UCEM INSPIRE: setting meaningful built environment sustainability targets

Posted on: 15 September, 2023

This article is the second in our series of posts covering our second INSPIRE event this summer. Read the first piece on sustainability leadership here – UCEM INSPIRE: experts define built environment sustainability leadership.

In Summer 2023, in line with the ‘Who We Influence’ strand of its Sustainability Strategy 2023, UCEM held the second of its ‘INSPIRE’ events focused on the need for effective leadership in the quest for a more sustainable built environment.

UCEM’s ‘INSPIRE’ events are themed sessions that enable collaboration between influential stakeholders to consider the various challenges facing the industry, bringing together INfluence for Skills, Productivity, Industry, Research and Education.

The event was supported by the Construction Industry Council (CIC) and the Construction Leadership Council (CLC). It was run in partnership with the Edge, a built environment think-tank.

This in-person event brought together sustainability leaders and experts from leading organisations in the built and natural environment sector, including property owners, developers, designers, consultants, contractors and managers.

UCEM hopes that these types of events will provide these stakeholders with inspiration for the sustainability challenges that lie ahead.

This article reviews the key discussion points from one of the event expert panels, ‘Accepting The Challenge – Setting Targets’, which delved deep into the nuances, difficulties and strategies crucial for steering sustainability within the built environment.

The Panel comprised:

  • Smith Mordak, CEO, UK Green Building Council [Chair]
  • Hero Bennett, Director of Sustainability, Max Fordham
  • Dr Joe Jack Williams, Partner, FCBS Studios
  • Andy Nolan, Development & Sustainability Director, University of Nottingham

The transformative potential of aspirational targets

Smith began the discussion by championing the importance of aspirational targets in the pursuit of sustainability. Such visionary goals, they asserted, while perhaps seen as a stretch by some, have the potential to trigger profound shifts in practice and mindset.

Andy agreed with Smith’s point. For Andy, ambitious sustainability targets are not just about ecological responsibility. Strategically, they play a multifaceted role: attracting talent that resonates with an organisation’s sustainable ethos, aligning diverse internal stakeholders under a unified objective and unequivocally signalling to external partners an organisation’s genuine commitment to sustainability.

Drawing on her experiences, Hero said that ambitious targets are not just about the end goal, but the journey as well. She argued that a well-articulated, ambitious objective serves as a beacon, rallying teams towards a common vision.

The significance of time pressures when setting sustainability targets was raised. Panellists echoed the sentiment that, whilst urgency is an understandable response to the escalating climate crisis, haste can be counterproductive. Sometimes rushed projects meant that only the most conventional or simplest sustainability targets, often those around carbon performance, were considered. This meant other aspects, such as enhancing biodiversity or cultivating sustainable ecosystems, were often left out of sustainability targets, meaning that many projects were not designed with a truly holistic approach to sustainability.

“Targets can be very difficult but actually having something for the sector to run towards is incredibly useful.”

Panel discussion then turned to the difficulties of achieving organisational sustainability targets. Joe used the phrase “failing gracefully” to describe when sustainability targets are not met. His perspective was that missing an ambitious sustainability target did not matter as their strength lies not just in their achievement but in the very ambition they represent, which can catalyse innovation by giving built environment professionals a defined goal.

Panellists agreed that this shift in mindset, to accept failing gracefully, is vital in a realm as demanding and complex as sustainability.

Rising to the challenge of sustainability targets

Although sustainability targets were overall seen as being of great benefit, the panel did acknowledge that pursuing them came with myriad challenges.

Getting built environment professionals or senior higher education leaders to embrace the failing gracefully outlook was sometimes difficult, as both came from highly regulated sectors where being seen to ‘miss’ or ‘fail’ was viewed very negatively.

“The sector is doing well making the major projects more sustainable, but are we actually managing to get the average projects better? That’s really difficult to measure and set targets around.”

Hero shared anecdotes from Max Fordham’s experiences, shedding light on the complexities the firm grappled with during its pivot from taking on fewer new build projects towards more retrofit. Following the latest practices of sustainable design and engineering mandated a degree of standardisation across Max Fordham, alongside more sign-off procedures for certain projects, for example, those which might use a lot of gas in their operation, which inevitably impinged on the creative autonomy of individuals, traditionally a key ethos for the practice.

Joe thought that improving environmental performance meant that professionals and technical experts must push back on the details of briefs from clients or other project partners, which was often a difficult thing to do, especially in this economic environment where no one would want to risk annoying clients or contacts and therefore losing work. However, in his experience, clients were often more than happy to have their ideas modified, especially if different consulting specialists approached the client with a unified voice.

He recalled a previous job designing an office where he and a structural engineer realised that the client’s desire to have as much ‘clear span’ floor space as possible necessitated the installation of a deep steel beam, which contained a large amount of embodied carbon. Some simple changes, such as using a few small supporting columns, allowed the design to use a less deep steel beam, containing a third less embodied carbon. Joe thought that this success story was a testament to the power of fostering a culture of dialogue and collaboration within project teams, a topic that would be returned to through the INSPIRE event.

Universities at the forefront of sustainable transformation

“We welcome debates about how to achieve sustainability targets around our project management group tables.”

As someone who was from the client side of projects, Andy wholeheartedly agreed with Joe. Andy explained how the University of Nottingham’s strategy was to provide collaborators with a focus on sustainability outcomes, rather than stringent directives.

Universities have a role in setting effective sustainability targets, being experts in assessing evidence means they can advise those in the built environment sector and beyond about how to accurately measure metrics such as carbon emissions. Andy explained how the University of Nottingham was supporting the city of Nottingham’s aspiration to be a net-zero carbon city by 2028, the University did not necessarily believe this target was achievable so quickly but still saw the benefit in the city’s aspirations so wanted to be supportive.


Of course, the scale of many university campuses means that the higher education institutions themselves are always cognisant of what they can do to improve their own environmental sustainability. As touched upon above, some of this is about working with built environment professionals to design and maintain buildings to be as efficient as possible.

Yet, Andy noted, if organisations are to meet sustainability targets, they will have to think beyond simply improving the operation of their estate and instead challenge some long-ingrained behaviours. He recounted how the University of Nottingham has, for many years, been conceiving a major research project that included a substantial new build scheme. However, a decision had just been made to instead retrofit and repurpose an existing space. Andy was pleased that universities are now prioritising achieving sustainability targets over the previous organisational imperatives to expand their campuses and construct more buildings as a means to improve their institutional prestige.

UCEM agrees with this approach, with our remote learning model allowing us to keep the size of our campus estate to an absolute minimum.

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

Conclusion: ambition, collaboration, and redefining success

Emphasising both the transformative potential and challenges of aspirational sustainability targets, the discussions underscored the critical balance between ambition and practicality. What resonated throughout was the notion of ‘failing gracefully’ — a reminder that the journey towards sustainability is as crucial as the destination itself. Panellists also reiterated the significance of understanding sustainability holistically, emphasising that a narrow focus can result in missed opportunities.

As we continue to navigate the complexities of a sustainable future, such discourses remind us that collaboration, dialogue and a willingness to redefine conventional metrics of success are our most potent tools.

You can read about another one of the panels from the INSPIRE event here: ‘Defining Sustainability Leadership