Debate: Carbon Critical Design

Atkins | 10 Jun 2008 | Comments

Panel call for urgent action to tackle climate change.

The way we live our lives must change, drastically and urgently, if we are to prevent climate change becoming catastrophic. This has been the message for some time from most of the scientific community, and designers and engineers now have a crucial role to play in moving society from worthy discussion to action.

At present, carbon is not a core consideration when capital projects are evaluated, designed and procured. We need to work out how this can be achieved – and quickly. It was from this starting point that Atkins assembled 70 sustainability experts from its own staff, industry, government and academia. The event was an urgent call to take up the challenge of delivering workable solutions for a carbon critical economy.

Professor Tim O’Riordan, an active member of the Sustainable Development Commission, began the session with the message that, despite the scale of the problem, it was not insurmountable.

However, architects, engineers and planners are only just beginning to define the question, and the journey will be beset with difficult decisions and potentially costly mistakes. There was unanimous agreement that being bold was the only way in which the industry could start moving together in a co-ordinated way.

On the panel

  • Keith Clarke – [former] Chief Executive, Atkins
  • Professor Phil Jones – University of Cardiff
  • Professor Tim O’Riordan – University of East Anglia
  • Dr Andy Southern – Transport Planning, Atkins
  • Simon Hancock – Building Services, Atkins
  • Joey Tabone – The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment

The scale of the challenge

O’Riordan: All is not lost. Climate change is on every single agenda you can think about, but we’re not really doing enough about it. We’re coming to realise that the world can’t take the hammering we’re giving it. The Earth lost all this carbon 350 million years ago and now we’re breathing that carbon back at a rate of something like 10 billion tonnes a year, when the Earth never wanted it in the first place.

Clarke: If we’re to meet the targets set for carbon reduction we need to be designing projects fundamentally differently within months. The rate of change of learning that will be needed is at best challenging and certainly terrifying.

Can industry respond in time?

O’Riordan: It’s easy to say we haven’t enough time and it isn’t worth the effort, but I’m an optimist and I believe in the power of the human spirit. Collectively, we can lift ourselves out of the pickle we’re in, because together we now realise what we must do. What we need is the kind of leadership that Atkins is providing, so it can set the pace of change to government.

Impact on buildings

Hancock: If you don’t start looking at carbon right from the earliest concepts, then adding more insulation, shading or other measures later on is just making up for missed opportunities earlier on in the project.

Jones: My real interest is how we mainstream sustainable design so it happens in every project, not just a few high profile demonstration projects. Some low energy buildings now have a higher embodied energy than operating energy over the lifetime of the building. We need to address this, otherwise we’re using more energy to create them than we’re saving.

Is technology the answer?

Clarke: We cannot afford to wait for a magic bullet. We’ve never had a major technological advance without unintended consequences. When colour television was invented, we could not have dreamt that snooker would become one of the nation’s favourite sports. When we were first told about nuclear power stations, we were told energy would be so cheap it wasn’t worth charging for. Now we can’t build new nuclear power stations without a subsidy. We can’t bank on a widget that will be invented to solve our problems.

Tabone: I hear a lot of discussion about the need to quickly find high-tech solutions – I think we’re running out of time and I think it’s quite clear we need to do more. High-tech solutions have their place, but we also need to focus on some of the lower-tech answers, whether in the built environment or how we design communities, so they are more pedestrian and cycle friendly, for example.

Jones: While technology can only move incrementally, the same is not true of how designers and engineers go about their work. The danger with incremental is that you do what you did last time but add something on, and you end up with a lot of baggage. The answer is often to do what we’re doing now, but differently. When it comes to technology, it may actually be simpler, not more complex.

Changing the design question

Clarke: Nobody knows enough today about how to solve or mitigate the carbon issues in the products that we design. We will not get there in a single step. We will no longer be able to design a building, and then do the energy calculation only to find it uses too much energy. The same is true in how we define our public infrastructure, choose our materials and procure. It will radically change the design question to something that starts at the beginning.

The transport sector

Southern: 15 years after Kyoto, transport is the one sector in the UK that has seen an increase in emissions. We need to place carbon at the heart of what we do in planning and policy development. That will change the design question for our clients by influencing choice and behaviour, and in turn that will change capital programmes. It won’t just be a case of changing the design of capital programmes – it will change the very capital programmes that we will be implementing.

Where does cost fit in?

Sean Lockie, a sustainability expert from Atkins subsidiary Faithful+Gould, gave a case study, which underlined how cost considerations are affecting capital projects today. He described work undertaken to deliver a low carbon schools programme for the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF). A pre-design carbon calculator has been developed to enable schools to be procured with a 60 per cent reduction of operational carbon emissions, based on 2002 levels. The DCSF is providing additional funding of approximately £500,000 per secondary school to fund these carbon reduction measures. If the target had been carbon zero schools, the cost would have been an additional £2.8 million per school.

Clarke: What none of us know is how quickly we’ll go from providing a notional cost for carbon in projects, to cost and carbon being comparable in some projects, to being told, “If you don’t have a carbon credit the project won’t be possible”. The rate of change of that debate is astounding.

And a sobering thought:

Clarke: Our sector is facing the most complex challenge it has ever dealt with. Changing the way we design a built environment is a phenomenal challenge, both technically, organisationally and culturally, but it is vitally important.

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