Community Resilience: From Sandy to Sustainability

A version of this article first appeared on the Sustainability Talk & News website, published 18 December, 2012.

Another PlaceAt every level, Hurricane Sandy represents a wake-up call for the sleeping giant of community resilience that is the built-environment sector. It is time for Construction to engage both with the (inter)national debate on climate-change risk and global-warming impacts, plus local discussions about resource mobilisation, security provision and preparedness.

In order for Construction to be cast a lead rôle in climate-change adaptation, it must be able to see both the Big Picture and the Local View: The Big Picture provides the backdrop to the global stage on which nation states perform, populated by protagonists in politics and pressure groups; the Local View is characterised by community scenes, where dialogue is more about resilience and resource.

At the macro level, the business community is becoming increasingly concerned about climate risk and the urgent need to be proactive. Ahead of the UN COP18 talks in Doha, over 200 of the largest investment fund managers and institutions – with more than £13tn in assets and including the likes of Scottish Widows, Aviva and HSBC – issued an open letter to the UK government and other administrations, advocating an escalation in action on climate change. Take heed: These signatories petitioning are establishment and mainstream money men and women, not greens, or alternative-energy geeks.

With The City worried and vocal, the onus is on leading market sectors such as Construction to listen and respond, not least because much of the investment involved carries core-business implications for the built environment: Infrastructure, property and climate defences are the physical building blocks of the (re)insurance industry assets and liabilities, portfolio and policies. In short, Construction is in the climate business, whether it likes it or not.

Zooming in to focus on the Local View, the Strategic National Framework on Community Resilience for the UK outlines how public, private and third sector organisations, plus individuals, might work together with responders and service providers in the event of an emergency, such as Sandy. Part of the Big Society commitment, the programme seeks to promote confidence and preparedness at community level, creating a degree of embedded self-sufficiency, security and, ultimately, sustainability. The framework provides direct assistance in the form of Emergency Plans and Toolkits, plus a library of illustrative case studies tackling scenarios ranging from flu pandemics to snow clearing. Of paramount importance is the pooling of knowledge and resources to enable swift effective response.

Here again, there can be seen a clear opportunity for Construction to engage and, arguably, an obligation to do so. The industry boasts a unique and highly valuable bank of relevant knowledge and resource ideally suited to localised emergency response: Plant and equipment, from caterpillar-track off-roaders to high-vis safetywear; raw or manufactured materials, from walling and piping, to boards and sand; plus human resource with appropriate skills and trades. Whilst perhaps no flashing blue light is expected atop every white van, the sector fit is perfect for the part of the fourth emergency service.

Maybe the moment has finally come, therefore, for the industry to get up on its hind legs and demand the attention it craves by engaging actively in the debates around climate change in general and resilience planning in particular. Historically, Construction has been proud to quote the statistics for its significant contribution to GDP (even when markets are tough), but often bemoans the perceived lack of recognition and appreciation for its efforts. Today, with influence to be won, if the sector has a mind to move the agenda forward, it certainly has the muscle.

Now is the time for Construction to play its true part in the communities it serves: Stand up; speak up. An audience awaits…

Author: Jim McClelland

Greening the footprint of Big Data

A version of this article first appeared in a Special Report on ‘Low-Carbon Business’, published in The Times, 3 September, 2012.

What do New York, Oregon, Colorado and North Carolina have in common with Norway, Finland, Iceland and New Zealand? The answer is that all are home to ‘green’ data centres. The physical carbon footprint of virtual lives lived online and in the cloud is real and growing. In response, albeit belatedly, energy use and emissions reduction have now become the focus of significant commercial investment and intense public scrutiny.

The list of brands involved reads like a roll-call of major corporates, including: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, FedEx, Google, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft and Yahoo. Performance is mixed, to say the least: For ‘Renewables & Advocacy’ in the report ‘How Clean is Your Cloud’, Greenpeace recently scored Google an ‘A’, Apple a ‘D’ (subsequently raised to a ‘C’) and Amazon an ‘F’.

Neither technology nor design are insurmountable obstacles to deeper-green solutions, as completed facilities prove: First Verne Global, then Green Mountain, have developed zero-carbon new-build data centres, in Iceland and Norway respectively, taking advantage of cheap renewable energy, plus low ambient temperatures for ‘free’ cooling.

