As developers respond to the climate emergency, engineers and architects are being pushed to devise solutions to the challenge of carbon reduction. Paul Unger talks with Steve Merridew, low energy design expert at BDP in Manchester.
Business and civic leaders in Greater Manchester have set a carbon budget that reduces the city region to zero carbon by 2038, some 12 years ahead of the national target. How are developers and planners responding to this challenge?
Merridew, building services engineering director at BDP, is finding planners and politicians coming back with questions on projects that are already going through planning asking how are they responding to climate change. “I think the interesting thing within those questions is this isn’t something we’ve done before. We haven’t gone towards net zero carbon. We haven’t addressed the carbon in use questions before.”
Low carbon was higher on the agenda before the last recession when Building Schools for the Future and other large government capital programmes had sustainability boxes to be ticked, Merridew believes. Changes to building regulations in 2006 also positioned green energy factors at the forefront of developers’ minds as new rules were “pushing people towards doing things that they didn’t understand how to do,” says Merridew, “so it brought all those [sustainability] conversations up the chain.”
He continues: “Government spending stopped and the progression of the regulations slowed. Engineering became more of a functional, sometimes cookie-cutter response, to employ tried and tested solutions where developers thought ‘it worked over there on that scheme so it will work here on this one’.”
The urgency around the business world and society at large to address global warming is now challenging that status quo. “I think a re-positioning is happening,” says Merridew. “That situation was stifling innovation because developers knew they didn’t have to innovate. I think what’s great about moving the questions on to now being ‘what am I doing about net zero carbon in operation’, ‘what am I doing about net zero carbon in construction’, it means that people have to come to the table and re-engage with it again; it’s not just the box ticking.”
How are developers and planners, those involved in the delivery of built environment finding a way through this urgent problem?
“Like lots of things where investments are involved, I think what developers have found frustrating is that it’s not clearly defined what it is they have to do. There may be a political declaration that we’re going to go zero carbon in 2038 for Manchester and therefore for buildings that means we need to go net zero carbon by 2028. It’s been quite difficult because there’s lots of different definitions of what that might be and we’re not quite sure how it’s going to get into planning policy yet and they want to know they’re on a level playing field. They are thinking ‘if I’m doing it, are others doing it’ and ‘how does that work?’”
Merridew says it’s been “really useful” that more definition has been emerging in recent months, for instance from the UK Green Building Council which has released its definitions of net zero carbon with associated targets. BDP is also heavily involved in London with LETI – the London Energy Transformation Initiative, a network of more than 1,000 built environment professionals aiming to put London on the path to zero carbon.
The language around climate emergency is also important to help the development community understand the way forward, explains Merridew, who is currently working on The Factory multi-use event space for Manchester International Festival at Allied London’s St John’s, and Manchester College on the former Boddingtons Brewery site.
“One of the things that is quite interesting about working at BDP is that we’re not mono disciplinary engineers, we’re a design-led practice that has architectural and engineering services, so we’ve actually started to have some of those conversations and formulate the responses with our architects. What I think that helps do is frame it in a more of a lay language; a non-engineering language and it becomes more of a process that everybody needs to engage in. So, what we’ve been doing is trying to pull together where all these targets have come from, what it means for you, Mr Developer, in terms of what we need to look at, how it ties into your decision-making process for the new build stages and who you need to build into your team and then, starting to articulate and whilst this process is bespoke for every project, this is what we might need to start looking at.”
The conversations around carbon offsetting have also moved on and funding some tree-planting in a faraway place is no longer the limit of expectations. Large landholders such as Denbighshire County Council, with which BDP works, are exploring rewilding areas where development is not suitable.
“To me, that’s kind of cracking it” Merridew adds. “I think it does need a localism response. When you’re implementing it at development level, I think the offsetting benefits should also be able to be used by the people who are going to live or work in that development.”
And ultimately what about the money? Will the carbon reduction movement see costs spiral ever upwards and profits take a dive? “It depends who you ask. In my mind, and when I speak with our architects, you might look at various reports. Some of the main ones produced by quantity surveyors will say ‘yes there was a cost premium’. But I think it all depends on when you sit down and start that project, what are you trying to achieve? So, if you say actually ‘the heart of my vision is to deliver a low carbon, sustainable development’, then some of things you used to do, having certain fancy materials, you’ll pull back a bit on that and focus on it being a holistic, natural design and the overall net effect will be no extra uplift on cost.”
Merridew adds: “I think there will always be a capital uplift if you try and do what you did before but just apply these new rules to it – more insulation in the wall, more renewables. It’s going to cost you more. If you actually all sit down at the start and develop the concept and solution together, in my mind we should be able to have it so it has no uplifting cost.”
In the future, Merridew sees an industry avoiding carbon-heavy buildings in the same way drivers are moving away from buying fossil fuel cars that they know will be banned soon.
“I think you’re going to want to build all this into your asset now and future proof it really, ready for that agenda.”
BDP, Bruntwood, Manchester City FC, University of Manchester and others are helping shape the climate agenda through the Manchester Climate Change Partnership. On Tuesday 3 March, Place North West and PlaceTech will host a gathering of senior property developers and advisors at BDP’s Manchester studio for a special event to discuss Manchester’s Net Zero Carbon ambitions and the industry’s response.