Innovation in Scottish construction is key to net zero

28 Sep 2020

To mark a year until the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland's Innovation Centres are hosting a virtual event which will explore the many ways the nation can benefit from tackling climate change.  Andrew Collier hears from Stephen Good of CSIC how innovation in construction is key to net zero

The causes of climate change aren’t always obvious. Yes, cars and aircraft are damaging. Plastics contaminate everywhere. Heavy industries pump emissions, often visibly, into the atmosphere. 

According to the UK Green Building Council, some 45 per cent of total carbon dioxide emissions in this country are directly associated with this sector. It is a chilling and sobering statistic.

However, Scotland is forging its own distinctive response to this problem. One industry body, Construction Scotland Innovation Centre (CSIC), is taking the lead by encouraging new green thinking in the sector and by driving the sustainability agenda through the promotion of new materials and techniques.

The organisation is part of the country’s pioneering network of seven innovation centres. This links together businesses, university experts, the public sector, and the economic development networks in a mission to accelerate transformational change by forging new collaborations.

Creating a greener built environment is one of CSIC’s priorities. It will play a major part in an important online event – Scotland’s Countdown to COP26 – on November 3, when The Herald will be partnering with Scotland’s Innovation Centres in organising a virtual conference.

This important one-day session will explore how Scottish businesses can collaborate together on environmental issues in the run-up to the vitally important COP26 conference at the SEC in Glasgow next year. 

Stephen Good, chief executive of CSIC, sees climate change as both a challenge and an opportunity for the construction sector. “By and large, buildings are not as efficient as they could be”, he says. “They can lose a lot of energy. But they can now be built in a more environmentally friendly way.

“We can look at things like our roads, bridges, schools and hospitals, asking if the materials we are using are as sustainable or as circular in terms of the economy as they could be. If they are not, then it’s our job as an innovation centre to help with that.”

He gives an example. “We can look at producing components in a far more carbon-friendly way. We can also ask if, as we move through the 21st century, will we still want to be creating buildings out of bricks.

“Is that the best way? Are there better components? We need to use as little carbon and energy as possible. That comes down to how we design, procure and deliver.”

Good acknowledges that construction is a sector which can cling closely to tradition, but says it is also open to new thinking. “It’s absolutely capable of change and there are some great examples of the very best in terms of low-carbon, low-energy designs out there.”

“What we need to do is help our clients demand different solutions and then deliver those. So yes, construction is a traditional industry, but that’s because it’s what the customers ask of it. The challenge lies in getting them to look for smarter and more sustainable solutions.”

This message is likely to be heard first by the public sector, which may have a higher degree of awareness of environmental impacts and is more likely to be alert to environmental targets and government commitments.

“That’s a good place to start, but there are also clients in the private sector who have taken up that mission and have put being green and sustainable at the heart of their business model.”

The acceptance that change is needed is now almost universal across the construction industry’s customer base, Good says. “A huge amount of awareness has developed, particularly in the last couple of years.

“We still waste materials and do things inefficiently, but hand in hand with that comes opportunity. The challenge is in what we do about it, but that’s where the innovation centre comes in by bringing focus. 

“We engage with the different parts of the industry along with academic partners and the clients. We know that what has been done so far  has not been good enough and we need to move at a different pace.”

Building in this way can also mean the use of stock components that can be used in a customisable way, therefore driving efficiencies. 

One example of this was the Athletes’ Village for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, which was fabricated away from its eventual location and bolted together onsite.

This model created a near-zero carbon structure with high-energy performance.
Scotland is more able than some other countries to take this off-site approach as it largely uses panel-based timber-frame construction methods. This approach – Good describes timber as a “super-material” – is more suited to factory manufacturing than other building techniques.

“We can match them up with the very best expertise that exists both in Scotland and internationally, so helping them shape their business models. Then we can bring in our world-leading academic expertise, providing funding to businesses to help them access this.

The opportunities for the future, Stephen Good says, are massive.

“We can look at minimising waste, which currently runs at about 10% across the industry, and substituting new and more sustainable materials,” he points out.

“If we do that, we will really make a difference. I really can’t underestimate how crucial that is.”


Experts gather to debate the built environment net-zero challenge

The built environment will be one of six two-hour long programmes within Countdown to COP26 conference on November 3.  Led by Construction Scotland Innovation Centre, the programme will set the scene for industry to be inspired to work collaboratively to find strategic and practical solutions to the net-zero carbon challenge.  

Four major themes will be covered in the built environment programme featuring a diverse range of experts who will share their experiences and discuss new ways of building more sustainably.

They will also explore how to transform our existing built environment to be net-zero carbon, the opportunity to use Scotland’s resources, and the new skills and industry culture necessary to deliver all of this. Topics will include design, procurement, lifecycle, retrofit, maximising our natural capital, decarbonisation of heat, the transition to net-zero, workforce, and academic skills.

The programme will open with visionary discussion led by futurist and cultural strategist Adah Parris who will discuss the mindset required to approach the challenge.

Dr Marie Macklin CBE, founder and executive chair of HALO Urban Regeneration Company will share her vision of creating the first town centre-located, net-zero carbon energy development in Scotland, and Terry A'Hearn, head of SEPA, will outline opportunities for Scotland.  

The audience will hear from Karim El-Jisr on his experience of creating Dubai’s Sustainable City, the first net-zero energy city in Dubai and the Middle East’s first operational sustainable community, now five years in existence. 

He will be joined by Mark Farmer, the UK Government’s champion for modern methods of construction in housebuilding, and other experts, to discuss ways industry should be changing the way we build.

Eighty per cent of the built environment will have been built by 2045 so revisiting Scotland’s existing assets is one of the biggest challenges we have.  

An expert panel will give their views on what needs to be done to address this challenge and includes: UK energy and sustainability expert Peter Rickaby; public procurement specialist Kelly Nugent from Scotland Excel; and Russell Smith, managing director of Parity Projects, net-zero retrofit pioneers. 

Are Scotland’s resources the key to creating a sustainable built environment? Professor Sandy Liddell Halliday and Chris Morgan of John Gilbert Architects will present their views followed by a discussion led by Stephen Boyle, strategic programme manager at Zero Waste Scotland.  

A diversified workforce, alongside new skills and competences, will be required to create a sustainable world. We need to imagine the workforce of the future, what skills, motivations and aspirations do they have?  

Jennifer Phin, managing director of AC Whyte, Emma Marriott, construction skills expert, and Louise Rogers from the Centre for Offsite Construction and Innovative Structures are among the speakers who will discuss skills needs and how these are being addressed in the built environment sector.  

Lucy Black, CSIC director of innovation and engagement, says: “This is only the start of a road of challenges but equally opportunities, and we hope that those involved in all areas of the built environment will be inspired by this event to come on the journey with us.  

“The conversation and momentum will keep going in the following months up to, and well beyond, COP26, with a whole programme of events and initiatives we will be running at CSIC to engage and support the sector in its path to zero carbon.”   

For more information and to get involved in the conversation for the built environment follow CSIC on LinkedIn, Twitter @CScotIC and Facebook, website. 


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