Glasgow, Photo by Donald Edgar on Unsplash

Sustainable Built Environment Conference, Cardiff: Policy principles and Scottish reels

22 October, 2019

Tina Fawcett

Reading time: 4 minutes

The SBE conference brought together researchers, built environment professionals, policy experts and government officials to focus on the transition of energy and low carbon policies into practice. Tina Fawcett reports.

On 24 and 25 September 2019, I attended the Sustainable Built Environment Conference in Cardiff. This conference brought together researchers, built environment professionals, policy experts and government officials to focus on the transition of energy and low carbon policies into practice.

It was hosted by Cardiff University and Cynnal Cymru and held in the Principality Stadium (aka the Millennium Stadium). It is one of a series of conferences building up to the three-yearly World Sustainable Built Environment conference in 2020 and the first to be held in the UK.

The conference opened with a key note speech from Keith Clarke CBE, former Chief Executive of Atkins, who has worked in all sectors of the UK and international construction industry. He gave an overview of the threat of climate change, the huge expected increase in urban living and investment in buildings and infrastructure in coming decades, and the need for this to meet all the Sustainable Development Goals. He characterised the current interactions of industry, academia and government to deliver sustainable buildings and infrastructure as being like bad line dancing – with everyone facing away from each other, and moving in an uncoordinated, disconnected way. To make progress in the buildings sector, instead we should all be dancing a Scottish reel, engaging closely with people we don’t know, risking the occasional mis-step, but having fun and moving quickly. Themes from the speech were discussed throughout the conference, and also linked to our CREDS research.

I was primarily at the conference to present a paper co-authored with Marina Topouzi – What would buildings policy look like if we took climate change seriously? Our paper developed a preliminary set of principles for designing buildings policy. These build on earlier research, take account of key characteristics of buildings and incorporate thinking from CREDS’ Shifting the Focus report.

To deliver net-zero emissions from the buildings sector, we suggest a set of nine principles under three headings: approaches to policy creation; expanding the boundaries of policy; focus on quality.

Theme Key guidelines
Approaches to policy creation Use a policy mix
Allow flexibility
Recognise multiple benefits
Embed policy experimentation and learning
Expanding the boundaries of policy Recognise policy connections
Adapt to climate change
Include embodied energy
Focus on quality Improve skills & training
Strengthen evaluation & enforcement

The principle ‘embed policy experimentation and learning’ echoes Keith Clarke’s call for speed, experimentation and open and honest learning. These principles are a starting point for discussion and debate, and we look forward to developing them further.

The issue of the speed and role of research was picked up in the closing discussion panel on ‘future actions and research’, which I sat on along with Richard Lorch (editor of Buildings and Cities journal), Prof Fionn Stevenson, Prof Joe Clarke and Prof Steve Sharples. The assertion that ‘we don’t need any more research’ was heard several times from the platform and the floor. As a researcher, and Co-Director of a major research consortium, I wasn’t entirely at ease with that suggestion! I think it was shorthand for saying that action to deliver low carbon and net-zero buildings doesn’t need to wait for more research. Which is true at the individual building and renovation level, but is not true for the net-zero transition as a whole.

Delivering net-zero across the economy is a huge challenge which needs a wide range of multi-disciplinary research. Sometimes that research will need to be longitudinal and ‘slow’, at other times great insights can be gained from fast, responsive and action-oriented research. We need to keep doing the research dance – and sometimes that will be a ballet or waltz, rather than the Scottish reel.

Banner photo credit: Donald Edgar on Unsplash