Watch our webinar with Interface, which explores the roadmap towards a net zero construction sector, and how individuals, practices and institutions can play their part.

The recent COP26 climate talks held in Glasgow produced a raft of important new commitments aimed at limiting global warming – not least decarbonisation and curbs on methane emissions and deforestation. So how will the construction sector, which currently accounts for almost 40 per cent of global CO2 emissions, contribute to the latest environmental targets? An online seminar hosted by Interface considered this important question and how different stake holders within the industry can adopt and drive change.

In association with

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Holbein Gardens, a redeveloped and extended office development in Belgravia, London, is set to become Grosvenor’s first net zero carbon development

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Beyond COP26 panel (clockwise from top left): Julie Hirigoyen, Jon Khoo, Michael Pawlyn, Anna Bond, Sara Edmonds, and Sunand Prasad

Chaired by Architecture Today editor Isabel Allen, the panel comprised Anna Bond, executive director of developments at Grosvenor; Sara Edmonds, founding director of Studio SeARCH and coordinator for the Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN); Jon Khoo, head of sustainability at Interface; Julie Hirigoyen, CEO of the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC); Michael Pawlyn, author and director of Exploration Architecture; and Sunand Prasad, principal of Penoyre & Prasad, and chair of the UKGBC.

Julie Hirigoyen began the event by exploring the UK Green Building Council’s Net Zero Whole Life Carbon Roadmap for the UK Build Environment, which was launched at COP26, and whose goal is to identify a pathway for decarbonising the entire built environment sector. She explored in detail a modelled, built environment emissions trajectory based on the latest industry research. Encouragingly this showed the pace of change accelerating rapidly in the 2030s with almost all homes retrofitted with a fabric-first approach and low-carbon forms of heating by 2040.

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Graph showing net zero emissions trajectory to 2050 from the UK Green Building Council’s Net Zero Whole Life Carbon Roadmap for the UK Build Environment

But Hirigoyen cautioned against complacency, making the point that the industry and policy makers need to act fast to stand a chance of meeting decarbonisation targets. “It’s particularly important to achieve ‘near term’ carbon reductions by 2030,” she said, “as these are essential in terms of limiting the rise in global temperature to 1.5°C.”

In the final part of her presentation, Hirigoyen discussed five critical recommendations for policy and regulation makers, including, the nationwide retrofitting of existing homes, and energy performance disclosures for non-domestic buildings. She also flagged up the UKGBC’s Architects Action Plan, which covers whole life carbon assessment, performance metrics and targets, as well as post-occupancy evaluation, among other key environmental design tools.

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The new buildings forming part of Grosvenor’s South Molton Triangle mixed-use, commercial-led development in London’s West End will produce 37 per cent less carbon than ones built to current UK standards

Anna Bond discussed Grosvenor’s environmental commitments and approach to building sustainable developments. Earlier this year, the company announced its intention to become carbon neutral across all scopes by 2025, and that it would only be designing net- zero developments (upon completion) from now on. Bond said that environmental tools, including annual roadmaps, environmental score cards, material innovation and investment, as well as supply chain engagement and training, will be central to achieving these goals.

Speaking about Grosvenor’s supply chain charter, Bond said “From 2023, we intend only to award contracts of over £1m to suppliers with a scienced-based target. We will also be running a mentoring programme to help SME suppliers set science-based targets for reducing GHG emissions.” Bond also underlined the importance of collaboration in meeting environmental targets. At present, Grosvenor is contributing to several joint industry initiatives, such as SteelZero, and is also part of UKGBC’s circular economy forum.

Grosvenor is targeting BREEAM Outstanding, WELL Gold and Wired Score Gold certifications for its Holbein Gardens project in London

Bond finished her presentation with an overview of Holbein Gardens in London, which is set to become the company’s first net zero development. Powered by renewable electric energy, the scheme takes a holistic approach to embodied and operational carbon, and includes an early whole life carbon assessment, as well as the use of CLT and reclaimed bricks and steel.

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Bamboo Pavilion, China, by DNA Architects (ph: Ziling Wang)

Michael Pawlyn discussed his new book, ‘Flourish: Design Paradigms for Our Planetary Emergency’, which he co-authored with urbanist Sarah Ichioka, and explores the need for an environmental paradigm shift from the sustainable to the regenerative. Central to the publication and the authors’ position are five fundamental changes of mindset (explored across five chapters) needed to bring about positive and long-lasting results.

The first, and perhaps most important of these, is ‘possibilism’ or how we transform our ideas of agency. In Pawlyn’s opinion the construction industry and society in general tends to shun agency and responsibility, resulting in a slow pace of change. Being optimistic or pessimistic about the future is also unhelpful, he said, as both positions imply a sense of inevitability. The possibilist approach, by contrast, is characterised by evidenced-based action and managing uncertainty. “It’s not enough to be an optimist about the potential of future technology in a planetary emergency,” said the architect. “We need plans for the future with numbers that add up.”

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The Cheonggyecheon river in Seoul, South Korea, before and after restoration (phs: Seoul Metropolitan Facilities Management Corporation, Michael Sotnikov)

Pawlyn then touched on chapters two to five, which explore a range of thought-provoking themes, including the need for humans to coexist with the natural world, what it means to be a good ancestor, symbiogenesis and the built environment, and how ‘doughnut economics’ might represent the best model for long term planetary health. “The paradigm shift may look daunting, amounting to a transformation of human consciousness,” concluded the architect. “But the prize that’s on offer is so great that it’s a challenge that we simply have to confront.”

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Graph showing the carbon footprint reduction of Interface’s flooring products

Jon Khoo gave a manufacturer’s perspective on sustainability, which in the case of Interface is to become carbon negative by 2040. He argued that whatever products or services a company sells, it can and must make a difference. “Now is the time for pledges to make way for actions,” he urged. Leading by example, Interface has reduced the carbon footprint of its products by around 75 per cent since 1990, and now supplies only carbon-neutral flooring solutions. This has been achieved through a range of initiatives, including reengineering products, using less and different materials, increasing reliance on renewable energy, and employing verified carbon offsets.

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Carbon-negative Sashiko-Stitch carpet tiles from Interface’s Embodied Beauty collection

Khoo used the company’s innovative, carbon negative (cradle to gate) Embodied Beauty carpet tile collection and CQuest Bio carpet tile backing as exemplars of this multipronged approach. CQuest Bio eschews traditional bitumen in favour of a sustainable bio-composite alternative, reducing the carbon footprint of Interface products by more than 30 per cent. Furthermore, Interface flooring with CQuest Bio backing now comprises 88 per cent recycled and bio-based materials. As Khoo succinctly put it, “Recyclable is a promise. Recycled is a fact. You need both, but using increased recycled content has a more immediate impact.”

Despite these substantial gains, Interface has set itself tough environmental targets for 2030 – namely to reduce CO2 emissions relating to both its site operations (Scope 1 and 2) and supply chain (Scope 3) by 50 per cent. As the company’s late founder Ray Anderson said, “We have a choice to make during our brief visit to this beautiful blue and green planet; to hurt it or to help it.”