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Covid-19: sustainability now and in the future

Photo: wikimedia commons

With the construction sector given the government go-ahead to recommence this week, now is a good time to have a look at what effect Covid-19 has had so far on building and sustainability.

The Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) has produced new guidance, BREEAM has made changes to its assessment requirements, surveys have been undertaken, and occupier expectations in professional environments are changing rapidly.

In terms of building work during the pandemic, at the start of May, based on a survey with an admittedly low sample, a quarter of businesses were fully operational, with 58% operating in a limited fashion. Moreover, 83% are still tendering for new projects. This suggests some optimism in the sector regarding work starting up once more, and that has been proven well-founded after Boris Johnson’s speech to the nation on May 10th.

However, with the vast majority of analysts predicting a major downturn, and with the UK economy posting a 2% contraction this week, its biggest quarterly fall since 2008, reality may not meet the expectation of the companies bidding for tender, especially as construction tends to function as one of the most predictive parts of the economy: when it’s up, we’re booming; when we’re not, it reduces dramatically.

To return to the IEMA, it’s worth a closer look at what’s going on there. It is the largest professional body for environmental practitioners in the world, and has put this on its website:

“Environment and Sustainability professionals face many challenges during the current health crisis ranging from the immediate term issues of performing daily roles and progressing the environment and sustainability goals within the organisation; to the long term future of the profession as business, society and the economy start to rebuild in the wake of the global impact of COVID-19”.

What is of most interest to us for the purposes of this article is ‘progressing the environment and sustainability goals within the organisation’. Why? Because it speaks clearly to the world in which we operate, and its long term future. Daily roles in administration can of course be done from home, and Sunday’s announcement from the prime minister means assessments and other work streams can begin again in earnest. However, as we start to come out of lockdown, changes to the way that business and society at large operate will create many challenges for the sector. The IEMA suggests these will come in the following areas, which I am listing, followed by some brief examples:

  • Impact assessment

– how monitoring and surveys should proceed

– how statutory timeframes can be met

– how applications might be considered by planning authorities

  • Environmental Management and Environmental Auditing

– sharing experiences and approaches to remote auditing

– what are the compliance obligations

– what are the implications for waste, resource management and packaging

  • Corporate sustainability

– What are the strategies that will maintain commitments for environmental and sustainability work?

– Managing risks, dependencies and vulnerability 

– Rejuvenating the case for sustainability when it might be a lower priority during a time of crisis

  • Climate change and energy

– Links with the climate risk and adaptation agenda

– Maintaining momentum and planning for post-covid climate action

– Mandatory energy schemes and any adjustments

This is not an exhaustive list and there is much more to be said, but it’s clear that even this abridged version suggests that the sector is going to continue to experience upheaval. While it is certainly the case that companies are continuing to sign up to sustainability initiatives and are attempting to fulfil their corporate responsibilities, it is the case that a slow-down in uptake is likely to occur, as companies focus on the here and now: Return on Investment (ROI); cash flow; in short, survival strategies. Companies that have already embedded sustainability – in the supply chain, or in corporate decision-making – are more likely to keep to the required agenda than perhaps those only starting to take their first tentative steps in that direction.

BREEAM, as might be expected, have responded well in practical terms. Showing understanding of the difficulties caused by the situation, a bulletin has been released aiming to assist “assessors, and our wider stakeholders, with continuing to conduct assessments in a robust manner whilst also taking a practical view in light of the COVID-19 global crisis and its impacts on many territories”.

They have provided guidance in four areas, which again are listed, with examples drawn from the bulletin:

  • Submitting assessments and certification

– Provide an account of the particular circumstances of the place and nature of the assessment within the report

  • Gathering evidence for site assessments

– Where an assessor cannot personally visit or gain access to the site, they can appoint a suitable individual, for example a main contractor or asset manager, to undertake a formal site assessment on their behalf

– In such cases, the report should contain photos and/or a virtual tour, but where this is not possible – such as when a site is closed – built drawings and written confirmation from the design team and main contractors that the requirements have been met will be acceptable

  • In use re-certification

– When site assessment is not possible, either by the assessor or a nominated individual, desk-based evidence will be accepted where:

– Evidence demonstrates that the criteria are being met as far as possible without a site assessment

– There is a firm commitment for a follow-up site inspection to be carried out when it is safe to do so, in line with local government guidance on Covid-19

  • Timing of workshops, testing and other subsidiary evidence submissions

– In respect of workshops, the key consideration is that they take place at a time when they have a meaningful impact and achieve the aim of the criteria

– In respect of indoor air quality testing, where possible, the construction programme should allow time for the indoor air quality testing to be undertaken post-construction/pre-occupancy, in line with the BREEAM criteria. However, where it can be demonstrated that this is not possible, due to restrictions relating to COVID-19, it is permissible to undertake the indoor air quality testing post-occupancy.

Examples of when this will be the case are given.

– In respect of subsidiary, third party assessments such as ecological site inspections or audits, desktop surveys based on available information (e.g. planning surveys, agents’ reports, photographs, Google Earth), can be used as an alternative provided there is enough material for a confident recommendation and/or outcome to be achieved

What this tells us is that there has been a sensible approach to assessment in its various forms. BREEAM clearly understand the new imperatives of the new normal, and have adjusted their methods accordingly. It will be interesting to what extent any of these new approaches continue once we are out the other side of Covid-19.

Finally, how to create safe office spaces is of course very much on the agenda. This concerns not just the organisation of already-existing spaces, but the design of new ones, which is already changing. The British Council for Offices (BCO) has released a briefing note outlining what we are more likely to see more and less of in the next period. In the latter category, unsurprisingly, is hot desking; in the former, apps to remind people of various hygiene methods. Here is an indicative list from the briefing:

  • The introduction of screens to protect receptionists
  • The replacement of gendered communal toilets with pod-based ‘superloos’ that feature touchless doors, taps and soap dispensers
  • An increase in bike storage, in the context of workers being likely to avoid public transport
  • Limits on the number of people that can occupy a space, use a meeting room or share a lift at any one time
  • An end to communal cutlery, coffee pots and water bottles
  • The adoption of ventilation and humidification systems which create environments that make transmission tough for viruses

These are all sensible measures, though of course they have a cost, and may well need to be underpinned by legislation. What is the case is this: unless a vaccine is found, it’s extremely unlikely that office work will go back to the way it was before.

Considering the extent to which the Covid-19 outbreak is connected to environmental damage, it may well be that the sustainability agenda is in the long term given a new lease of life by the crisis. Certainly, short term signs are good. The noises coming from CEOs are the right ones. For example, a recent interview for GreenBiz, Mariano Lozano, CEO of Danone North America said this: “ultimately, we believe that this challenging moment can be used as a catalyst to help others recognize that the health of our people and of the planet are all interconnected.” The challenge for all of us working in the sector will be to make sure that thought stay at the forefront of people’s minds once we’re through the worst of this.