COP26 observer Charles Gillott photograph in black and white.

COP26 observer interview: Charles Gillott

COP26 observer Charles Gillott researches ways to make buildings more sustainable. Here he tells us why we need to both train engineers to reuse buildings and create policy to enforce a circular economy for the construction industry.

Grantham Scholar Charles Gillott started out with a degree in engineering and is now doing PhD research at the Department of Civil Engineering and Urban Flows Observatory. His work is on mitigating the impact of buildings on the environment through circular economic strategies.

Keep up to date with COP26 observer Charles Gillott on Twitter. And if you want to find out more from our other COP26 observers, then read our interviews with them.

What would you like to see happen at COP26 to do with the built environment?

It comes down to regulation. If someone has managed to produce, say, an office building at X amount of CO2/m2 there’s no reason why another person can’t do the same. There needs to be regulation that says you’re not allowed to build an embodied carbon inefficient office building, just as there is for operational performance. That is policy and it is part of what I’m interested in at COP.

I want to see if simple, basic ideas that seem to be forming within the community can translate into policy and recommendations to enforce change rather than just encourage it. Encouraging change is all good and well, some people will do it, but unless it’s enforced you’re not going to get the majority of people, who do the majority of the work, to do it.

Who are you interested in seeing at COP26?

I’m interested in the outward dissemination of information from research, and how it gets to the places that matter. It’s important that we (academics) don’t end up in our own echo chamber. I’m interested in using COP26 as an opportunity to learn how key actors view academic research and how we can make this more accessible to them. I’d like to see where my place sits within the system of knowledge generation and exchange, as well as how this is viewed from different perspectives.

Some people think academics shouldn’t push for change

Yes, even within academia there are those who think we should be quantifying the state of play rather than suggesting alternatives. But I don’t know how you can conclude that something is a certain way, without suggesting how this should or could be changed.

Maybe I’m in a privileged position as a PhD that I can tweet out and share my opinion. I can be vocal. It might be that as time goes on I won’t be able to do that. But I think it’s impossible to ask an academic to be impartial, to not be outspoken in any way.

Who do you think is missing from COP26?

It looks like a lot of people who are going to be hit hardest are the people who are unlikely to be able to sit round the table at COP. Which is a shame because they are the people who could give us insights into what’s needed, because they’ve already seen the damaging effects of climate change.

I’m interested in seeing how much COP is about getting stuff done, as opposed to looking like you are getting stuff done. And with this push to have it in person, rather than including everyone through video calls, makes it seem like it’s maybe more about the latter. It would have been interesting to see how a hybrid COP could have been implemented.

You started in engineering, what got you into revolutionising it?

That in engineering we still do what we’ve always done without questioning that. And we’re now in a time where we can’t do what we’ve always done. Engineers like to do what they’ve done, they know it’s safe and will work. But we need innovative thinking, for engineers to question the brief – do we need another building? What other buildings does the client have? Could that be used?

However we’re not going to get people who are paid explicitly to make new buildings to question the need for them.

What is the public’s understanding of this problem?

You can have a conversation with anyone about buildings. We’ve all seen them go up, lived in them and worked in them. But also, people tend to think about the nice new ones they’ve been in and the horrible old flat they lived in. So in some ways you’re fighting against public opinion.

The truth is we know how to build better now, but we don’t do it. We have advanced so far that what we’re building now should be much much better than 20/30 years ago, but they’re largely the same. Different interiors and cladding perhaps, but we’re still just throwing up concrete and steel as we always have.

Which is why we need to make a noise about this during the run up to COP. For that week, people are more susceptible to these suggestions than they might otherwise be the rest of the time.

Does the built environment’s impact on the environment get the attention it merits?

Definitely not. There’s more focus on reusing carrier bags than reusing a building. But reusing a building has a much bigger impact. We still celebrate new buildings coming up and old ones being demolished. It’s like celebrating someone opting for a single-use coffee cup – and then celebrating when we watch them put it in the bin.

Possibly this is because buildings are not consumer led. These days a lot of the blame for environmental damage has been shifted to consumers – to make them buy reusable things and to recycle. Whereas the end user of a house, for example, isn’t the person who builds it or who deconstructs it at the end of its life. And obviously a building has a much bigger impact than all these smaller actions. Although they do add up, the carbon impacts of a building will still swamp those of consumer goods in many instances.

So at the moment, we’re told to be responsible for where a bottle of water ends up when we’re done with it, but someone who builds a building has no accountability 50, 60, 70 years down the line. They don’t have to worry about how it ends its life, which seems obscene considering the comparison in terms of carbon and energy between a water bottle and a building.

