs to support developers to reach these goals by offering tax relief on zero-energy buildings and providing financial incentives for new-builds reaching Passivhaus accreditation standards. Passivhaus buildings require very low levels of energy to operate and heat, bringing environmental benefits as well as reducing running costs.