At Ecobuild 2013, John Gelder of RIBA Enterprises hosted a conversation with Sofie Pelsmakers of UCL and Architecture for Change, and Martin Townsend of BRE.

John Gelder (JG): Welcome to this experimental first-of-its kind panel discussion. We're going to see how this works in practice.

I'd like to thank Sofie Pelsmakers and Martin Townsend for joining us here today to discuss the state of the art in terms of sustainability. We conducted the NBS Sustainability Survey (.pdf, 1.1Mb) download  late last year, which gives us a snapshot of the state of the art, and we want to talk around that a little bit more today. The broad idea is that the industry is in transition in terms of pretty much everything but particularly in terms of sustainability, and we need to find out where we are in that transition right now.

Perhaps the first thing to talk about is carbon, and embodied carbon and operational carbon. Where are we with that?

Martin Townsend (MT): We're in a really interesting space at the moment and the survey has identified that. We are in a change of consciousness. A lot of people now really understand carbon and what it means, and there's been a constant conversation for many years now about how we should improve the carbon performance of our buildings. Not just in terms of the design new construction but, importantly, also around existing buildings. How do we ensure that we're finding the right solutions, and what do those solutions look like? It's been demonstrated by lots of really good seminars at Ecobuild already.

People are becoming more sophisticated so this change of awareness around the carbon debate is getting people to ask more intelligent questions, and government to try and understand how they can incentivise and drive the debate. That's healthy because if I go back three or four years the debate on carbon was 'well, shall I just put some PVs on the roof?' and whether that's a good thing to do or not. We've moved to understanding what really good performance looks like and what payback looks like as well.

Sofie Pelsmakers (SP): Firstly, I would like to say that the NBS Sustainability Survey is a great initiative, particularly because it will allow NBS to track future opinion and progress in the industry.

The survey highlighted that the industry is aware of the many environmental impacts in construction that cannot be measured in carbon. But with regards to carbon, I was surprised that respondents didn't regard carbon as a priority. Interestingly, there seems to be a little bit of a disconnect between, for example, water, waste issues, biodiversity and the fact that they are also interlinked with energy or carbon and carbon reduction measures. I would agree with Martin that there is a transition happening and that it is incredibly exciting to be part of that and also that the NBS survey is trying to capture this.

JG: In terms of operational carbon, is it fair to say that we're further on with that than we are with embodied carbon, and is embodied carbon going to catch up as an issue?

MT: You're right. There is a gap between embodied and operational carbon because people are just starting to realise that we do need to think about our existing stock. We need to think about how we manage it. There's an interesting space here in terms of how we drive that forward. It is about looking at our existing stock and seeing its full potential, and making sure that we've got ways in which we can improve those buildings. A lot of that is about the supply chain so if we look at the age of our stock, what materials are in the industry at the moment, do we have the right skills? It's great to have the debate about carbon and metrics and targets, but we've got to put some energy into this process as well to make sure we get the skills and the technologies to catch up. Because otherwise we are setting ourselves ambitious targets which we can't achieve.

SP: John is spot on that embodied carbon currently isn't considered as important as operational carbon reduction. This is possibly a reflection by present planning policy and government incentives which favour (or makes higher demands on) operational carbon reduction, for example through renewable energy requirements and providing Feed in Tariff (FIT) subsidies. At the same time, building regulations such as Part L change every few years as a step change towards zero carbon, demanding higher fabric energy efficiency standards. My prediction is, that as we are reducing operational carbon, the proportional impact on the environment of embodied carbon (the stuff we make our buildings out of) is going to become more important and it will end up being legislated for as well.

JG: We've been focussing on buildings I suppose, but do we need to think beyond buildings?

MT: There are some interesting conversations I've had over the last 24 hours. We look at it from different levels I suppose. We look at it at component level: Am I selecting the right components to get the best performance? Looking at the building level: Is my building performing in the best possible way? But there's a debate which I don't think we've fully had, or we always have, which is going beyond the building. I was at a conference recently, an NHS conference, and they're starting to have a great fairly sophisticated conversation with their service companies to say: If we're trying to improve our buildings, our health estate, can we put in measures like CHP plant which not only provide good solutions for the health estate but also start to make good interventions for the wider community? That becomes interesting. The scale of intervention becomes important in terms of the payback and the solutions we're trying to find. So you are completely right. When you look at energy, if you look at water, maybe we're thinking at a small scale sometimes and we need to think wider and bigger.

