The value of assessing whole-life carbon at the planning stage

Stacey Cassidy and Sarah Hale are both partners at UK law firm TLT 

The construction industry has faced some challenging times recently, including rising material costs, supply-chain blockers and labour shortages. But, by using techniques such as modular construction, integrating sustainable materials and applying circular economy principles, it is once again reinventing itself as it embraces the growing trend for sustainable development.

The question the industry will now be asking is what impact the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC’s) recent report will have on the future of property development – and whether it presents an opportunity to continue to blaze a trail or just more hurdles to overcome.

Embracing modular

The report recommends making it mandatory for public and private construction projects to assess at the planning stage whole-life carbon and material use, suggesting this requirement starts by 2025. In doing so, it looks to enable minimum standards for the construction industry. This will have an impact on both the materials used – with consideration given to their carbon impact at the end of the building’s lifecycle – and the method of construction.

An argument could be made that modular construction is an integral part of the solution. As a modern method of construction (MMC) that supports net-zero goals, it is more cost-effective and efficient, and involves less vehicle movement and therefore has a lower carbon impact. It can also incorporate materials that increase a building’s overall energy efficiency, such as insulation measures, and it produces less waste.

“Using a modular construction system could reduce CO2 emissions from home buildings by 45 per cent”

The June 2020 Savills report, Modern Methods of Construction, predicted that 20 per cent of UK homes would be built using MMC over the next 10 years, and the market is already moving in that direction. We are already seeing modular construction being used, particularly in relation to affordable housing developments, with the likes of Stonewater and Town & Country Housing leading the way.

However, it would seem that the use of modular construction could go much further. Not only could the CCC recommendation raise Savills’ prediction, but a recent report by academics from the University of Cambridge and Edinburgh Napier University indicates that using a modular construction system could reduce CO2 emissions from home buildings by 45 per cent. This is well ahead of industry targets and demonstrates the role that modular can have in reducing the carbon footprint associated with the government’s target to build 300,000 homes a year.

Did someone say timber?

Growing demand for green building materials is also relevant to the report’s recommendations about waste prevention and setting ambitious recycling targets across the UK.

On reading that wood is one of the hottest things in sustainable building, the first reaction might be that this must be fake news. However, a new way of using wood – mass timber – has created a new building material that could sustainably reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cut the waste, pollution and costs associated with construction. The fact that mass timber has gained traction as a construction material is reflected in the CCC recommendation for the UK to publish a timber policy roadmap that sets out the policies needed to substantially increase the use of wood in construction.

There is also a link back to MMC. Mass timber is already being used to develop affordable homes, because the process of manufacturing and construction is fast, with less waste and lower energy. And, with both the materials and construction method filling many of the CCC recommendations, this could be a key area of increased development in the coming months.

Greening power

The report, through MMC and the use of sustainable materials, presents an opportunity for the construction industry to continue to lead the way in being green. However, if the manufacturing and production processes are not powered by low-carbon energy sources, then the low-carbon impact will be reduced.

This is where the CCC recommendation to create a clear incentive to switch to low-carbon energy sources where the manufacturing facilities are not currently covered by the UK ETS can support the decarbonisation of the construction industry. It will also benefit the company itself from a sustainability point of view and the wider supply chain.

However, decarbonising the manufacturing sector will require additional support, and the CCC recommendations to look at reforming the suite of energy and carbon policies – including changing the climate change levy rates for electricity and gas – will be welcomed.

Exciting opportunity

The CCC report provides an opportunity for the construction industry to be a leader in sustainability and it has already made significant strides, which should place it in a favourable position vis-à-vis any future regulation. With a focus on MMC, natural building materials and recycling, it is not so much a case of out with the old and in with the new, but an exciting opportunity for the industry to embed sustainability within construction contracts, green the supply chain and help to develop the buildings of the future.

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