Constructing a low-carbon future together

A supply-side perspective for the delivery of high-performing, low-energy non-domestic buildings

As part of a series of missions introduced to deliver its Industrial Strategy, the Government announced its commitment to halve the energy use of all new buildings by 2030. This commitment is a first step in the right direction, if the UK is to meet its Climate Change targets.

To progress beyond this though, we clearly need a robust policy framework to fill the prevailing vacuum. Such a framework would set clear direction and establish large-scale demand for low-energy/low-carbon buildings.

More to it than demand

Thinking of energy and climate change policy, demand can be encouraged from the top-down, through policies, such as tightening of Building Regulations and minimum efficiency standards; and from the bottom-up by engaging, financing and educating organisations and users on the benefits of innovative, low-carbon solutions.

But is this ‘demand’ perspective the only one we need to consider for maximising opportunities for radical improvements in operational energy efficiency and for intensifying innovation in our building projects? What about the supply side of ‘building’? Are our construction supply chains appropriately structured, adequately skilled and suitably organised to deliver high-performing and operationally optimised sustainable buildings at such large scale? And if not, how can policy alleviate the barriers to achievement of the target within given timescales?

Looking through the supply-side lens

Traditional industry supply chain set ups, particularly in the non-domestic sector, comprise a diverse range of actors – such as clients, users, investors, designers, contractors, sub-contractors, suppliers and manufacturers – that may work in silos under a fragmented industry structure. This inhibits learning and encourages conflict. It also hinders innovation as it limits collaboration, coordination and knowledge exchange between relevant actors. Since the 1990s construction industry reform sought to alleviate those problems through partnering and other forms of collaborative, integrative procurement. But while a lot of progress has been made in this direction, to a large extent the industry is still organised towards one-off projects and price-based competitive tendering.

construction

Ongoing construction of a passive house. Image by SuSanA Secretariat shared under CC BY 2.0 license.

In contrast to this context, delivery of low-carbon, high-performing and sustainable buildings involves an on-going, cyclical process, whereby synergies and interdependencies between project stages are considered at early stage and fed through from design, to construction and operation. Furthermore, the systemic nature of the solutions required calls not only for high levels of collaboration, but also for user-involvement and the existence of champions that would support sustainable innovation and see it through into each project. So when we try to answer the big question of what policies we need to introduce, there is a lot to say about the supply-side, which is often overlooked.

My doctoral research project at CIED focuses on this supply-side perspective and on how the industry can adapt and reform in view of the low-carbon transition. My research interests stem from the desire to understand how fragmented construction supply chains – such as those I have experienced first-hand in my previous career as a built environment sustainability practitioner – can be integrated into cohesive organisations and networks of organisations that deliver holistically optimised buildings at a large scale; buildings that are safe, durable, sustainable, zero-carbon, comfortable, flexible, inspiring and also meet the client’s bottom line. I am particularly interested in the concept of integration and the ways in which it can be implemented in projects and supply chains. My project studies recently completed low-carbon, sustainable higher-education buildings and investigates the role of integrative approaches to procurement, project structure and process organisation on low-carbon innovation and performance.

Sustainable outcomes through learning

An obvious method for uncovering how best to integrate for sustainable outcomes would be to look at already completed building projects and learn from the clients, users and professionals in each context. This is my adopted approach, but it is not devoid of its challenges. Projects are multi-party, temporary organisations that usually dismantle after handover. This makes them hard to access. In addition to this, the type of ‘soft’, qualitative information required on procurement and project organisation is not typically recorded during a project’s process. This makes project histories hard to put together. Due to these constraints, my empirical work stretched significantly. Despite those challenges, a sufficient number of case studies are participating.  The higher education sector is diverse, challenging and also very open to innovation and experimentation. It offers therefore the right universe for analysis.

construction

Solar panels at the University of Sussex, switched on in October 2017.

The research indicates that sustainable building projects should be evaluated not only on their final outcomes but also on levels of collaboration during the project process, levels of knowledge sharing between different projects and performance in use, after the end of the project. This is because, in sustainable, low-carbon construction, the industry needs to learn from the buildings it gets right and from the buildings it gets wrong, and therefore strong feedback loops are required downstream with users, upstream with manufacturing and project-wide within the disciplines of the project team. This also requires, to a certain degree, establishment of long-term relationships between industry parties and the ability to share risks and benefits within and beyond projects.  Integration in supply chains and projects can take many forms and contributes to achieving those non-tangible outcomes, despite sometimes not having a measurable impact on the final direct outcomes of projects, such as building performance and traditional project success metrics, such as cost, time and defects.

By examining different ways that integration contributes to tangible and intangible outcomes in projects, the research aims to uncover what sustainable projects need and how policy can intervene to allow conditions for those to get established within the industry.

 

Further reading:

 

Kesidou, S.L., Sorrell, S., Low-carbon innovation in non-domestic buildings: The importance of supply chain integration, Energy Research and Social Science (2018) (Currently in press).

Sorrell, S. Making the link: climate policy and the reform of the UK construction industry, Energy Policy 31 (2003) 865—878.

Martiskainen, P. Kivimaa, Creating innovative zero carbon homes in the United Kingdom — intermediaries and champions in building projects, Environ. Innov. Soc. Trans. 26 (2018) 15—31.

 

Sofia Kesidou is a Doctoral Researcher at the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand at SPRU.