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Stop digging the holes

 2 May 2023

In our latest Thought Leadership article on World Green Building Council’s (WorldGBC) global #CircularityAccelerator programme, VinZero (an ARKANCE company) share their knowledge and reflections on the circular built environment.

According to the 2022 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction published by the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GlobalABC),  the buildings and construction sector remains off track to achieve decarbonisation by 2050. 

GlobalABC, run by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), estimates that in 2021, buildings accounted for 37% of our global greenhouse gas emissions. This includes manufacturing of materials used to construct new buildings, and emissions released due to operating existing buildings.  According to GlobalABC the built environment is also responsible for over 34% of our global energy demand.

New construction is expected to add an estimated 180 billion square metres of building floor area worldwide by 2050, according to the Global buildings sector Net Zero Scenario, therefore the time to act is now.

Matthew Black, Programme Coordinator of World Green Building Council’s Advancing Net Zero programme, shares some startling insight:

“When we consider the number of buildings under construction at any one time, a city the size of Paris is constructed every week.”

Ben Evans, Federal Legislative Director for USGBC, says the most sustainable thing to do is to:

‘‘Stop digging the holes.” 


A strategic approach to sustainable development

The retrofitting of existing buildings is a strategic approach to sustainable development despite the various challenges. Ben added: ‘‘It is a huge task that needs to be divided into existing and new buildings.”

Ben explains that the change in the construction of buildings is increasingly driven by climate change; the demand for better indoor air quality; resilience to storm damage; and equity to make sure that buildings are holistically designed to be accessible and available to everyone in the community, putting the UN Sustainable Development Goals into practice. 

There is a growing emphasis on the health benefits of green buildings with respect to air quality and lighting and the general ‘nature positive’ aesthetic, with proven benefits in mental health and wellbeing for occupants. At the Green Cities conference in Sydney in March 2022, John Mandyck, Chief Sustainability Officer of United Technologies Corporation (UTC) in the United States, said: ‘‘Green buildings improve the cognitive function and productivity of occupants,’’ citing research sponsored by UTC and conducted by researchers from Harvard University, the State University of New York (SUNY), Upstate Medical University, and Syracuse University.

WorldGBC’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment, made up of  172 leaders from private and public sectors, set two goals for the Built Environment:

  • By 2030, all new buildings, infrastructure and renovations will have at least 40% less embodied carbon with significant upfront carbon reduction, and all new buildings will be net zero operational carbon.
  • By 2050, all new buildings, infrastructure and renovations will have net zero carbon and all buildings, including existing buildings, must be net zero operational carbon.


The barriers to retrofitting and net zero

Nigel Tonks, Director at Arup said:

‘‘One of the barriers to scaling net zero buildings is the absence of an agreed standard for what is a net zero building, leaving the property sector vulnerable to greenwash.” 

To scale decarbonisation of buildings quickly, data is essential. In 2021, Arup committed to gathering detailed data about their global building design project portfolio and began analysing it using whole life cycle assessments. This technique quantifies the emissions generated over the entire building lifespan, from ‘cradle’ to ‘grave’.

Paul Laycock, CEO, VinZero said: 

‘‘Data is the new currency for net zero and represents one of the biggest opportunities for achieving a sustainable Built Environment. Data insights enable better choices and greater efficiencies, and bring systems, processes, workflows and people together to collaborate for a better-built result.”


The most sustainable building is ironically, the one not built 

WorldGBC’s global Circularity Accelerator programme was recently launched to focus on ensuring the built environment can be repurposed, recycled, and reused to the greatest extent possible. Repurposing of old assets or Adaptive Reuse of buildings to revitalise and repurpose the old, historic and the obsolete is an emerging trend. Another term used recently in the sector is the idea of refreshing or ‘re-life-ing’ buildings, giving them a new lease of life, fit for purpose to meet the social, environmental, and economic needs of community and business in the 21st Century. 

As a case in point, the 237-year-old Belfast Bank building was renovated and reopened in November 2022, making headline news in Ireland. It was given a new lease of life after a devastating three-day fire which gutted the building. The new building on the inside of the façade is essentially, a new build within the coat and skin of the old building. The rebuild required the restoration and splicing of two buildings, the original late Victorian Banks Building, laterally a department store, and behind it, Commonwealth House. From a design perspective, natural daylight is a feature. In its former life, the tower’s interior was covered over, and the tall windows and vaulted ceiling were near invisible. Now the clock, windows and a lot of natural light are the defining characteristics of the restored building.

