A manifesto for sustainable change in the built environment

Posted on: 6 March, 2023

 Dr Graeme Larsen, Associate Dean of Sustainability, University College of Estate Management

As an industry, we need to come together to create environmentally sound structures and seek out resource-efficient processes. Not only in design and construction, but across the entire journey, from conception and location, all the way through to decommissioning.”

The construction sector is performing a balancing act. It is suspended on a tightrope, high above a cityscape, partially blindfolded, and listening to a multitude of voices shouting conflicting directions.

That’s how it can feel when you’re trying to navigate a path to profitability, sustainability and societal harmony as a built environment professional.

As an industry, we need to come together to create environmentally sound structures and seek out resource-efficient processes. Not only in design and construction, but across the entire journey, from conception and location, all the way through to decommissioning.

A broken path to sustainability

Yet sustainability, within the context of the built environment, is fractured and fragmented. It’s overloaded by competing agendas and contested approaches. Which makes that tightrope almost impossible to navigate for professionals seeking to improve, to change or to lead a team.

For those individuals, it’s not about fire-and-forget projects and just getting the job done. It’s about looking beyond the light-green smokescreen and adopting a socio-technical approach.

The greatest challenge faced by the construction industry isn’t technological. The technological challenges surrounding sustainability are very real, but they are being tackled. What’s missing is the framework. We’re not addressing the fundamental institutional norms, the current modus operandi of firms and professionals.

Too often, we’re trying to get sustainability done using working practices that simply aren’t designed for sustainability, and don’t incorporate it on an elementary level. There’s also fragmentation, pigeonholing and miscommunication between stakeholders, even within firms. Often, it’s difficult to identify who owns and leads the overall sustainability agenda. As a result, we need to move beyond the bolt-on, make-do mentality.

But here’s the kicker. If you think you don’t have the time or the resources in your firm to give sustainability the attention it deserves, then it’s time to think again. That’s because there is a groundswell of firms doing just that. And from a commercial perspective, sustainability can be mobilised as another competitive strength, as well as delivering a long-term positive impact.

The new world will demand truly sustainable construction

The world is changing. Clients are becoming increasingly aware of the sustainability challenges associated with the built environment. It won’t be long before they will choose to work exclusively with the firms leading the charge in this space. Governments are also beginning to wake up to the wider benefits of sustainable communities. How long will it be before firms that seek government contracts need to place themselves at the forefront of sustainability?

You have to act now. Simply ticking the sustainability boxes is not enough. Without careful and considered stewardship, populations are given imperfect environments to live and work within, putting downward pressure on quality of life, opportunity, productivity and health. We should be the custodians of the built environment to prevent this from happening.

Much of the challenge is built on the fact that we don’t have a blank canvas to work with. If we could start afresh, would anyone do things they way we’re doing them now? We’re faced with a range of conflicting standards, procedural policies and even greenwashing. We’re missing a BIM-like accredited framework for creating and managing sustainable objectives across every aspect of the built asset.

Plus, as a nation, we have a lot of catching up to do. Figures from various sources place CO2 emissions from the building and construction industry at around 38 to 40 percent of total global energy-related carbon emissions. In the UK, we’re nearer 45 percent. Our large swathes of old housing stock have a lot to do with this, with remedial work required to meet the minimum energy performance standards. Nevertheless, it doesn’t have to be a pipedream.

The universal truth is that people are now beginning to demand genuinely green policies. We are poised on an adapt-or-die threshold, and this change would be not a moment too soon.

Change agents must nurture much more than the environment

But sustainability is not only about trees emitting less carbon. We need to focus upon sustaining the workforce and the companies operating within our industry, so the forward-thinking businesses stay competitive and enjoy longevity.

That’s why, at UCEM, we’ve created our MSc for Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments. It’s designed to help built environment professionals understand the current discourse and effect measurable change through challenge, knowledge and leadership.

Learn more: Small businesses have a crucial role in the battle against climate change

Other courses and institutions may focus solely on project management, environmental technical details or policy. We take the holistic approach, embracing all three while paying attention to the human side of the industry, as well as the economics. This course will allow you to build your capabilities as an agent of change, understand how sustainability can drive business success, and shape the discourse on the future opportunity.

We don’t expect to give you all the answers, but we will provide you with a framework of knowledge, and the tools to employ the scientific method. We’ll talk you down from that tightrope.

In a world of noise, our multi-disciplined approach will help you stay at the forefront of innovation. If you’re ready to advance your expertise and strengthen your credentials in this evolving, vibrant, fast-changing field, then it’s time to take a closer look at our MSc for Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments.


Find out more about UCEM’s MSc for Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments