The Building Blocks manifesto – turning climate catastrophe into climate opportunity

Kevin McCloud speaking at Architects Declare's launch of the Building Blocks manifesto

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said he expects to go to the polls “in the second half” of 2024: this will be an election year for the UK. The Building Blocks manifesto should be required reading for all political parties.

A self-described “call to action for the next UK government”, it describes how the built environment can address its many, significant environmental impacts, and “turn climate catastrophe into climate opportunity.” An initiative of Architects Declare, the multi-author manifesto was launched at the Houses of Parliament in March.

Launch at the Houses of Parliament of the Building Blocks manifesto

The Building Blocks manifesto was launched in March at the Houses of Parliament. Photo © Mandy Franz.

How a greener built environment benefits Britain

The built environment is responsible for around 42% of the UK’s carbon emissions. But the Building Blocks manifesto is astute in pointing out the positive impacts that decarbonization would have:

  • £1.3 billion could be saved by the NHS by retrofitting cold homes
  • A circular economy could boost the UK’s Gross Value Added (GVA) by £83 billion
  • Up to 725,000 jobs would be created through low-carbon sector initiatives

Zoe Watson, Head of Sustainability at TDUK members Allies and Morrison, was one of Building Blocks’ lead authors.

“Outside of the industry, not many people know construction’s impacts,” she suggests. “Building Blocks is a means to speak to MPs, telling them what impacts the built environment has, and the many powerful, positive impacts that are the flipside to that. Transforming the built environment is a win-win situation.”

The built environment generates a staggering 62% of the UK’s waste. This is one of many areas in which timber can play a key part.

“Bio-based materials should play a crucial role in reducing waste by pivoting from extractive linear production towards more circular and regenerative approaches,” Zoe states.

Kevin McCloud speaking at Architects Declare's launch of the Building Blocks manifesto

Kevin McCloud, of TV’s Grand Designs, speaks at the Building Blocks launch. © Jaxon Kelly (Fletcher Priest Architects).

Embodied carbon and whole-life assessments

One of the manifesto’s many demands is for the reporting and limiting of embodied carbon. It asks for mandatory reporting of whole-life carbon emissions for all projects over 1000m2 by 2026; and legal limits on the embodied carbon of such buildings by 2028. Timber, being a low-carbon material, can play a big part in reducing buildings’ embodied carbon.

The UK government’s recent Timber In Construction Roadmap (December 2023) acknowledged this, promising to “explore the potential of embodied carbon limits for buildings”. And TDUK’s own Timber Policy publication demonstrates how Scandinavian nations and others are employing embodied carbon targets. There are already precedents.

What the manifesto wants from a new government

Building Blocks’ three headline aims are to:

  1. Prioritise resource efficiency
  2. Kickstart the circular economy
  3. Restore social and national infrastructure
cover of Timber Policy document

TDUK recently published Timber Policy, which explains how countries across the world are incentivising low-carbon construction with timber.

In addition to whole-life carbon demands, it calls for a nationwide retrofit strategy; measures to minimize operational energy; tax reforms and grants; materials banks and passports; sustainable infrastructure creation; and a host of other initiatives and transformations.

Looking ahead, the manifesto suggests 5 early adoption policies which a new government could adopt in their first 100 days. These have been endorsed by multiple other organisations, including the UKGBC, CIBSE, LETI and others.

The manifesto, as Zoe points out, provides tangible ideas for MPs to take on board. She hopes that, with the UK having signed up to the Chaillot Declaration – which aims to make “near-zero-emission and resilient buildings the new normal by 2030” – any new UK government will have to uphold its commitment to sustainable construction.

Building Blocks is savvy in looking at the big picture – beyond the built environment. It asks for climate literacy to become part of the national conversation.

“We all need to be less siloed,” Zoe proposes. “Everyone can relate to the built environment because we live in it. We’re quite an engaging sector in that sense. It’s time to show the benefits to that its transformation can bring to society as a whole.”

The Building Blocks manifesto can be read and downloaded here

This year’s UK Timber Design Conference will – among its many presentations and panel sessions – be addressing the policies needed to put the construction sector on a net-zero track. Get your tickets here.

Authors, contributors and supporters celebrate the Building Blocks launch

Authors, contributors and supporters celebrate the Building Blocks launch. © Fiona Smallshaw.