As we embarked on the second-ever awareness week for net zero earlier this month, discussions surrounding the sustainability and longevity of our buildings reached fever pitch, particularly within the context of the UK’s commitment to a net zero economy by 2050 and a 33% reduction in whole-life cost by 2025.

James Pickard

James Pickard

Now’s the time to really reflect on the importance of what this means to those involved in property, architecture and construction.

I am only too aware of ‘carbon washing’. Nonetheless, I and many others responsible for creating the built environment have been concerned for many years about the environmental impact of what we do. In my opinion, we have one of the most important roles in society: that of future-proofing our world for the generations to come.

Currently, capital construction costs dominate the conversation in any project. Well, what about giving climate change and the future of the planet equal priority?

In all our discussions with clients, we should be responsible for informing them about long-term and whole-life outcomes of design. What was years ago seen as a ‘nice to have’ is now a ‘have to have’.

We all know the concept: we must not emit more carbon into the atmosphere than we are able to remove. But as 2025 gallops towards us, how can we accurately measure the carbon impact of what has been done historically and assess the future impact of our current decisions?

According to the UN Environmental Global Status Report (2017), our sector is responsible for at least 39% of global carbon emissions. Armed with this sobering knowledge, back in 2018 Cartwright Pickard spearheaded a research project by partnering with the Mackintosh School of Architecture and forward-thinking companies from across construction: Vistry Partnerships, Prosperity Capital, Hoare Lea, Stanhope, Elliott Wood, Etex, BLP and Morgan Sindall Construction.

Research states that the cost of operating a building over a 30-year period can be four times the cost of designing and constructing it, and 80% of the operation, maintenance and replacement costs are influenced in the first 20% of the design process.

PW220722_carbon neutral_shutterstock_2016170414_cred Andrii Yalanskyi

Source: Shutterstock / Andrii Yalanskyi

The result of our research project – 7D BIM – aims to address this costly imbalance. Our ground-breaking prototype software allows us to more accurately predict the whole-life cost and whole-life carbon of the buildings we create, by comparing data on the long-term impact of alternative design options.

The software uses historical data from specialist consultants across our sector and the database will continue to grow as more projects are completed and monitored. This process enables us to more accurately predict a building’s performance over its whole life, empowering us and our clients to deliver longer-life, lower-cost in-use buildings.

This is not a sales pitch. I just want to stress that if we don’t start to track, document and act on whole-life cost and carbon today, nothing will have changed tomorrow. The much-vaunted targets set by the government will become vanity predictions that are never actually fulfilled. We do strive to practise what we preach.

Our three studios in London, Leeds and Manchester are located in repurposed buildings – a former steel bashing factory, school and warehouse – and are certified as carbon neutral by the Carbon Footprint Trust.

The future of net zero

BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager, stated in February that it intended to help investors to “navigate, drive and invent” the transition to a net zero world. It also asserted: “The share of countries committed to net zero has grown from less than 10% to 95% of global emissions. Right from the start of this tectonic shift in capital allocation, investors have moved their money into sustainable investments at six times the growth rate of that allocated to traditional investments, with assets globally now totalling $4trn (£3.35trn) across all ESG categories.”

There has also been a striking change across carbon-intensive industries such as energy production, heavy industry and agriculture, which have begun to decarbonise. Any reluctance to start acting today will have drastic effects tomorrow – not just on our livelihoods, but on our very existence.

Yes, we all want to design beautiful buildings, but are we equally as interested in how they are made and their overall impact on our world?

Good architects need to ensure that buildings perform as intended, and that they use all resources – be they materials, energy, carbon or capital – in the best and most responsible way possible. It’s not only essential for the planet; it’s becoming a business imperative.

Money still shouts louder than the environment. The former may well make the world go round, but the latter is the squeaky wheel with a fast-rusting axle that it’s trying to turn.

Are you a Blockbuster in a Netflix world or are you already taking steps to commit to reducing carbon, contributing to a better tomorrow and a truly sustainable economy?

James Pickard is founding director of Cartwright Pickard Architects