Placemaking with Purpose

How can offsite methods create green jobs in order to help meet sustainability targets and improve the built environment? Rory O’Hagan, Director at Assael Architecture, explains what can be done to help in the race to net zero.

Building energy-efficient homes and retrofitting existing housing stock is a vital puzzle piece in improving the built environment's impact on carbon emissions and reaching a net zero future. Offsite manufacturing is a key part of this, and the latest figures from the Green Jobs Task Force are a stark reminder that not enough is being done to support this part of the housing and construction sector. To significantly reduce the impact of buildings and ‘build back better', the government must place more emphasis on, and invest in, green jobs.

According to a recent report from the Green Jobs Taskforce, every UK job has the potential to be ‘green’. The Government’s vision is an investment drive in skills that will see an industrial revolution carried by low carbon, reducing our dependence on unsustainable practices. This transition to make sustainable skills ‘second nature’ is no more urgent than in the built environment sector, which contributes up to 40% of the country’s total carbon footprint. Green jobs in architecture, development and construction are as necessary as they are transformative. The Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR) has forecasted that retrofitting existing stock could cost as much as £400billion, identifying a critical ‘skills gap’ which will need to be filled to meet legislated targets. The Future Homes Standard, too, sets expectations on the carbon neutrality of new homes, which will only intensify over time.

While the transition may seem daunting, much of the infrastructure we need to lower emissions is already in place. Through tried and tested modern methods of construction (MMC) such as offsite modular housing and timber frame construction, the property industry has a real opportunity to make a difference and meet this target in the race to net zero in 2050. Innovation also serves to promote ‘green’ skills as the bi-product of more environmentally sustainable and progressive approaches to traditional housebuilding methods, accelerating that change. In practice, the adoption of sustainable methods starts with a fresh perspective. If the UK is to truly become net zero by 2050, we can no longer afford to look at sustainability as a tick box exercise. As architects, we must rise to the challenge of designing sustainable buildings on a holistic cradle-to-grave system, putting whole life carbon into the picture, enabling us to begin from day one and see it carried right through to completion.

If the architecture and construction sectors are going to decarbonise and bolster the creation of ‘green’ jobs, then the Government must also emphasise investment in MMC and sustainable practice within the associated real estate sector. Expediting our transition to a low carbon economy relies on this enduring support, shedding the reluctance across the industry to embrace the methods already available to meet our carbon neutral commitments.

Increasing the uptake of existing methods with proven results and making them better is an intuitive solution to the pressing requirements of climate change. It’s not advocating for a complete departure to what we see as common practice, and it is in this emerging corner of cutting-edge innovation that ‘green’ skills are already born. Modular construction is a near perfect solution to achieve net zero, with both embodied and operational carbon lessened, and the ability to produce buildings in half the time of traditional construction. Having the ability to manage the materials from its creation to the destination of end use is a transformative way of building with a responsible conscious. This will also have a positive knock-on effect for developers and investors who will be able understand the origins of the products used in specific assets. Modular manufacturing in the UK still carries some negative connotations as many architects are afraid of the concept, feeling as though it infringes on their creativity. There is a false sentiment that ‘modular’ means restrictive, standardised design – the new Lego block-by-block communities of tomorrow. The reality couldn’t be any different: factory built homes can offer desirable versatility, supported by a suite of common components, and are designed through a vigorous process that drills down into the detail early on to achieve optimised housing solutions.

An excellent example of innovation using MMC to produce resilient and contextually sensitive designs is Assael’s work at Meridian Water, a new masterplanned development in north London. As part of the masterplan, after winning Meridian Water’s Placemaking with Purpose Competition in 2020, Assael is creating a flexible and sustainable construction system designed for disassembly and reassembly, allowing reconfiguration and optionality that seeks to extend building longevity. With the key system components of the superstructure already established, architects and designers can focus more on aesthetics and the creation of unique building identities.

By taking advantage of technology and saying goodbye to outdated building methods, we have a great opportunity on our hands and one that I would encourage architects to embrace. From a financial, sustainable and environmental perspective, if we can meet the pledge towards contributing to the Green Jobs Taskforce for the housing sector, then it’s certainly worth investing in.

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