Thirst for knowledge

2 Feb 2023

It’s great to see so much cross-industry collaboration to accelerate the decarbonisation of our built environment. But I’ve noticed that they very often come up against the same problem: a lack of data about the buildings we are completing today. We find this as we compile Concrete Quarterly: detailed information just isn’t available, especially for projects that might have taken four or five years to come to fruition due to the disruption caused by Covid.

Targets are essential for setting the direction of travel and aligning a fragmented construction industry towards a common goal – but only if they are appropriate. We need to set them at a level that encourages rather than stymies knowledge-sharing, and ensures that neither success nor failure acts as a disincentive to further progress. We don’t want to create the impression that the job is done as soon as the boxes are ticked, or conversely that there’s no point trying if a project can’t tick them all.

In particular, we should be wary of setting benchmarks based on limited data. The projects where information is already available on embodied and whole-life carbon are typically the early adopters. We should admire and learn from their passion, while recognising that we cannot necessarily extrapolate their experiences to produce a realistic picture of where the wider industry is at. The sample may be skewed towards certain building types for which solutions are more readily applicable, for example.

Net-zero is a journey, and we don’t yet have a complete map. Early data is based on assumptions that will continue to be refined or challenged by further analysis, especially as our understanding of the problem and potential solutions is evolving so rapidly. Data from previous projects is also unlikely to reflect the best possible practice today, and certainly not tomorrow. As the UK concrete sector continues to decarbonise and with a steady stream of new technologies becoming available, the solutions we use today to lower the embodied carbon of a structure will not be the best ones in ten, five or even two years’ time.
At a recent hackathon organised by LETI, Circuit and the Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Centre for Mineral- based Construction Materials, there was a fascinating debate about different potential metrics, which threw up some fundamental questions that still need to be resolved. For example, how do we actually quantify the materials in a building: by weight, by volume, by value, or by carbon? Only through concerted industry-wide recording and reporting will we be able to determine the most effective strategy.

This work of evidence-gathering seems to me to be as important as setting the targets themselves – and perhaps even more so at this crucial stage of the journey. One of the most valuable things that teams can do today is share their progress and learning on reducing whole-life carbon, helping to amass the detailed evidence base to support realistic but stretching targets, and ultimately helping the whole of the construction industry to get to where it needs to be.

By Elaine Toogood, Director, Architecture and Sustainable Design, The Concrete Centre