Fresh eyes

The race to net zero in property and placemaking – 10 things we learnt from a carbon reduction summit

A tall building with plants on balconies
Andrew Taylor Senior PR & Comms Manager

Published by Andrew Taylor,
PR & Communications Director at Freshfield

Recently, I attended a conference in Manchester which was all about how organisations in the property sector can reach net zero. (Happy to report I travelled to the conference using public transport).

The event, organised by Place North West, brought together people from across the UK development and regeneration sector.

It featured experts whose job it is to help their organisations be more sustainable and lead the charge to carbon net zero. Here’s what I learnt.

Glazing on new buildings needs to be reduced significantly

The first speaker was the excellent Rob Hopkins, sustainability director at architecture practice AHR and a visiting professor at Royal Academy of Engineering, who was incredulous that fully glazed tall buildings are still being consented. According to Hopkins, reducing glazing is the single biggest thing we can do on new buildings to improve sustainability performance. He advocates the 60:40 principle with glazing accounting for a maximum 40% of the building’s fabric. The second and third biggest differences we can make on new buildings are around ventilation and airtightness, said Hopkins.

We need a mindset shift on biodiversity

Of course, net zero isn’t just about reducing carbon emissions, it’s also about protecting habitats and creating new ones that can increase plant and animal biodiversity. Speaker Euan Hall, chief executive of The Land Trust, said not enough developers are thinking about protecting and enhancing habitats in the right way and with green spaces all too often an afterthought. According to Hall, “master planning should start with green spaces”. Sabine Dunstan, of One Heritage Group, said more needed to be done by developers to create habitats in private gardens which will be excluded from biodiversity calculations under proposed legislation.

Property needs to stop relying on carbon offsetting to balance the books

When the conversation turned to carbon offsetting, Rob Hopkins was asked for his views on whether it should still be considered a viable way of helping to reduce emissions. “It depends how well you to sleep at night,” he replied. “Do you want to carry on doing what you’ve always done and push the carbon problem on to someone else, or do you want to get your hands dirty and do carbon reduction properly.” For me this answer perfectly encapsulates the issue with offsetting, especially as many offsetting projects, such as tree planting, take many years to start having an impact. Phil Marsden of Muse agreed when he said: “Offsetting should be way down the line of your actions to get to net zero”.

Investors can be our saviour

It may come as a surprise to learn that investors are now the ones pushing responsible design and development because of their growing ESG priorities. Investor requirements are already influencing the type of schemes being brought forward but will play an even bigger role in the future. Robert Hopkins believes that in the years to come people won’t be able to get a mortgage for properties that aren’t sustainable. He also believes young people won’t want to live in developments with poor sustainability credentials. Joanne Holden of Peel said sustainability is one of the first things occupiers are now asking about.

The role of retrofit cannot be understated

Not surprisingly, many of the questions from the audience focused on why we weren’t doing more to retrofit existing buildings to give us the places and spaces we need, rather than focusing on new development. “Retrofit is vastly underrated,” said Bev Taylor of Bruntwood Works. And the reason it’s going to be so important is because of the amount of embodied carbon in new buildings which is a major challenge to achieving net zero. This will hopefully make net zero refurbishment projects more attractive.

Low carbon innovation and upskilling will be vital

One of the biggest challenges on the road to net zero remains giving people at all levels the right knowledge and skillset. From the innovators that come up with new technologies, to the on-site teams that install the technology, there needs to be a huge focus on training and development for everyone in the construction industry.

Getting your carbon data right now is crucial

For those now embarking on their journey to Net Zero, the experts also delivered some practical advice. The clear message here was that every business needs carbon reduction objectives that are measurable and data that’s dependable. According to Matthew Pygott of Hydrock, companies need to concentrate on getting their baseline data right now “if you don’t want to be getting to 2030 and realise your data is wrong or has gaps.”

Strong communication has a huge role to play

It struck me during the conference just how important strong communication is in helping businesses to reach Net Zero, not just in communicating the action being taken, but in helping leaders and CEOs come up with a credible strategy in the first place and holding them to account. I heard it said recently that the role of comms in ESG is to challenge the claims made by CEO and owners. In the social media age, there’s absolutely no hiding place from being called out if you can’t evidence your sustainable business credentials, something all panellists agreed on. The perils of getting your sustainability claims wrong is something my colleague Adam Ogden has covered in an earlier post.

There’s no easy answers…

While we may think we may have the solutions – electric cars, solar panels, better building materials and so on – the reality is we need to be careful. Often the best of intentions can create unforeseen consequences and often make matters worse. Brendon Kenny of Changing Streams CIC illustrated this point when he used the example of an idea to replace plastic tile spacers with a bamboo alternative, which may lead to unsustainable bamboo farming. Also, we need to think about the embodied carbon used in all the solar panels we’re creating, and what we will we do in future with all those electric car batteries that reach the end of their life – the ones we mined the planet’s Lithium reserves for.

…But we can do it if we challenge each other

One of the key messages from the summit was that sustainability doesn’t have to be expensive. It just requires a culture shift, a commitment to doing the right thing, and a clear plan. Whether it’s architects challenging clients to do better, investors and occupiers demanding more, developers choosing a different approach, or PR professionals like me pushing our clients to start their low-carbon journey, we all have a role to play. Despite the challengers, there is hope. And there’s small things we can all do in our lives right now that will make a big difference.

Perhaps it was event panellist Eve Holt, director of Greater Sport, who summed it up best when she said: “I just want to be a good ancestor. I ask myself “what can I do to be a good ancestor?’”

Freshfield has a dedicated property and placemaking team with over 20 years’ experience advising developers, local authorities, professional advisers and investors. If you have a PR and communications challenge, our specialist team our team would love to help.

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