COP27: Inhabitants’ wellbeing is key to specifying green buildings

Lee Jones is head of manufacturing solutions at NBS and acting head of sustainability at Byggfakta Group

With COP27 taking place later on 6 November, the construction industry is gearing up for the latest advice on climate change. For construction, an industry responsible for nearly 40 per cent of all global CO2 emissions, it will provide a sense of what’s to come, shaping forthcoming legislation.

“If specifiers are to make the best decisions possible, then they need product data to be as detailed and as accurate as possible”

However, it isn’t just decarbonisation efforts that makes COP events important. They also provide guidance on other areas of improvement – such as the economic, ethical and social landscape. A case in point is the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals blueprint – a ‘people first’ framework designed to get industries thinking beyond their usual remit. This includes ‘promoting mental health, fighting infectious diseases and minimising deaths from pollution and hazardous chemicals’, alongside many other topics. Applied to the construction industry, this means creating awe-inspiring spaces that promote health and wellness – ones that work with the environment rather than against it.

When we think of standout architecture, we think of buildings that harness light and space to make us feel great. It’s well known that regular access to daylight can help improve mental health. However, the industry’s reliance on glass has become a problem. The latest research from Loughborough University has warned that the number of heat-related deaths could triple by 2050 in line with rising temperatures. And who could forget the on-street ‘car melting’ caused by reflected light from London’s ‘Walkie Talkie’ skyscraper back in 2013?

Avoiding greenhouses

The UK government’s Climate Change Committee advisory body has also warned against designing buildings that become too hot during summer temperatures. Modern glass buildings are becoming ‘greenhouses’ that overheat the people inside. In turn, buildings become increasingly dependent on energy-intensive air-conditioning measures to keep occupants cool – creating additional but avoidable emissions.

It’s just one example of why accurate specification is now so important – not only to tackle the climate challenge, but also to prioritise the welfare of occupants using said structures. In the case of sunlight and ventilation, this could mean specifying trees and foliage that create natural shaded areas and lower surrounding temperatures. Alternatively, a focus on the design and location of diffused sunlight to provide natural light into deeper parts of buildings is another route to success.

If the climate crisis worsens – and research on our current trajectory suggests that it will – then there will be a growing need for data requirements to prove sustainable building materials and techniques have been used in the earliest stages of design. This makes information management more important than ever. Specifiers need access to detailed information and in a format they can use, not only to make decisions about the carbon impact of a building, but to think more widely: how might the design affect the physical and psychological wellbeing of occupants?

Detailed proof

This is where digitally supplied data – or, more specifically, construction-product data – comes into its own. Increasingly, third-party certifications will be needed to reach sustainability requirements on projects. It means that specifiers will require detailed proof that building products can perform and that they’ve been externally verified. Up-to-the-minute digital data helps specifiers with this selection process, so they can be sure they’re choosing the cleanest, greenest products possible.

The increasingly complex legislative landscape is also driving the need for construction data. Specifiers will need to be sure they are meeting legal requirements; changes to Part L of building regulations, the Future Homes Standard and the Building Safety Act are just a few examples of areas where detailed digital data could help to ensure standards have been met and not overlooked. 

Yet it requires a two-way street. If specifiers are to make the best decisions possible, then they need product data to be as detailed and as accurate as possible, and easily accessible. For building product manufacturers, it means continuously updating product specs and delivering them in a digital format – where information can be assessed quickly and efficiently. If the construction industry is to increase its focus on delivering a healthier built environment where societies and individuals can thrive, then digital specification will need to be at the heart of developments.

It’s no surprise, then, that ‘digital data’ is now being termed ‘the new oil’. Used and formatted in an effective manner, it can help the built environment to not only reach sustainability targets, but also to create healthier and happier communities that serve generations to come. Let’s just hope COP27 attendees realise data’s potential, and deliver the progress we’d all like to see.

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