• 18 January 2021

The Midlands: Rising to the challenge of net zero

Once the industrial heartland of Britain, the Midlands boasts some of the nation’s fastest-growing cities. Now home to over ten million people, the region’s central location has seen it become a hub for commerce vital to the UK’s economic prosperity. As all sectors gear-up for the drive towards net zero, the Midlands is set to play a pivotal role in meeting the targets.

Ruth Jeffs, Waterman’s Regional Director for the Midlands, has supported sustainable development across the region throughout her career. Since 2017, Ruth has held the position of Chair for the Association for Consultancy and Engineering’s (ACE’s) Midlands area, and she is also an ACE Board Director. Through her work with the ACE, which represents 430 member companies, Ruth helps champion infrastructure to government and other stakeholders, whilst lobbying the government on sustainability in the sector.

Discussing her role with the ACE, Ruth said: “It has given me a unique insight into some of the key challenges faced by our industry on a national and regional level. As we get to grips with the climate emergency and look to deliver a built environment which meets the net zero carbon target, the collaborative nature of the ACE means that ideas and solutions are shared between the UK’s leading consulting engineers. Together, we are exploring how we can respond to net zero as a national industry which can then be filtered down to a regional level.”

Looking to the next generation of engineers, Ruth has continually been impressed with the breadth of knowledge displayed by emerging professionals, and is inspired by their drive to address the climate emergency: “I have been involved with mentoring young engineers for many years and I always enjoy the opportunity to work the ACE’s Nextgen group. Their thirst for knowledge and desire to make a difference leaves me with no doubt that our industry will be in safe hands for many generations to come. What’s particularly inspiring is their appetite to enact change and really make a difference, and this enthusiasm is something which our industry needs to harness as we forge a path to net zero.”

Alongside the challenge of net zero, the UK has been rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting major government investment in construction projects aimed at kick-starting our economy. In July last year, £66m was promised to the West Midlands for ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure schemes and Ruth commented: “Perhaps one of the biggest issues the Midlands has encountered for many years is that of being continually overlooked for government investment in preference of either the North or London and the South East, so I was delighted to see the government invest in our region’s infrastructure as the region plots a course to economic recovery after the pandemic. Now that the West Midlands has metropolitan status, this should give the whole region a greater and more unified voice, which should help bring further vital government investment, bolstering the area’s economy, creating jobs and building new homes.”

As the government looks to overhaul the UK’s planning policies and procedures, Ruth believes that the responsibility for meeting the targets should rest with developments on an individual basis: “Across the UK, I’d like to see developments of all sizes assessed on their lifetime global impact on carbon emissions with the establishment of mandatory net zero compatibility statements which would be required to accompany a planning application. These statements would need to detail predicted embodied and in-use carbon emissions and would mean a scheme’s suitability at planning phase would be judged on its ability to address the net zero target. This would ensure that each development takes direct and continuous responsibility for its carbon footprint throughout its lifespan locally, avoiding offsetting in remote locations.”

With sustainability becoming a central issue throughout society as we adapt to meet net zero targets across every industry, Ruth predicts a shift in how return on investment (ROI) for development projects is measured: “ROI is currently often measured in purely financial terms, but by incorporating sustainability metrics, clients could map the environmental performance of their assets over time. This would incentivise environmental excellence in the built environment, whilst providing tangible corporate governance evidence.”

Ruth continues: “In the Midlands, we’ve increasingly seen private sector clients looking to achieve not just net zero carbon, but also net waste and net water with their developments. In many cases, this is being driven by investors who are looking to the future to ensure their portfolio is sustainable and performs better than the minimum standards. We are seeing investors add sustainability requirements to project briefs which go above and beyond the mandatory minimums, whether that be achieving a BREEAM ‘Excellent’ rating, designing to suit a greater CO2 emission reduction, increasing resilience to climate change or boosting biodiversity quality and richness.”

As the sector begins to recover from the global COVID-19 pandemic, Ruth highlights an emerging trend which is being utilised to speed-up construction: “Increasingly, I’m seeing projects utilise off-site manufacturing to boost efficiency, minimise carbon footprints and speed-up build times. This method of construction also encourages localisation since local workforces can often be mobilised to install the items as soon as they arrive onsite. This reduces the carbon footprint of construction traffic and provides an economic boost to the development’s local area and is something which has been brought to the fore by the travel restrictions which were imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. One future trend I can see developing in the Midlands particularly is that procurement strategies at local government level could start becoming more specific in their demands for locally sourced labour and materials, in order to reduce a project’s carbon footprint.”

Discussing the range of benefits off-site manufacture can bring to a scheme, Ruth said: “We’ve seen off-site manufacture used to great effect for residential, school and university projects in the Midlands where designs are calibrated to suit off-site manufacture and can then be quickly assembled onsite. In each case, there is a secondary benefit since there is minimal ‘curing’ time for structural elements when they are manufactured off-site and this enables immediate access to completed areas allowing rapid fit-out to take place which greatly reduces project programmes. This was certainly the case at Birmingham’s Globe Works student accommodation scheme, where the end user was heavily involved with the process from start to end giving clarity to the project goals and embracing the concept of off-site manufacture.”

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