The industry’s response to the climate crisis has entered a difficult phase, with economic headwinds and political distractions threatening bold strategy and budgetary commitments to sustainability.


But as industry heavyweights gathered for Property Week’s Climate Crisis Summit, held at The Black & White Building in London’s Shoreditch on 31 January, there were positive signs regarding recent government activity on key environmental policies.

At the same time, the technology available to help the industry improve sustainability keeps growing, and high-profile developments across the country continue to lead the way in exploring how the property sector can tackle the climate crisis.

Timber: barking up the right tree?

One way for the industry to become more sustainable is to look at examples of progress, and the summit’s delegates didn’t need to go far to find inspiration. The event’s venue, The Black & White Building, is central London’s tallest mass timber office building, underlining the potential of using sustainable materials in large-scale developments.


Louise Hutchins

Opening the event, Andrew Waugh, founding director of the building’s architect, Waugh Thistleton Architects, said the practice was “really wedded” to an ethos centred on reducing carbon in construction. The firm has been working in timber since 2003 and has completed 28 projects in the UK and France using the material.

Energy efficiency has become another value driver

Helen Newman, CBRE

“We’ve gained a passion, or what some might call an obsession, with designing, researching and building timber buildings,” said Waugh. “This is primarily because timber is a wonder material, and it’s a carbon store. When we make cross-laminated timber (CLT) from trees, about a metre squared of CLT stores a tonne of carbon dioxide, so it’s an incredibly efficient means of storing carbon within the body of the building.”

The clear advantages of using timber are that it produces less waste, reduces traffic to the site by as much as 80% and creates far less noise during construction, which also becomes an “incredibly fast” process, according to Waugh. The architect’s largest completed project, Dalston Works – a 193,750 sq ft, 120-flat build-to-rent scheme over 10 storeys in Hackney, east London – took just five months to build.

The 54,000 sq ft Black & White Building, meanwhile, is made almost entirely from timber, “from the ground-floor slab upwards,”


Paul Clemments-Hunt

Waugh said. The outside of the building is covered in thermally modified Tulipwood timber, which is also highly sustainable.

“It comes from the US; the trees have a very small root ball and, sadly, have been blowing down all over America as climate change has seen winds grow in speed and frequency,” Waugh said. “So, they have got big storage houses full of this timber and they needed to find a use for it.


Helen Newman

“We need to replace concrete and steel, and this is a viable alternative where a market, manufacturers and subcontractors all exist.”

The energy required to run buildings has shrunk over the years as insulation and heating efficiency has improved, placing greater emphasis on embedded carbon.

“Building construction now represents around 12% of global carbon emissions, which includes materials, transport, construction and end of life,” he said. “This figure is going up, and there isn’t any legislation that governs it in the UK, so this is our industry’s responsibility.”

The big economic question

The summit next addressed what Helen Newman, head of sustainable finance at CBRE, called “the million-dollar question – what is the economic value in sustainability?”

Newman was positive about the impact of the UK’s economic struggles on the industry’s sustainability plans and budgets. “If you’d asked me six months ago, I might have said the economic headwinds could see priorities like ESG waning, but we actually haven’t seen that,” she noted.

“Maybe firms’ margins are not what they’d like, and some occupiers are struggling with higher energy costs. But, anecdotally, we’re seeing occupiers coming to the table to have a conversation about energy efficiency. It has become another value driver, so sustainability is not going away.”

For Michael Burt, Unite Students’ investment and sustainability director, the economic downturn was just another bump in the road. “Clearly the funding environment has changed,” he said. “There was a particular moment post-mini Budget last September when everything became difficult in our business; but things have changed somewhat, and the markets are far more favourable than they were three months ago.

“It’s important to remember that not long ago, we were in a pandemic. We set our sustainability strategy with our 2030 net zero goal in October 2022. Profits were about 30% to 40% down from peak, so it wasn’t an easy environment to make that decision, and for different reasons it’s a tricky environment now. But it doesn’t change our ambition at all. What it is making us do is think harder about what levers we pull to get there.”

Paul Clements-Hunt, director of Mishcon de Reya’s sustainability business, Mishcon Purpose, acknowledged that economic headwinds “create a massive dilemma for any business”.