JG: So this would apply to governments, to clients, to consultants, everybody basically?

MT: Yes. It becomes a challenge because obviously, when you start to engage a wider audience, it becomes complicated because you're going to have to engage other people in a business park or in the wider community. But the wider benefits and maybe the payback are worth that, so it's worth taking that extra effort, to see if you can find wider solutions.

SP: It's important to look at the wider picture as well, not just about energy For example, biodiversity. Often when I was teaching, students would draw maps and create a biodiverse 'green link' on their site. But frogs, toads: they don't fly; they don't cross roads unless you provide a continuous green link between different sites. Otherwise they just stay in these isolated pockets that don't connect and limit food-sources and mating opportunities (and genetic diversity). So I believe we need to always need think about the city and the urban environment that we place our buildings in, as well as the people that are using it and other species that we share the city with.

JG: And the planet!

SP: And the planet! But of course wider thinking can become incredibly complex. For example, if you talk about CHP plants and exporting any excess heat, it is an issue when you don't own the roads and you need to dig them up to put pipework in and so it gets quite complex from a legal point of view. And unfortunately we're not quite ready for those things yet. We can learn from Scandinavia where they've figured out some of those issues a little bit better.

JG: Where we are with carbon I guess is different to where we are with other impacts – waste and water and toxicity and biodiversity – so where are we with that transition at the minute?

MT: That's a good point, because there has been a massive emphasis on carbon. If we're not careful we'd lose that wider debate. And Sofie's already said that we've got to see the whole of this process to make sure we're making good decisions. If we look at the south east of England, it is a water scarcity area.

JG: Could've fooled me!

MT: Well exactly, but if you look at the statistics published by Ofwat and others, take the population, divide it by the amount of rainfall, we are at the same level as some very arid places in Spain. So it's about not just the amount of rain we get, it's about the population that uses that water. And we need to do a lot to educate them, so this debate about energy or water or waste is centred around making sure we educate people to make them slightly more elastic in their behaviours, as well as providing the technologies, and making sure that we have the right measures – be it regulation or fiscal measures – to try to incentivise them to do things differently. It's interesting when you look at some of the issues like water. People are more elastic than they might want you to believe.

And when you start to see things like drought, their consumption comes down because it's a very obvious impact, and sometimes after drought they don't always go back to their bad behaviours.

JG: It's a bit like the bicycles. When we had tube and bus strikes in London, people started riding bikes and they've continued to ride them even though we don't have tube strikes any more.

How do we get people to really understand that sustainability is about the way they live?

MT: Exactly, so it's really getting people to think about things. But it's this connection that we're talking about here. How do we get people to really understand that sustainability is about the way they live? It's about the buildings and finding the right solutions, but it's also that wider space. And if we can find and design better communities where people live that's got to be good for everybody surely?

SP: The stuff that we can't measure in carbon is incredibly important. But the reason why we are currently focusing on carbon is that's considered to be one of the main greenhouse gases leading to climate change. And issues such as water and biodiversity are interconnected with this and we will need to consider adaptation. What is very reassuring about some of the snapshot survey, is that it seems that most of the consultants and clients and contractors are very aware of issues like waste, water, biodiversity, health. In people's definition of sustainability, on average these issues were ranked higher than operational carbon . What is very important is that we need to understand that all these issues are interlinked. So for example if you were to retrofit the existing housing stock and you make everything more airtight and you externally insulate, the opportunity for birds and bats to nest is reduced and as a result you directly impact biodiversity while building or refurbishing low energy buildings. Equally if you are trying to use rainwater or grey water harvesting you are likely to increase energy use (and therefore usually increased carbon emissions) because you are going to need energy to run some of those systems, depending on design and specification. So clearly everything is incredibly interrelated and we are only just getting our heads around that, but it's encouraging that we are having this debate.

