7 sustainability skills every built environment professional needs

Posted on: 22 January, 2024

With environmental, social, and governance (ESG) regulations tightening and penalties set to rise, businesses across the UK are in a race against time to decarbonise their operations by 2050.


As if that wasn’t enough, both consumers and job candidates are increasingly prioritising environmental sustainability in a bid to tackle the climate crisis.

This means that organisations have to go one step further to embrace sustainable practices and prove their green credentials. In particular, built environment firms are in desperate need of a strategic approach to environmental sustainability informed by knowledge and expertise.

Our sector is responsible for around 40% of carbon emissions annually. As a result, businesses must work harder and faster to reduce their environmental impact, in order to ensure the nation meets its 2050 net zero ambitions.

However, the demand for sustainability skills and expertise is far outpacing the supply of talent, in what has been dubbed ‘the green skills gap’.

Learn more: Diagnosing the green skills gap: what skills is the built environment missing?

The impact of the green skills gap

There are serval reasons why this sustainability skills gap is so prominent right now, but the biggest is the recent shift towards sustainability and the new 2050 net zero initiatives set out by the government.

As the climate crisis has escalated so quickly, the need to transition from fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources has taken many businesses off guard. The result is that the majority of today’s built environment workforce is only trained in traditional construction methods and fossil fuel-related roles – not the green and sustainable skills the sector is most in need of.

On top of this, technological advances are far outpacing organisational evolution, making this another key reason for this green skills gap. This is followed closely by a lack of adequate training and a big shift in the job market in the post-COVID-19 era.

7 in-demand sustainability skills in the built environment

The government’s 2050 targets and the built environment’s transition to sustainability can’t be achieved without a properly skilled workforce.

So, those working in or with the built environment must be primed and ready for a net zero future. This will require some serious upskilling, and in many cases, complete reskilling.

Here are the key skills that every built environment professional should begin fine-tuning and businesses should incorporate in training:

1. Sustainability literacy

Sustainability literacy refers to the theoretical knowledge that an employee  needs to understand and articulate sustainable initiatives.

A big part of this is having the language and terminology used to talk clients, stakeholders and the board about environmental issues, a s well as the ability to understand the intricate relationship between humans, the built environment, our natural resources and the field of sustainability.

Learn more: Why sustainability literacy is in such high demand

2. Critical thinking

As well as being able to understand the key principles of sustainability, critical thinking is another vital skill.

This way of thinking makes objective analysis and evaluation possible, helping individuals at all levels to make better decisions related to sustainability initiatives and targets.

3. Leadership

With lots of businesses only at the inception of their sustainability efforts and activities, strong leaders are needed to delegate tasks, encourage innovation and empower others to support green initiatives.

What’s more, with the clock ticking on the climate crisis, leadership skills are required to help make quick, important decisions that keep both the community and environment in mind.

Learn more: Why sustainability can’t exist in silos

4. Forward-thinking

When it comes to the environment, a ‘one and done’ approach is not enough. The world is always evolving and new sustainability challenges are constantly arising, so sustainability professionals need to be forward-thinking. This will help them to identify future opportunities for change and allow them to prepare for long-term success, evolving and adjusting as required.

5. Creative problem-solving

It’s easy to get stuck in traditional ways of doing things, but as the need for change accelerates, professionals in the built environment must be able to solve problems creatively using new sustainable practices.

Not only that, but this way of thinking and doing helps to create a culture where sharing ideas that are less mainstream and comfortable not only becomes accepted but encouraged.

6. Communication

Good communication skills, whether verbal or written, are crucial for sharing ideas, solving problems and implementing changes related to sustainability. They are  vital for increasing awareness around the climate crisis and the potential impact of professionals in the industry, as well as working effectively as a team.

7. Compliance and monitoring

Lastly, from design to construction, no matter someone’s role in the building lifecycle, understanding ESG requirements and legislation can be hugely beneficial.

This ensures an understanding of the technical and legal side of sustainability efforts, helping all employees follow regulations and reducing the risk of financial penalties.

Learn more: A guide to ESG: what is it and why does it matter?

The importance of developing sustainability expertise throughout the organisation

The list of skills above has focused largely on green, transferable soft skills rather than the hard skills required to operate in the built environment. While construction companies and professionals need the physical skills to retrofit structures and implement new technologies, developing sustainability strategies must be a company-wide initiative. This means that everyone in the business, no matter their level or role, can benefit from a deeper understanding of sustainability and social responsibility.

Sustainability can’t be achieved while working silos exist. As a result, developing sustainability expertise throughout the organisation is crucial to ensure a workforce of purpose-driven sustainability professionals who all want to make a positive impact on the planet.

What’s more, creating an educated workforce means that everyone will have a better knowledge of sustainability and corporate social responsibility, and leaders are more equipped to create genuine change.

This means that decisions made at every level can have a positive impact on the company’s environmental performance.

As a consequence, businesses will be able to reach their environmental performance goals more easily, get ahead of the frameworks set out by the government, attract consumers and candidates and, as a result, stay competitive.

Learn more: Making a business case for sustainability: why now is the time to act

Final thoughts

While technical skills are required to transform the workforce and bridge the green skills gap, it’s important to consider soft skills, too. By employing or retraining teams with transferable sustainability skills, organisations in the industry can ensure that everyone on the team has a deeper understanding of sustainability and the wider goals.

After all, sustainability cannot be achieved in a silo. As we move towards a greener future, every professional in the built environment needs to consider what they can offer, starting with the skills outlined above. Similarly, businesses need to consider how they can support development and training in this area.

Sustainability isn’t a passing trend – it’s here to stay and is constantly evolving. If you want employees that inspire and action change in their careers, UCEM’s Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship will give your teams the skills they need, both now and in the future.

Find out more: Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship – University College of Estate Management