Architects, engineers and activists tell us what they want from the next government

We asked a panel of architects, engineers and activists what they wanted from the next Government, at the recent UK Timber Design Conference 2024.

Zoe Watson (UK Architects Declare Steering Group), Brigitte Clements (Strategic Lead, ACAN, and Managing Director, LOKI), and Will Arnold (Head of Climate Action, Institute of Structural Engineers) gave some inspiring and thought-provoking answers.

Regulate embodied carbon emissions

Paul Brannen (Director of Public Affairs, CEI-Bois and Chair of this discussion), Brigitte Clements, Zoe Watson and Will Arnold, at the UK Timber Design Conference 2024.

This is the big one. The call for the measuring and capping of embodied carbon was a refrain throughout the conference: the whole sector seems to be unanimously calling for embodied carbon regulations.

“The Future Homes Standard should include embodied carbon if it’s to be fit for purpose,” said Zoe Watson. Indeed, both the Future Homes Standard and Part L came in for a lot of criticism over the course of the day – for not going far enough.

Will Arnold made the stark point that Part L only legislates for a paltry 10% of the built environment’s emissions – the operational energy from new buildings constructed between now and 2050. “If regulations don’t incentive retrofit or reduce embodied carbon then they are only rearranging the deckchairs,” Will said.

Catching up with the EU on carbon

All three of the panel wanted embodied carbon commitments to be made within the new Government’s 100 days –for dates to be given and a trajectory for measuring and limiting set out. name dates. After all, the EU has passed laws that, from 2028, all building projects over 1000 square metres must report their whole life carbon; and projects of any size by 2030.

“In UK we could do this more quickly: we already have all the guidance,” suggested Will. “We could do the same, but in 2026 and 2028. At the end of the new Government’s first term, I’d like to see real progress on embodied carbon. Going forward, it could be ratcheted down year on year – perhaps even catching up with our European neighbours.”

Incentivise retrofit

Everyone agreed that retrofit is a key issue for the UK’s poorly performing building stock: a national retrofit strategy is needed. “Tax reform would be a good leverage point,” suggested Zoe. “Make it more cost-effective to improve or reuse a building than to demolish it. Use VAT to incentivize refurbishment.”

An energy-saving stamp duty incentive was another of her suggestions: tweaking stamp duty to reward more energy-efficient homes. Similarly, a rebate for those who up the energy performance of a building they purchase could be effective: all would help to create a stable market for improving our existing stock.

Circularity is a must

“Labour mentioned circularity in their manifesto, but with little detail,” Zoe noted. “The built environment contributes 62% of the UK’s waste, so to tackle waste we’ll need circular construction. That means incentivising the re-use of buildings by rethinking VAT on retrofit.”

Zoe would like to see a national circular economy strategy implemented. This would include minimum recovery rates stipulated for any proposed demolition, and a move towards retaining buildings being the default. The hierarchy of retain, reuse, and recycle should become the norm – with recycle being the lowest-grade outcome.

“We need to mandate materials passports and make materials banks commonplace – bring in the infrastructure for circularity.”

Should we be scared by housebuilding targets?

The Labour Party have promised to build 1.5m new houses within 5 years. All the major political parties have made similarly ambitious pledges. While there’s unquestionably an urgent need to provide housing, Will pointed out the huge carbon cost of building of doings so, citing the A Home for All within Planetary Boundaries. It’s a sobering report, calculating that building that many homes with standard materials would exhaust the UK’s entire national 2050 carbon budget on housing alone.

“Building 1.5m homes and housing 1.5m families are two very different things,” Will pointed out. “The UK has hundreds of thousands of empty buildings – it’s important to think about ‘outcome’ not ‘output’”.

Timber -and other low-carbon materials – will be essential to meeting these targets. But even before that’s factored in, a new Government will need to examine the existing building stock and what’s there. The panel all agreed that Government departments are too siloed: joined-up thinking across sectors and industries is essential.

Proper investment for a sustainable future

“There’s a huge skills gap,” Brigitte said. She would like to see investment in education and the building-up of skills. “We know that investment wants to go green, but the workforce, the skill sets and the knowledge base may be lacking across the industry. The Government must be bold, and give strong signals here.”

Will made the simple point that “to build stuff, you need stuff!” In other words, our building materials need to be decarbonized, and this requires huge amounts of investment into research and testing.

Clarity and consistency

“We’re in the centre of a polycrisis,” as Brigitte Clements put it. The scale and number of the problems we face requires clarity and consistency of strategy from the Government, she said. “We need a Commissioner for the Built Environment – that would demonstrate seriousness and commitment.”

Brigitte made the salient point that too many government departments work in siloes, whereas cutting carbon emissions demands coordinated action across all sectors. She suggested that the formation of a cross-party task force could ensure that sustainability is not “weaponized”.

“The UK is one small island: we need strategies that address good quality housing alongside rewilding, ecology, sustainable agriculture and farming and biodiversity. How do we bring it all together?”

On the subject of consistency, Will noted wryly that it would be nice if the next Government could manage to hold on to the same Housing Minister for the duration…

Many thanks to all our panelists at the UK Timber Design Conference.

For further information about how the Government could accelerate timber use, read the Timber Manifesto