However, ‘Let not the perfect be the enemy of the good’ as they say – ‘better’ is still better than nothing. Just as population growth relies on retrofit of current housing stock to meet demand, so growth in the digital universe also calls for investment in existing operational facilities, services and software for better measurement and management of data to optimise performance. Upgrading old centres, as well as old ways, is vital to scaling and speeding progress.

The future for sustainable low-carbon business is plain to see: Data can only get bigger; so, energy must get smarter.

To view the Special report in full online, please click here.

Author: Jim McClelland

Are we ready to shop for a low-carbon future?

A version of this article first appeared in a Special Report on ‘Low-Carbon Business’, published in The Times, 3 September, 2012.

When political leadership on sustainability matters appears absent, uncertain, inconsistent, or insufficient, who sets the low-carbon agenda? Is it climate-conscious consumers, or planet-smart business, or both? Are we entering a new branded age of push-pull dynamic, where supply and demand drive the market, together?

Servicing brand requirements, thought-leaders in marketing and advertising sectors already see this combined low-carbon driver-mix starting to trend. BBH London is an agency that has recently committed to developing a new sustainability-related client offering, headed up by Strategic Director Kirsty Saddler, who outlines the reasons and timing for the launch:

“Rapid increase of available information and so transparency this century, in large part thanks to digital, has lead people to question the role of business much more heavily and the impact of their decisions as consumers. It has also prompted businesses to be more accountable. Simultaneously there is increasing understanding and awareness of limits to world resources.

“Now is a time when both people and business have a motivation, opportunity and need to create change. Government can create the conditions for that change through regulation, but positive lasting change will happen when people and business play a willing part too.”

In the wider global marketplace, there is already strong evidence of demand for lower-carbon goods and services, putting pressure on company performance. Recent research for the Carbon Trust has shown carbon-reduction and associated transparency concerns scored significantly higher amongst consumers in emerging economies such as China and Brazil, than the US and UK. The message to companies with (export) aspirations in these areas is clear: Low-carbon is the number one business model for future growth.

The temptation is to assume that engagement patterns are pretty much the same everywhere, for consumers and companies alike and that, effectively, all is relative. However, this is not the case.

In Australia, whilst the waters of public perception have very much been muddied by party politics, interestingly, the business community does not share the same view – as Co-Founder and Partner at Sydney-based sustainability strategists and communicators Republic of Everyone, Ben Peacock observes:

“Much of the conversation has been defined by introduction of the carbon tax. What started as a quality attempt at leadership has become a political hot potato, with the opposition blaming its introduction for raising prices on everything from beer to school lunches. This has led to confusion and suspicion from consumers. In short, carbon has become politicised.

“But it’s not all bad news. While the conversation that has become messy for politicians and consumers, it is much clearer in the business community. We’re seeing quality leadership from banking and the built environment in particular, measuring, reducing, managing and offsetting their impact as part of sustainability and CSR programmes.”

In the UK, whilst purchasing has come under pressure and suppliers under scrutiny from an increasingly aware and active consumer community, as well as from commercial buyers, the two customer groups have different demands, as Group Marketing Director at leading hard-landscaping supplier Marshalls, Chris Harrop, explains:

“Whereas our trade customers might more typically be concerned with managing risk – as associated with such high-profile supply-chain issues as child labour – the consumer really is looking for benefit: This benefit comes with knowing and feeling that through their decision-making they have done ‘good’ as a purchaser.

“Consumers have become far more discerning, exercising their right to choose the ‘best’ deal, balancing cost and benefit. They are looking at ethical, environmental, sustainability credentials much more closely than ever before. We have seen more and more using our online Carbon Calculator to estimate footprints of products and projects, with this proving a trend across the board, all geo-demographic groups. Put simply, carbon is not an elitist issue – everyone has a footprint, everyone has spending power; given the right information, everyone can make a choice.”

This ‘feelgood’ benefit, as consumer-pull-through force for reducing emissions, does not easily find correlation in cost and efficiency models on the business-push side of the counter. A successful, established market movement offers a useful analogy to help understand how the two might one day become one: Fairtrade.

With Fairtrade, reputational risk provides the company flip-side of the coin to consumer-wellbeing benefit. Historically, however, Fairtrade has worn a human face – seen as directly connected to livelihoods of people – whereas the story of carbon has been wrapped up in impersonal complexities of climate-change science and macroeconomics. The picture, though, is changing.