MT: One of the interesting conversations that we are just starting to explore here is that we need to make sure that what government does in terms of setting targets, and what the industry does in terms of best practice, inspires people. The one fear I have is that, as we get into this debate, we need to make sure that the industry and professionals are inspired to innovate and to think about different and better solutions. We need to ensure that the industry isn't lazy and we need to almost try and create vehicles to say 'look guys, you can do it'. Some of the results in the survey and some of the debates here today are great about sharing that knowledge and showing people that, though you think your building might be a good building, you can go further.

JG: The survey suggested, perhaps because it was predominantly answered by consultants, that consultants are leading all this, and that the clients are not leading all this. Who is leading it, who has been leading it, and who could be leading this shift to a more sustainable environment?

MT: That's a really good question. I suppose if we're honest about sustainability it's everybody's responsibility. It's the whole supply chain, starting from the client. Clients should be aware of what they're trying to do, they should be aware that if they are either retrofitting or building a making a new building, then they should be trying to find the best possible building and they should try and achieve the best standard, in the knowledge that they are seeing a positive payback. So if they are improving their building by refurbishing it, they are seeing a return on that investment. All the way down to the consultants giving good advice to make sure that, as they go through a process of new construction or refurbishment, they're making wise decisions. So everybody's involved. What we forget sometimes is that when we look at the impacts of buildings, some of it's about the fabric, and some of it's about the organizational policy – are organizations in their own right putting the policies in place to make sure that they are educating their staff?

Some of the simplest things are about just educating staff. There are some great examples coming through, that show you can connect the performance of the individual to the building so that as they make decisions about leaving their computers on, or turning lights on or not turning lights on etc. they see what their personal impact is in the space of that building. Making that connection, and connecting people to their impact, is part of the education process.

SP: This is a tricky one isn't it? As an architect and as an environmental designer and researcher, I of course think that we're very well placed to lead the debate and a lot of what we have been doing has been leading. In the survey, depending on who you asked, everybody thought they were leading it – and to some extent this is probably true. I've worked with some really inspirational clients, particularly registered social landlords (RSLs), who definitely wanted to push the agenda on sustainability. What is also encouraging is that as more and more buildings are built, the new and current generations of architects and architecture students are seeing that buildings don't have to be what I call 'hairy' or have to look 'green'. Sustainable architecture can really create rather poetic architectural spaces while also treading lightly on the planet. As that happens more and more, it will show that environmental architecture doesn't have to be constraining our creativity. And – encouragingly – that's also very much what is happening in some architecture schools in the UK. Students are exploring new ways of what environmental architecture looks like. That's incredibly important – and why I do think we can be leaders.

SP: While industry can lead, there's a clear role for government, and particularly for contractors and clients. There is very much a feeling, particularly in a recession, that people who are investing in new buildings want to invest at a level playing field. If there is insufficient regulation from government at a base level, or even dithering about certain standards as happened with FITs, consequential improvements and Zero carbon standard, then industry might not make the investment that is required. Some leadership from government is also equally important.

JG: Do legislated standards, like Part L for example, become THE standard? No-one tries to do any better because there are cost penalties? Is it a bad thing? Are there bad aspects to having legislated standards?

MT: Yes. This is a really topical debate at the moment in terms of some of the work that's going on at CLG asking if you regulate everything? If you decanted everything into regulation, would that be economically good, because you create a level playing field, or do you need – and it comes back this point a few moments ago – do you need to create a space that you still allow people to inspire and to go further? And what does that 'further' look like? How do you do it in a way that allows supply chain efficiency so if I'm a developer and I'm developing a number of buildings in a number of places, I've got that consistency so I can start to explore better performance beyond regulation but in a way that I can do it within a cost envelope. This debate is about how you ensure that you don't create too much bureaucracy, and allow the economic growth that we need at the moment, while still allowing space to inspire people and a space to get real efficiency to design better buildings.

JG: And innovation in design and so on?

MT: Yes. One thing we mustn't forget is that the UK around this debate, around things like carbon, is seen to be doing some ground-breaking stuff. We're exporting some of our knowledge and if we start to contract that knowledge, we've got a risk in terms of some of the export we've had to date. There are a lot of really good examples where our knowledge has been exported as world class. We have to make sure that, by trying to make things easier from a development perspective, we don't lose that advantage.

There's always a danger that people see meeting regulations as a 'good thing', when the building regulations are in fact a minimum standard to meet. 

