Following historic research around energy use in our buildings provides a telling narrative in relation to how concerns and understanding evolve over time. A convenient place to start might be “mitigation” – namely, the need to reduce the carbon impact of our buildings. For both new and existing buildings, much research has been generated over the synergies between technology, architectural design and (the more complex area of) people, and the action required to deliver something that might meet challenging carbon targets for this sector. The policy response to this has been genuinely mixed. There have been undoubted successes.

Between 2008 and 2012, low-energy lighting and roof and cavity-wall insulation rates notably rose during the Carbon Emission Reduction Target (CERT) scheme, building on smaller schemes in the past. The first phases of feed-in tariffs for solar photovoltaic panels helped the UK to move from having a negligible amount of this technology in 2010 to, now, in the region of 11GW (approximately 4.5GW coming from feed-in tariffs). However, it is important to also recognise where policy has failed, most notably the Green Deal, and also the tail-end of the Energy Company Obligation scheme, which did not manage to reach the installation rates of CERT.

There is now a hiatus as we await the next generation of low-carbon building policy, following the collapse of the Code for Sustainable Homes.

Moving along the research timeline we then come across “adaptation”. Once again we are concerned with the design of our buildings but now we are focussing on measures to ensure such buildings “function” in a future, warmer, climate. In reality, this is an area that should be partnered with mitigation; how can we design buildings that are both low-carbon and also provide suitable environments in the coming decades? While there can be additional capital costs associated with ensuring our buildings are both sustainable and resilient, this premium is typically not as large as perceived, and when viewed over a building’s full life cycle can be significantly less, and display acceptable payback periods. There are also “non-energy benefits”. For example, a naturally ventilated, well-insulated sustainable building which hosts more daylight and improved air-quality can enhance the wellbeing of its users and raise the performance of its occupants. Despite a growing body of evidence that improved indoor environmental quality can generate more productive working environments there is a reluctance to factor this into financial decision making.

Looking to the future, an unwillingness to take risks and explore innovative solutions hampers today’s construction industry, but the climate change imperative drives a greater need to design and manage buildings, communities and cities which are environmentally efficient, boost quality of life and offer real financial viability. Evidence shows that buildings with better carbon and sustainability credentials can save money through decreased energy consumption, reduced water use, and year on year savings in operation and maintenance costs, whilst enjoying increased marketability. Encapsulating all this around a common vernacular will increase our confidence, and readiness, for whatever future we have in store.