In the latest episode of PropCast – hosted by Montfort’s Andrew Teacher – Elisabeth Montgomerie, building design sustainability lead at global design and engineering firm AtkinsRéalis, and Martina Concordia, senior project manager at Buro Four, talk sustainability, climate risk, leadership and change within the built environment sector.
Both Elisabeth Montgomerie and Martina Concordia are heavily involved with the UK Green Building Council’s Change Accelerator and Future Leaders programmes, which are part of a suite of senior sustainability leadership programmes for businesses that are looking to lead transformational change in their organisations.
Montgomerie (re)joined AtkinsRéalis as its first sustainability lead a year ago, which coincided neatly with the launch of the programme – something she views as a “kismet moment”.
“My job is to change the culture within building design to make everything fundamentally more sustainable,” she says, explaining her role at the 50,000-strong international firm that’s known for its infrastructure projects.
Her Norwegian background has also brought a unique perspective to how the built environment functions in the UK. “The last 11 years I’ve been working in Norway and bringing that experience from, dare I say, a slightly more sustainably advanced country,” she explains.
“What I would encourage the British industry to do is look to other countries, such as in Scandinavia, Germany, and the Netherlands, and see what they’re doing there. Because our clients want solutions that are proven.”
Buro Four is a company of independent project managers that has been involved in a number of high-profile retrofitting projects, including Sycamore House in Stevenage – the conversion of a former 1980s warehouse space to create a hub for biomedical start-ups, scale ups and mature companies to collaborate and grow.
Concordia, a project manager at the firm, has also worked with large landowners such as Cadogan Estates, where she has been pleasantly surprised with the estate’s approach to sustainability.
“They have a very ambitious net zero carbon strategy,” she remarks.
“When you work in a borough like Kensington and Chelsea, you think you could never be able to do what you need for sustainability. But actually, it’s been the opposite.”
While the company is much smaller than AtkinsRéalis, for example, Concordia has still found sustainability leadership to be an essential part of cultural change.
“I’ve always had a voice as part of my company,” she notes. “The first day I started, I said, ‘Can I please do something about sustainability? I’m passionate about it.’”
“I searched for a bit and at the UK Green Building Council, there were young professionals like me that were passionate about sustainability, but wanted to do more, and really make a change,” she continues.
Looking forward, Montgomerie sees the retrofit debate – one that has been covered extensively on PropCast in the past – as one that’s only going to grow in importance.
“One of the big things is the VAT on retrofit that doesn’t exist on new builds,” she says. “That makes retrofitting much more expensive. And it should be the other way around, because we all need to think: ’What can we keep before we start tearing down and building new?’”
Equally, Montgomerie argues, making progress on sustainability requires true innovation – not just in technology but in approach. “Enfield Council has a material exchange program where you can bring excess building materials from one project and then you can use it on another project,” she explains. “It’s in its infancy, but this is what we need to do on a commercial scale.”
Concordia agrees: “At the end of the day, whether you’re doing a retrofit or a new building, your embodied carbon is going to be much lower if you use circular economy.”