He added: “You are caught between two rocks; you simply have to have decarbonisation, the zeitgeist has changed, public policy has changed, but at the same time, the reality of the economic context is there. There has never been such an opportunity to invest in green, clean power, simply because of the price points for fossil fuels, but this is combined with the reality that everyone is cash-squeezed [and] there is no certainty.

“The role of specialists in a company has to come to the fore to shape how a company is agile, engages with the challenge and opportunities, and creates a pathway to move beyond net zero.”


Katie Whipp, Grosvenor’s Andy Creamer, Helical’s Matthew Bonning-Snook, Miller, Hutchins and Lem Bingley 

Zoe Lamb, industry director at Barclays, reported that interest in sustainability loans and the transfer of existing debt to green loans was “still very much front and centre with clients”, as was continuing the conversation and educating the industry on sustainability.

Lamb said that while the government had launched a consultation on energy performance certificates in 2021, the industry was still waiting to see the outcome, and she would “love a bit of clarity” from government. She added: “We want them to reduce uncertainty on the direction of travel and help improve data gaps across the industry,”

This sentiment was echoed by Clements-Hunt, who said there was “huge scope” for clearer government policy: “I hear people say they invest in sustainability because it’s the right thing to do, but why isn’t the market working?

“We’ve just listened to all these benefits and we’ve had the data on this forever; sustainability is a no-brainer. The fact [is] we still have to make the case for it as a benefit. Why isn’t everybody doing it? Why is it not possible for policy makers to hardwire it more effectively into the market?”

Signs of progress

The next topic for debate was the flurry of recent government activity on sustainability, ranging from a five-year environmental roadmap published in January, to the creation of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero in the same month.

Louise Hutchins, head of policy and public affairs at UKGBC, said it was “interesting and encouraging to see this flurry of attention” from Whitehall. She added: “We’ve all been a little disappointed with the level of interest from government in this area in recent years, but it seems they’re trying to fast-track talk about what energy saving looks like in the built environment, in the commercial sector as well as domestic.

The government has been good at setting targets but weak on delivery 

Louise Hutchins, UKGBC

“Strong targets and ambitions are starting to be set out, but the backdrop is that the government has been very good at setting targets and very weak on delivery. So, we’re looking forward to building collaboration between industry and the government to really make things happen on a different scale.”

Rob Miller, King’s Cross sustainability manager for Argent, added that collaboration between occupiers and landlords was key to the industry’s progress on sustainability.


“We can do a lot of research, plan a pathway [to net zero], but engagement and collaboration is super fundamental. You can’t do it just as a landlord, it has to be a collaborative process, but taking someone on that journey is a mixed bag. Some tenants want to be on it, some want you to leave them alone.”

Miller said that at Argent’s King’s Cross development, sustainability was “an important part of the estate ethos – it is a key pull factor if you want to come to the estate. A lot of our tenants have strong shared aspirations and want to have those conversations about how we get to that end goal and how we do it together – what does the investment process look like?

“We’re starting to use our net zero playbook as an engagement tool with our tenants, then use the data to see how successful an intervention has been.” Miller called this a “continual process” for most landlords, demanding full-time work from a large team.

Collaboration needed

Katie Whipp, head of Deepki UK & Ireland, echoed the need for landlord and tenant collaboration, and added that it was essential for the industry to use the latest technology.


Rob Miller

“It can’t just be a landlord-led journey – that’s only part of the picture. We’ve seen that in our journey with clients; the commitment to collaborate from occupiers has really stepped up over the past 18 months. Some of that is to do with the energy crisis, but equally, for occupiers, having visibility of data and understanding how the building is performing and how they can be part of the journey is important.”

She concluded: “It’s also coherent in their strategies; it’s a huge part of their talent acquisition, it supports their longer-term goals and their market positioning. So, there’s a really beautiful cycle, and the ability to equip the occupier community with that real-time information is so important for education. It’s not for us or the investor to hold on to that data.”

The industry and those watching it will be hoping for long-term engagement, collaboration and steady commitment from landlords, occupiers, investors and central government. Whatever the headwinds, all parts of the real estate industry will need to work together to make the progress needed to hit net zero targets.