Instead of condemning the building and tearing it down, Primark made an investment of £100 million in the rebuild leading to the creation of 300 jobs. The building is again the centre of commerce and the hustle and bustle in Belfast city centre. JCA Architects Ireland, winner of Irish Construction Excellence Awards 2022, explained that rebuilding the stonework involved hundreds of people, including 40 expert stonemasons from all over the UK and Ireland.

Primark Director of Store Design, Stephen Roberts said:

”We’ve tried to keep it simple and industrial with wood and steel being used for the fixturing and points out the efforts made to reinforce the sustainability message that is part of both the design and build.”


Collaborating towards net zero

Collaborative conversations about overcoming the sustainability challenges in the built environment are happening daily. Cooperative Research Australia (CRA) for example have several dedicated collectives, and Cooperative Research Centres, focusing on different aspects of efficiency for the built environment. CRA provides funding to facilitate conversations and research to explore sustainable alternatives and approaches to building materials and construction.

Correct asset management optimises and prolongs the life of building materials such as concrete. CRC Concrete is exploring the use of sensing devices to monitor the degradation rates and assess the life of concrete. Through collaborative research, they develop new and innovative ways to prolong the life of the material. Clare Tubolets, CEO of SmartCrete CRC points to Quay Quarter Tower as one of her favourite examples of how research and engineering was applied using a whole sustainability mindset.


The Quay Quarter Tower, Sydney

In Australia, the Quay-Quarter-Tower, featured in Sustainable Building Awards is a world class example of circularity and ‘re-life-ing’ a building. QQT is designed to have a positive, or at least a neutral impact on the environment. Financially the project resulted in a huge economic benefit because it transformed existing assets and saved at least nine months of work in the process, making it a great sustainability story according to Architects 3XN Partner Fred Holt. Kim Herforth, Founder of 3XN said it was a smart financial decision because had they knocked down the old building and started fresh, they would not have been able to build that high due to local planning regulations. 

The QQT previously known as the AMP Centre was refreshed and now forms the centre of the wider Quay Quarter precinct. In 2015 AMP Capital had a vision to repurpose the existing building by extending its design life by 50 years with minimal intervention. It was a collaboration between Architects 3XN (Danish), BVN (Australian), Structural Engineers BG&E and ADG, MEP/Façade Engineers, Arup, and Multiplex Construction to create a unique design and construction process to deliver the vision. 

Architects 3XN feature Quay-Quarter Tower as a template for sustainable use and says the building is “hailing in a new era for its genre in Australia and beyond”. The company is celebrating its achievement calling it “the world’s first adaptive reuse skyscraper”. QQT holds the title because rather than demolish and rebuild the 40-year-old bones, the skyscraper was upcycled, retaining over 60% of its existing structure. Now it stands proudly with its new façade and building services and doubled floor. The QQT is essentially a new state of the art structure, a vertical village with a world-class integrated technology ecosystem and design intelligence that promotes human interactions and smart technologies. It is considered a zone of diversity, creativity and connectivity that totally changes how people work while connecting community to place.

The project blends old and new and reuse of materials resulting in a huge saving of 7,500 tonnes of embodied carbon using the existing structure. The Fifth Estate reported BG&E buildings lead NSW, Vince Betro explaining how the existing structural condition was tested, assessed, and validated by the latest rejuvenation and sustainability techniques, improving solutions that could extend the buildings life by another 50 or 60 years.


Growing trends towards urbanism

With the increasing commitments to climate action, the adaptive reuse market will thrive. A growing trend towards urbanism, restricted by land availability, will further accelerate the industry shift towards ‘re-life-ing’. Under the Paris commitments, it will become a ‘necessity’, rather than a ‘case study’. Urban neighbourhood demographics and dense populations are prime locations for repurposing historic buildings which have a unique character and appeal that naturally create inviting and engaging spaces that connect people to the place. 


A holistic approach to success

Sustainable development enables cross-value chain collaborations. It is about balancing the needs of society and business within the boundaries of our planet by collaborating and sharing, drawing on our collective strengths toward achieving a vision of living in harmony, beauty and thriving together. And some of this is achievable without digging any more holes.