Making the Most of What We’ve Got: Improving the Existing Built Environment
Adapting our existing buildings and infrastructure is critical if we are to achieve a low-carbon future. But how can professionals working in the built environment show leadership to support this ambition? A recent gathering of construction industry experts in the West Midlands explored new ways to shape places fit for a net zero future.
One of the most significant challenges that the UK faces in decarbonising its economy is adapting the existing built environment. With an ageing housing stock and infrastructure designed for a different age, improving existing homes, buildings, and neighbourhoods will have to form a key element of any strategy.
The people who will deliver this are the current and future generations of project managers, town planners, architects, housing professionals, and surveyors.
A recent event in Birmingham brought together over 100 of these professionals from across the West Midlands. The aim was to explore the challenges we face on the path to net zero and to identify potential solutions.
Panel chair, the renowned social historian and writer Professor Carl Chinn, introduced the event by reflecting on the way that Birmingham itself was developed because previous generations were willing to grasp the opportunities provided by new technologies. It was a useful reminder that the buildings we still see and use every day have often evolved and been repurposed to meet our changing needs as a society.
Vicky Bache, Regional Chair of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the West Midlands, took up Professor Chinn’s theme. She reminded attendees that the work they are doing today provides a legacy that will shape the lives of future generations.
“Developing now is not just for the world as it is today,” she says. “People will be using those buildings and infrastructure in a century’s time. Our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and their children.”
But the relationship between buildings and communities is complicated and fluid.
Susan Bridge, a Fellow Chartered Town Planner and President of the Royal Town Planning Institute recalled the way that recent events shifted the relationship between people and the places where they live and work.
“If nothing else, lockdown and having limited freedom taught those looking to live in coherent neighbourhoods the value of having easy access to shops, social and community facilities, and access to green spaces,” she told the audience.
For Bridge, what matters most is “the bottle of milk and loaf of bread test,” the ability of people to access what they need quickly and easily within their locality. But, delivering that seemingly simple aspiration requires strong leadership and a range of professional skills.
“Yes, we need investment and commitment from political business and community leaders,” she told us. “But most of all we need a strong and well-resourced planning system.”
Jane Findlay, Immediate Past President of the Landscape Institute, broadened the discussion to champion design solutions that incorporate nature and promote biodiversity.
For Findlay, opening up access to high-quality green spaces must be seen as a core part of the wider equalities agenda.
Like Bridge, she recalled the lessons of the recent pandemic, highlighting the critical role that access to nature played in people’s lives.
“During the Covid lockdowns we found solace in nature when we couldn't see friends or family,” she tells the event. “But access to nature is not available to everyone. We need to consider green infrastructure in the same strategic way that we think about energy, transportation, and sanitation. It is a huge and transformational opportunity for our sector.”
If that is to happen, then professionals from across the built environment will need to show leadership.
Sandi Rhys Jones OBE, Senior Vice President at the Chartered Institute of Building, is clear that modern construction professionals are not just the people who will deliver change. They will drive it too.
And, for Rhys Jones, “modern is about more than using MMC or AI.” Instead, she tells the event, “‘modern’ is being alert to what is needed now, what we need to do to move the dial forward.”
It was a view supported by practising architect and RIBA ‘Rising Star’, Josh Foster.
He explained that whilst some clients might be attracted by the latest technological solution, these are not always the most effective ways to improve buildings. Instead of simply adding what he describes as “eco-bling” to projects, Foster stressed the responsibility that professionals have to clearly explain more rounded approaches that take account of the design and construction fundamentals needed for more sustainable buildings. Key to this, Foster believes, is clear communication.
“This is about how we make that information more readily available to clients and the wider public,” he told us. “Modern technology is great but we need to make the wider overarching long-term approach something that's more readily accessible and readily understandable.”
This theme of language, and how it can engage stakeholders and the public alike recurred throughout the discussion.
Randip Singh Bahra, West Midlands Regional Board Member for RICS, shares Foster’s view that real engagement requires, “common language and standardisation.”
And that language cannot just be “the language of professionals,” he tells us. It must be accessible enough to engage the end users who will ultimately live or work in the buildings we are currently constructing.
“At the end of the day, you simply cannot forget about who's using the building,” Bahra explains, reflecting on his experiences working to improve the thermal efficiency of social housing. “People use buildings in a certain way. As people working in construction, we have to cater for that.”
If we get this right, however, the impact can potentially be transformational.
Sandi Rhys Jones described language critical if we are to “bring the wonder back” for professionals working in the built environment. She saw events like this as part of the process of creating dialogue and debate that could support professionals as they work to implement change.
“The marvellous thing about us all being here this evening is that we are all coming from different sectors of the industry,” she said. “And we're talking to each other.”
The hope is that dialogue now informs action that helps create a West Midlands truly fit to meet the future.
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