Does change come down to policy and regulation?

Absolutely, if you want to show that your building’s sustainable, you can show that – or even pretend that at the minute. But there’s very little interest in policy to date. One thing we’ve been pushing for in the built environment is embodied carbon regulations.

At the moment, operational carbon (heating, lighting, ventilation etc.) is regulated. You can’t build a building that has paper thin walls and so will require stupid amount of electricity to heat. That’s because that’s regulated. But there is no regulation for embodied carbon. So nothing for the materials and components that make up the building, or the excavators and cranes used during construction. The result is that there’s no incentive for people to go for a more complex design or a more expensive design that will take longer to build on the basis that it’s got, say, less material.

Some engineers still believe that the stronger a building is, the better. But, by doing that, you’re adding more material. So we need to shift this way of thinking from ‘more is better’ to ‘how can we optimise and put in just what we need?’ Why make buildings so much stronger than they need to be?

So does a building use more carbon to be made than to be run?

Various studies show that embodied carbon (e.g. that emitted in material extraction, component manufacture and construction) is anywhere from 30 – 60 percent of the whole life carbon of a building. Depending on its use, performance and how long it lasts.

Looking forward, as the electricity grid is decarbonised, the relative proportion of embodied to operational carbon will shift further. Embodied carbon will be an even greater part of the total carbon footprint of a building over its lifetime.

The other way of looking at that is that we know we need to make carbon savings now to avoid climate catastrophe. So, putting loads of materials into a building now to save operational carbon in the future doesn’t make sense. We actually need to be prioritizing the savings we can make right now, rather than this accumulative benefit. So embodied carbon has gained a lot of traction over the last 5 years for people who work in the built environment and sustainability.

Does it cost more at the moment to reduce embodied carbon costs?

Using reused/recycled materials, for example, can cost more at the moment as there’s nowhere for people to buy those materials from. So I couldn’t go and get reused insulation to use in a new building. However, if I could get it, it may well be cheaper as this is someone else’s waste. We need to get into the ‘their waste is my material mindset’.

If it shifted and more people did it, then it would cost less. Because with more demand from better regulation, market forces would come into play. Rising demand would increase availability, which would decrease cost with time.

Why are there seemingly more new buildings going up on undeveloped land than derelict buildings being reused?

There’s more money in it.

And the construction sector is very risk averse. We know how to build new buildings but we don’t teach people how to retain them. Clients don’t think about retaining things either. I studied civil engineering at master’s level, and it’s almost an unwritten rule to clear away any old buildings on site to build new.

We need to start seeing a building’s life as beginning when it’s constructed, that they’re not finished, but in a transient state. They can be changed, added to, converted from a school, to an office, to a hotel, to an apartment.

Where do you see potential for a shift in this?

Firstly, as I’ve said, regulation is key. That’s the main change that’s needed.

Secondly, we also need to train more engineers in reuse. If we give engineers the tools they need, they’ll go and do it, that’s in their nature. I did an engineering degree, and I could design a new building, but not adapt an old one. With training, and then regulation, we can get more people doing it. Because if we regulated now there’d be a huge gap and we’d get people doing strange things that might not be safe.

I’m working on this with my department, trying to push forward this reuse-over-demolition agenda and investigate the skills that engineers and other key stakeholders need to make sure that we can reuse buildings safely. It’s all well and good pushing for adaptive reuse, but the end product needs to be of a quality that will inspire people to adopt this as a widespread solution.

Where is the potential for reusing buildings at the moment?

We have a lot of offices and people don’t want them. This is even more true post Covid. If you walk down Fargate in Sheffield for example, you see lots of empty offices. So office to home conversations are a big thing at the moment. Offices are big open spaces so there’s potential there.

Plus we know that town centres are where people should be living anyway. It means people can walk to work, hospital, school, shops. We know living in high density is a low carbon way of living, rather than being in these housing estates that require people to have a car.

However, on the downside, there are people turning, say, an out of town business park into homes, which is not what we want. Because they’re out of town, people living there would have to drive everywhere. But the deregulation that allows this did bring these conversions forward. Now conversions have to be as good as a new build which stops nastier developers just changing the sign on an office and calling it a house.

Any signs of building reuse becoming mainstream?

A lot of ideas about reuse and adaptation are becoming more mainstream, though it’s hard to say if I think that just because I work in this area. But it feels like more people are becoming aware of it.

What we need is for people to be talking about this as they walk down the street. They should be disgusted by new shiny tower blocks going up where perfectly good buildings once stood.

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For more on COP26 observer Charles Gillott look at his profile page.