The more the world comes to appreciate the human cost of climate change, the more carbon becomes a people and a personal issue; the more high-carbon lifestyles and consumerism appear ‘unfair’ to others. Is it possible to conceive of low-carbon business as the Fairtrade of the future? If so, the sustainable revolution may well be brought about by putting a face, not a price, on carbon.

To view the Special report in full online, please click here.

Author: Jim McClelland

Refugees in 3D: Darfur to Detroit

A Lexicon of Discrimination

Sad to say, we are familiar with documentary features and stories on the news that speak of the plight of refugees. Stored in digital broadcast archives of Western media sources and scorched into the mind’s eye of the viewing and reading public will be a scar-tissue library of disturbing images of human flight, suffering and ultimately death.

This travelogue of horrors, comprises postcards from hellspots across the globe: From the famine-wracked Ethiopia of the 1980s and drought-riven Somalia of today; through war-ravaged Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Sudan, Darfur in particular; then on into scenes of political oppression and social unrest in Zimbabwe, Burma, the Yemen and most recently Syria.

The victims of economic, environmental and social discrimination are legion, with literally millions of migrants on the run from unsustainable situations and circumstances.

Moreover, the demographers of doom are forecasting still worse fates to follow. Already, according to research and reports commissioned by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there are around 25M ‘climate refugees’, with figures for future scenarios suggesting there could be as many as 150M or more by 2050. Rising sea levels threaten to redraw the coastlines of low-lying nations such as Thailand, India and Bangladesh, plus erase the Maldives from the map entirely. The sheer scale of the problem and rapid pace of impact change is more than just daunting, it is frightening to the point of empathetic paralysis. What on Earth can we do?

3D Vision: The People View

Never mind what we can do, first let us ask how we should feel. Connected. Restoring a sense of perspective and personal resonance is paramount to being able to face our fears. In short, we need a coherent vision of the world and our place in it.

To keep calm and connected calls for the ability to consider refugees in 3D, to see people, not just problems. Sustainability demands that we think and talk in 3D and the language of unsustainable ‘Discrimination’ is seemingly littered with ‘D’-words. Our 3D lexicon of Discrimination comprises: Economic ‘D’-words, such as Disadvantage, Deprivation and Decline; Environmental ‘D’-words, the like of Degradation, Destruction, Disaster, Depletion, Desertification and Drought; plus many examples of Social ‘D’-words including Disconnect(ion), Disenfranchisement, Dislocation, Disengagement and Displacement. Some words, such as ‘Depression’ contextually cross-contaminate. Others, like ‘Distress’ spread themselves in full-blown viral 3D.

To connect the words is to connect the ideas. To connect the ideas is to connect the people. Connection is Community.

Communities and Connection

Connections between the youth draining out of some rural communities in County Cork, Ireland, with those who have lost livelihoods through the shocking shrinkage of the Aral Sea are more than just intellectual: Real people and real problems are common to both parts of the world, as they are to all.

Now, let us be clear: Nobody is saying that migration as a result of the closure of a major manufacturing plant is the equivalent of fleeing militias with machine guns and machetes. Of course, the experiences of inhabitants of post-industrial Detroit and bloody, brutal Darfur are not the same. Viewed in 3D, however, those two places do represent different points on the same scale. A common element connects Detroit and Darfur: People.

It is conceivable that the jobless steelworker stuck in a bedsit feels alienated and alone to the same degree as the orphan in a Red Cross camp. Each desperately needs compassion and a sense of connectedness: Each is lost, each a refugee.

Refugees in 3D populate the globe: We all know some; some of us know nothing else. Time to put our 3D glasses on.

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Further reading and viewing:

Detroit: Haunting photos of crumbling neighbourhoods highlight the terrible decline of America’s once-great Motor City (Daily Mail article) – a more extensive library of remarkable images of urban decay is available to view direct on the website of photographers Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre

Darfur: Background to the relief work being undertaken in Sudan by the independent charitable aid organisation Save The Children, plus latest bulletin updates

IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, assessments, facts and figures

Climate Refugees: Documentary film about the “human face of Climate Change”

Author: Jim McClelland

A True Measure of Performance?

Article on Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) for UK-GBC supplement ‘Building for the Future’, published in The Times, 22 September, 2009

In much the same way as GCSEs are intended both to drive academic performance across the Education sector as a whole and inspire effort and achievement in individuals, so should EPCs (and DECs) raise standards in Property and Construction and deliver better buildings and dwellings. Certification in theory is the answer, but the question is, will it work in practice?

