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WorldGBC’s call to action: Transitioning to an integrated whole life approach to sustainability in the built environment

In the final edition of our blog series, we take a deep dive into the key findings of our flagship Beyond Buildings report, launched by our global network in 2021. In this edition, we explore a key call to action at the heart of the report.

Authors: Catriona Brady, Director of Strategy and Development & Sara Kawamura, Project Officer, Better Places for People, WorldGBC 

Over the last three decades, the sustainability movement within the built environment sector has been on a journey. 

The industry has never been more advanced than it is today. This was demonstrated through the flagship Cities, Regions and Built Environment day at COP26, and the inclusion of built environment parameters within the Glasgow pact – covering both buildings and infrastructure. The Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are at the heart of the Paris Agreement and crucial to the achievement of its long-term goals, embodying efforts by each country that support an integrated approach to sustainability.

Traditionally, the green building movement focused on operational energy use, efficiency and primarily environmental concerns. However, the scope and breadth of this sustainability ambition has dramatically expanded. It now encompasses the diversity of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, to be considered across all stages of the building and construction lifecycle, plus the communities and infrastructure that serve our buildings, and the built assets themselves. 

Specifically, this inter-reliance between buildings and accompanying sub-sectors, notably infrastructure (capturing energy generation, communications, utilities,  transport and many other areas), is also being increasingly recognised. In 2021, this was championed by WorldGBC in our flagship Beyond Buildings report.

As buildings and infrastructure comprise parts of the same system, rely on the same materials supply chain, and operate interdependently, it is clear that these multifaceted sectors must embark on the decarbonisation and sustainability journey in tandem. Sustainable buildings need sustainable infrastructure, and vice-versa. 

Case study example: Why an integrated approach to sustainability is essential for accurate whole life emission forecasts

In a real life project case study provided by Foster + Partners, the dramatic difference between accounting for infrastructure considerations (or not) is presented in comparative Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) assessments. Additional to embodied emissions and those generated within the building during its operation, this case study highlights that design decisions around user behaviour – that a building or infrastructure development can influence throughout its lifetime – can vastly influence the whole life sustainability performance of a building project. Notably for this project are transport choices, e.g. removing a basement car park and optimising access via sustainable transport.  

The example above (generated from anonymised data from real assets), demonstrates that when the transport in-use related emissions are not accounted for, building B emits 43% less carbon over its life cycle than building A. However, when the transport in-use related emissions are considered, building A, a transport-oriented development, has a lower carbon impact over its lifecycle. When considering sustainable design practises at building level, building B would seem the obvious and superior example of best practice on climate action. What this case study reminds us is that sustainability in design is only part of the story; how a building or infrastructure asset influences the behaviour of the people who use it is of equal, or perhaps even greater, importance for measuring long-term environmental impact.*

Best practice within the industry is increasingly supporting the use of a whole life and systems integrated LCA approach to make the best possible decisions on whole life cycle sustainability within the construction and infrastructure industry, guided by data on long-term performance, and model against future climate scenarios. The use of LCA tools to set targets and track performance is now defined, regulated, and promoted by different policies, standards and voluntary schemes, at an international level.

This case study reminds us that the power of LCA must be utilised to assess the opportunities for sustainability that can be actively enhanced by both building and infrastructure design or utilisation. 

Call to action: The integrated approach is key to sustainable development

As called for in Beyond Buildings, the WorldGBC global network has reflected that a key part of the theory of change towards rapid climate action across the built environment is the integrated approach to buildings and infrastructure on their shared sustainability journey. 

We must consider the interplay between our buildings and the infrastructure that exists within and between them. We must champion close collaboration and equal ambition for all sectors of the built asset market, from buildings to infrastructure, transport to sewerage and across communications. 

Through embedding this holistic approach to sustainability and exploring opportunities to support the necessary market transition, our network looks set to inspire both public and investor advocacy. At its heart is deep and widespread collaboration. 

*With thanks to Foster + Partners for providing case study data