Sarah and I connected recently on LinkedIn and quickly found that we had a mutual interest – sustainable development.
Thanks to working with some clients in the construction industry in recent months, I’ve come to learn a lot about what the construction industry must do to become more sustainable. This industry alone accounts for more than half of all waste produced in the UK.
Sarah is the CEO of SD21, Sustainable Development for the 21st Century. I’m really keen to pick her brain about the ways in which the industry needs to evolve and how it should be addressing its issues.
Without further ado…
Welcome, Sarah! Please, could you give me a bit of introduction about yourself, and the journey that led you to start SD21?
Thank you Joseph, it’s a pleasure to meet you too. I am a Sustainable Development Strategist, which means I look at business through a particular lens that gives equal priority to economic, environmental and social outcomes. I ran my own management and marketing consultancy for 21 years (working in manufacturing, retail and regeneration) but decided to focus on sustainability in the built environment. Roles since have included being the Managing Director of an architectural practice; European Head of Marketing for a global environmental consultancy; and Director of Strategic Sustainability for a housing not-for-profit. The combination of experiences has given me a really broad knowledge of the different perspectives, so I have a clear vision of what we need to do to transform. SD21 stands for Sustainable Development for the 21st Century and is about collaborating to disrupt, transform and redefine the built environment sector whilst aligning with the SDGs.
What is the primary activity of SD21, and what are the end goals?
I am currently talking to or working directly with a wide range of clients: local authorities, housing associations, private developers, offsite manufacturers, professionals, and the supply chain. Each has different requirements; some need assistance developing their proposition and getting in front of clients. The clients need to revise their housing strategy to accommodate offsite and non-conventional ways of procuring and collaborating.
When we were chatting, I used the term ‘pre-fab’, and you said that the industry is trying to move away from this term, in favour of ‘offsite’. Could you explain this in more depth?
Yes, we have a real problem with the word ‘prefab’ because it is entirely linked to post-war housing, which has a really poor reputation. We also have an issue because the sector can’t agree on one word to describe what I am calling ‘NewGen Housing’. We have terms like Modern Methods of Construction (MMC), pre-manufactured, precision-manufactured, offsite, offsite manufacturing (OSM) and modular. Modular, panellised and volumetric are specific types of offsite housing, so we also have to be careful not to conflate a very broad spectrum of systems under the wrong name. The Government seems to favour ‘offsite’ or ‘MMC’ so they tend to be the most common monikers.
As mentioned before, the construction industry creates so much waste. What do you think needs to be done to address this?
Waste reduction is a key driver of the move to offsite. Using CAD and BIM to create DfMA (design for manufacture and assembly) means that a whole range of components and pods (like bathrooms and kitchens) can be pre-assembled to exacting standards in conditions that reduce site damage and optimise material use. The systems vary enormously, from fully volumetric homes that are built entirely in the factory and craned into position by floor, and are therefore pretty much ready to plug and play; to frame and panellised systems, where the super-structure is assembled at speed with pre-manufactured components, but the rest of the build is traditional with tradesmen working onsite to complete. There is a considerably better waste reduction (and that also translates to cost-savings and health and safety) the more that is done in a factory environment.
You’ve used the term ‘future-proofed’ on your website, I like this as a metaphor for sustainability. Can you tell me what it means to you personally?
Future-proofing is essential in every sector. Within the realms of current knowledge and best practice, I can never understand why companies try to resist positive change. In housing, it is a really serious issue. By 2016 we should have been delivering zero carbon homes as standard, but the volume housebuilders lobbied hard and the Government rode back on its commitments. This means that millions of new homes are being delivered at Building Regulation standards that are well below where they should be. The UK has the worst performing housing stock in Europe. We have 24 million homes that need to be retrofitted to meet carbon standards (a process we have barely started), yet we can deliver new homes that will need to be retrofitted within 10 years. That is a complete waste. It will cost more and the outcomes will be worse than building them properly in the first place.
And it isn’t about cost. Offsite NZEB homes can be built for the same price or cheaper than traditional housing due to the precision, waste reduction and economy of scale. Sadly, the national housebuilders who dominate the sector are resistant to change because they understand construction, not manufacturing – but the nation is being short-changed and so we need to ensure that the new normal is future-proofed housing!
Can you tell me about a case study or a recent project you’ve been a part of?
Yes, I am working on a great project at the moment which will integrate genuinely affordable offsite housing with new skills for young people and disadvantaged groups who normally couldn’t work on a building site, partnering with an FE College and creating a holistic housing and economic regeneration model.
Cool! So, in terms of sustainable material usage, what sort of things are we going to see a lot more of, and also a lot less of in development?
Definitely more superinsulated properties; although enormous care needs to go into avoiding overheating. Renewables are coming on at speed so more integrated PV in windows and walls will mean that homes are ‘power stations’, with battery storage and smart technology that will make them super efficient. There will be more technologies, like air source for heating, as you need relatively little heating if the home is well-designed on ‘fabric first’ principles. Within the next decade, homes won’t have boilers and there will be less ‘wet trades’ in the building processes, mostly because of the skills crisis, so this will affect the products used too.
Can you tell me what a normal day looks like running a sustainable development company?
Normal? Nothing normal about my world, haha! Lots of meetings, writing reports, attending events, and piles of reading of reports both directly and indirectly affecting the sector and ensuring that we understand what is happening on a global basis.
What are your expectations for the sustainable development industry over the next decade?
My sustainable development journey started in 1999 and the first decade was characterised by many highs and lows. The GFC set the agenda back a long way as all the major economies were focused on survival and sustainability was consigned to the ‘something to think about later’ pile. In reality, more sustainable thinking would have prevented the global recession and would be a more reliable solution for forward-planning. Meanwhile, the penny is finally dropping. Most people accept climate change, but still can’t translate that into changing corporate or personal behaviours that will decarbonise our lives. We have a very, very long way to go but sadly we need more disasters before things will really change.
What’s the simplest change that businesses can make today, in your opinion, to be more sustainable?
Every single business can become leaner, cleaner and more profitable as a result of thinking differently. The LSE and Harvard Business School produced a major report in 2016 that tracked global companies over 20 years. The ones with sustainability at their heart performed on average 15% better than those who were purely profit-driven. So there is the evidence: good business is good for business. So, get a Sustainable Development Strategist on board and make your business more profitable, more attractive to new and existing staff, and give it a market advantage, whilst you still can!
Thank you, Sarah!
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