No vision for a low-carbon economy can carry any credibility without strategies in place for delivering on aspirations for CO2 reduction and energy efficiency in the built environment. The process of turning such aspirations into achievements calls for targets to be first set, then met. So, how do we measure success?
One simple solution is to award grades in recognition of levels of achievement and performance, operating a comparative assessment and rating system.
Introduced as part of the European Performance of Buildings Directive, an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) is now required when any building (over 50sq m) is sold, rented out or constructed, and in some cases following refurbishment. EPCs rate properties on a descending sliding scale from A to G and come complete with a Recommendation Report. Only qualified and accredited energy assessors or certified home inspectors can produce EPCs, which also form an essential part of the Home Information Pack (HIP) for domestic properties marketed for sale. In addition, certain public buildings must have a Display Energy Certificate (DEC) on show.
“Of course, Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) should help improve compliance with buildings regulations”, acknowledges Dr Martin Gibson, Director of Government-approved provider of energy-assessor software, BuildDesk. “The theory is that people will start to make use of the EPCs in their buying decisions and though there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of this yet, it is still early days.
“I remember the early days of energy labels on white goods and it took a few years before people started to shy away from lower grades. However, the market for white goods has now been transformed and it is hard to buy anything worse than an appliance rated A or B. Who, after all, wants to admit to buying second best?”
Establishing the value of excellence in energy performance of commercial buildings and demonstrating benefits to owners and occupiers is vital to stimulating demand for certification and driving up standards. The accompanying Recommendation Report is arguably the most important part of an EPC, laying the foundations for ongoing improvement. It is however all too often ignored once the lowest-cost base rating is safely in the bag. If the scheme is to operate effectively going forward, buy-in on the part of clients is key, as Terry Dix, Director at Arup, explains:
“EPCs are only an effective measure for new buildings and even then only if clients set ambitious targets by doing more than getting a simple pass – in other words, more than just complying with minimum legal standards.”
Certification costs both time and money and clients need to be confident the effort is worth it. Seeking to sweat physical assets harder, corporate property owners and developers will be looking to EPCs to satisfy the demands of two audiences: one upstream, made up of investors and perhaps pension funds; the other, downstream, comprising letting agents and tenants. Badly performing buildings are hard to let and uncomfortable to occupy. They represent an unattractive prospect from both perspectives: Mergers and Acquisitions teams do not like liabilities on the balance sheet in the shape of unsaleable and unlettable property; tenants are concerned about committing to bottom-line cost impacts over time. Futureproofing against excessive utilities bills is good news for everyone, as is the promise of an indoor working environment that is conducive to staff health and wellbeing, minimising levels of absenteeism, maximising output.
There is a virtuous spiral in play here: Happy tenants make for happy owners and happy investors. When all are talking commercial building performance, certification is the common language. At present, though, there remains a sales job to be done for the metrics.
Selling the benefits of certification to developers and owners is an issue In the residential sector too. Amongst consumers in general, there is growing awareness of the advantages of labelling. With developers, homeowners and landlords, however, there is a need to establish a more positive attitude towards enhanced (re)sale and rental returns, based on strong certification ratings, consolidating and raising demand on the part of the prospective buyer or tenant. Achieving higher levels of energy performance in dwellings needs to be communicated as a matter of investment, not cost, as Chief Executive of the Energy Saving Trust, Philip Sellwood explains:
“We know that people are going to be looking to rent out places that are cheaper to run – it’s hardly rocket science. A poorly insulated three-bedroom semi-detached house could move from band F to C saving a tenant £700 a year on energy bills if the landlord installed straightforward energy-saving measures like insulation.
“There is no good reason for landlords to pass the cost of upgrading a property to meet energy efficient criteria to their tenants – there is financial support available which can help recoup any financial outlay involved.
“We urge all landlords to see this new legislation as an opportunity not a challenge. All the evidence points to the fact that an energy-efficient home will be much more appealing to prospective tenants.”
One thing is certain: There is no shortage of qualified and accredited assessors. Government targets for professional numbers have been exceeded several times over, with initial fears of a shortfall in personnel proving quite unfounded. A whole army of energy performance troops has effectively been enlisted in the fight for carbon reduction and energy efficiency in buildings. As the government wages war on Climate Change, it is the frontline battle for the hearts and minds of clients, owners and developers that still remains to be won.

To view the full Supplement online, please click here.

Author: Jim McClelland

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