Climate Change: Needs and Wants
The term “Sustainability” is now ubiquitous in the construction industry, but perhaps a more useful phrase to the built environment is “Sustainable Development.” The UN defines this as a “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The trouble is, climate science tells us that our very way of life is not sustainable – the carbon emissions associated with our lifestyles, eating habits, and of course, buildings, are changing the climate in ways that will (and already are) compromising the real needs of future generations across the globe.
So, this begs the question: what are our needs, and have we confused them with ‘wants’? Roll on the obvious examples here: do we need to fly abroad for a holiday, can we drive less and walk more, eat less (or no) meat, put on another layer instead of the heating, repair rather than replace?
As well as abstaining from some activities or purchases, are we willing to spend our money on things that benefit the planet? Heat pumps are a good example of this. The cost of installing an air source heat pump in a typical 3-bed house might be around £11,000. In financial terms, it is a poor investment, it will not pay for itself, but it will save a lot of carbon. So, if we have the money, should we do it? Even at the expense of another ‘need’ like a new car?
Decarbonising our country is expensive, are we willing to pay for it through higher taxes? Apparently, the over 50’s are . But perhaps that’s easier for some than others, after all, there are many in the UK for whom their basic (and real) needs are not being met in the present let alone the future . It seems that most would agree that globally speaking, the burden of decarbonisation should fall on the richest nations , not the poorest, especially since the latter will be most hit by the effects of climate change .
All this said, guilt is not a great motivator, but values, when firmly grasped, are. Rather than ruing what we might lose, we could embrace a new way of thinking. Isn’t there something attractive about simplifying our lives, finding contentment in what we have, repairing and reusing, and choosing to spend our money on things that ultimately benefit others?
One area this applies to in the construction industry is in a decision often faced by our clients when looking to develop their building stock: demolish or renew? Everyone loves a shiny new building, designed to perfectly meet the client’s ‘needs’ spatially, functionally, and aesthetically.
However, if we consider the climate impact of this, for instance, the fact that new builds emit huge amounts of embodied carbon at the point of construction, should we think more carefully before swinging in the wrecking ball?
In a recent study, we found that replacing an existing building would result in embodied carbon emissions over 10 times the annual operational emissions of the existing poorly insulated building. This is somewhat a false dichotomy though, we can’t simply retain dilapidated buildings to save embodied carbon, they need to be upgraded. In the same study, we found that a low-energy retrofit of the existing building (including fully recladding) and replacing gas boilers with heat pumps, resulted in a 50% reduction in whole-life carbon emissions compared to a new building, despite the new building being to a higher energy standard.
The value of ‘upcycling’ an existing building also includes improving occupant comfort and wellbeing; simplifying planning; and ‘redeeming’ an ugly building into something beautiful. The downside: the reused building may not meet all of the clients ‘needs’. They are not a blank canvas, and compromises may have to be made in terms of functionality, capacity, or flexibility. It may not even be cheaper.
As always there is a question of balance, a bad building isn’t sustainable, no matter how much carbon it saves. But maybe in these times of emergency, the balance point needs to shift in favour of radical decarbonisation, at the expense of meeting other apparent needs, and to embrace an alternative set of values, contentment, simplicity, redemption, and release ourselves from the desire for comfort, luxury, and perfection.