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Creating the property estates of the future - where will the net zero journey take public buildings

Craig McGilvray, Managing Director, FM Business

Craig McGilvray, Managing Director, FM Business | Amey

5 min read Partner content

Decarbonising the UK’s public and private property estates will require vast investment in new technology as we transition towards new energy sources. But the real challenge, explains Craig McGilvray, Amey’s Managing Director for it’s FM business, will be to truly engage and support property users to actually make this vital change happen.

Successful decarbonisation of the UK’s building stock is central to meeting the nation’s goal to become a net zero carbon emitter by 2050. According to recent estimates by the National Infrastructure Commission, heat for residential, public sector, and commercial buildings is responsible for around 17% of the UK’s carbon emissions – some 90 MtCO2e in 2019.

To meet this challenge, the property decarbonisation journey has to change. Right now we are simply too focused on the hope that technology will come to the rescue; instead success will require a renewed focus on people, organisational culture and a thorough understanding of user need to tackle the problems from bottom up.

The logical place to start when considering this problem must be to focus on large, publicly owned property estates such as those maintained by Amey on behalf of organisations such as the Ministry of Justice and Local Authorities. Large portfolios of property assets present a scale of opportunity needed to really move the dial in terms of carbon cutting outcomes.

We are certainly not short of technical solutions for building owners and operators to invest in - nor can we ignore them. Technologies such as photo-voltaics, heat pumps, heat exchangers, hydrogen boilers all have the potential to accelerate the nation’s energy transition away from fossil fuels and towards zero carbon alternatives. Meanwhile modern building management systems have the capability to effortlessly manage and maintain buildings with the minimum cost and carbon.

It’s a global problem requiring very local solutions. One size does not fit every building, every occupier using the building in every geographical location. True decarbonisation of public property estates therefore requires a change in operational model, not just on technology investment. It has to be managed through the whole lens of asset capability – and that starts with the people.

When it comes to cutting operations carbon, the simplest solutions - those that align with existing lives and business activities - are often the best solutions. Solutions that are agile, flexible and easy to change.

So while engineers tend to focus on the building fabric first and get stuck into the detail of how to improve their performance, often the solutions are tied up in the bigger picture.

In short, the decarbonisation of our public property estates has to be people centric.

In which case the questions to ask are more likely to be around do we really understand our buildings, how they are designed to work and how do people actually use them? Or whether we really understand the cost benefit relationships between the complex and radical process of say changing or abandoning a fuel compared to simply investing in insulation?

Innovation will of course be important. And clearly new standards and advice notes such as the recently updated PAS 2080 for managing carbon in building and infrastructure are a vital part of the puzzle. In many ways standards such as this hold the key to guiding built environment professionals towards a better understanding of how infrastructure of the future can be designed, built and operated more carbon efficiently.

The best, lowest carbon solution is to understand the estate and make bespoke solutions depending on the structure and usage. Why, for example, in the rush to design and install PVs on the roof as part of the retrofit for an old office building. Did we not first ask why the heating was still being left on at 4am in the morning? Or why the lights were all still on long after everyone had left for home? We need to ask the simple human questions and look at the problem through the eyes of the building user.

Decarbonising property estates in the future will require such thinking beyond the buildings to consider how occupiers will use them and what they will need to make that building work for them. The switch from petrol and diesel cars to EVs, for examples, will require not only investment in technology for on-site charging to meet this need, but also a change in operating model for those estates to ensure that both the user and power demands on the charging systems are managed.

Buildings so often look great but are hard for people to live in. And as our lives change, we need to give people in the buildings the local responsibility to ensure their buildings fit their lives. We need a people first approach to building management, giving control to those who can actually make a difference.

In short, the decarbonisation of our public property estates has to be people centric. While investment in new technology and innovation will be crucial to accelerating our move towards a net zero carbon world, success will be down to the people using our buildings. That means ensuring that those people - and the businesses they drive - are properly informed, empowered and invested in the solutions that we need to embrace change.

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