SP: There's always a danger that people see meeting regulations as a 'good thing', when the building regulations are in fact a minimum standard to meet. There's a danger, particularly with quite complex regulations and requirements to meet certain benchmarks, that we are designing by ticking boxes, and the building almost designs itself at the expense of exploring innovative solutions. However government can still lead in providing incentives or subsidies, by simplifying some of the regulations, and by setting appropriate, sufficiently high benchmarks.

JG: One more question, because we're running out of time: Existing stock. Most of the focus over the past few years has been on new build. We're fairly well through this transition in designing better new build. Where are we in terms of the transition on existing stock?

MT: We've got a lot more to do. That is the real big challenge and the conversation we were touching upon is that the existing stock is more difficult. It's a more exciting area because you're constrained already by the building. But there's much more we can do there. We need to provide metrics and tools to help people understand what good practice is, and what best practice is. We need to make sure that the supply chain is providing the right materials, the right skills to help people, and we really do need to raise our game on that. When we look at our new construction, there are some great examples here – about people really leading the debate on new construction. It's not such a good story when you start to look at existing stock. There are one or two exemplar buildings out there which have really gone a lot further in terms of improving their performance but that is the space where the biggest opportunities lie, and the biggest challenges. We really need to raise our game on that.

SP: Absolutely. Less than 1% of the UK's 26 million existing buildings are demolished and even if all buildings built from today onwards were to be zero carbon, they would constitute less than 1% of the entire building stock by 2050. The majority of the UK's buildings are insufficiently insulated. Yet this can be done relatively easily in many cases, though in some cases there will be planning and conservation issues as well. But operational carbon and energy bills could be reduced fairly easily by 40 to 50% simply by insulating these buildings. But it also means billions of pounds of investment are required and a steep learning curve as to what standards and upgrade details are required. At present, all this effort has gone into new buildings and regulating them and we've put very little effort or thought into existing buildings and what standard they need to meet. The TSB Retrofit for Future projects are intended to contribute to this philosophical and technical debate: what can we learn and how do we move forward for the existing building stock? There's a real opportunity here, particularly for innovation, new skills and also for the construction industry to really up the game.

JG: Will Green Deal help? Or is that too big a question?

SP: I'm going to pass on that one.

MT: Shall I be controversial? We need to a lot more work on the Green Deal. It's a good instrument but it needs to be sharpened. If you start to hear some of the debates here today, look at non-domestic, and are the right measures in place to really drive change? There's more work that can be done. A lot more work, but it comes back to some of the essences of what we were talking about. If we're going to really address our existing stock, it is about education. It is about fiscal incentives. It is about market capacity – do we have the right skills and knowledge? It is also about the naming and shaming, and if we're going to drive this, you need four points on your compass to make this debate come along, so the Green Deal is an element but there needs to be other elements in this process as well, from a fiscal and from a naming-and-shaming perspective, to really drive the change. As we've both said it's the biggest opportunity and that's where we need to put our energies, from a government's perspective or from an industry's perspective.

JG: The very last thing. Are we optimistic or pessimistic? Are we going to get it right in time?

SP: We will because we have to, so I have to be optimistic – that's what gets me out of bed every morning and do what I do. Just very briefly on the Green Deal, although I said I was going to pass on it ...

MT: You can't resist, can you?

SP: No I can't resist. My biggest issue with it is, and it comes back to something I said earlier, that while it could be a potentially powerful tool, active systems such as renewables, have been incentivised and unfortunately we haven't got any equivalent for fabric improvements. This is I believe the biggest missed opportunity of the Green Deal: its lack of incentivisation to use less energy. We need an incentive like Feed In Tariffs for people to really take up the Green Deal, particularly given the high interest rates advertised (don't get me started on that).

JG: Martin – are you optimistic, or pessimistic?

MT: Very optimistic. As you've heard today there is so much going on and it was your very first question. We're on a journey – there's a change of knowledge, a change of consciousness, but it's a great time to be in the industry because there are opportunities to demonstrate what can be achieved. It's a great space to innovate, as long as we don't slow or burden the industry by trying to over-regulate. What we've got to try and do is create that space, create that balance between giving direction, giving confidence, and giving the space to allow creativity – it's what we do so well in the UK.

JG: Thank you Sofie Pelsmakers, thank you Martin Townsend.