For too long, sustainability professionals have heard the dreaded words “the customer does not want sustainability because it will cost more”. This is the age-old dilemma of capital costs and operating budgets being considered as unrelated funding streams.

As sustainable buildings are still the exception, they are often considered as ‘special’ and therefore riskier. The result is often a cost contingency in the project budget – and guess what – it’ll get spent, and not necessarily on the issues that it was intended for!

A step change in thinking

Over the past few years, we are seeing a change in philosophy, our customers are increasingly considering a life-cycle approach; talking about the added value and benefits that were not traditionally factored into cashflow forecasts. The benefits of this approach were highlighted in the UK Green Building Council’s (UKGBC) recent report Building the Case for Net Zero. The report found that the cost uplift for intermediate climate scenarios was 6.2% for offices and 3.5% for residential. Importantly though, it also noted that this cost would be more than offset by increased rental premiums, increased occupancy, not to mention avoiding costly retrofits down the line in response to the changing climate.

Passivhaus in action

It’s clear that when total value-add across the whole lifetime of a building is considered, the added capital cost argument is being lost. This was really brought to life for us at the Harris Academy Sutton, a Passivhaus secondary school we completed in 2019.

The four-storey, six-form entry school accommodates 1,275 pupils and 95 staff, but the building’s energy consumption is typically 80% lower than a standard new building. A simplified design meant less building envelope, alongside smaller utilities. Instead of a large commercial boiler, the one needed for heating the school is the same size as one used in a standard four-bedroom house. This has resulted in significant savings on operating costs and carbon emissions.

There are additional benefits to sustainable buildings; from increasing productivity in offices to improved learning outcomes in schools; from homes where people are happy and healthy, to healthcare facilities where people recover more quickly – there’s a growing body of research which demonstrates the impact that well-designed buildings can have on those using them.

Aspects such as natural light, indoor air quality, views of nature and navigable layouts can make a real difference to health and accessibility. Since, in the UK, people spend on average about 90% of their time indoors, optimising indoor spaces for those using them can enhance the wellbeing of our communities. We have covered many of these ideas in our latest edition of Brilliant Buildings. Devoted to sustainability, the 12-page publication can be downloaded below:

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Download our thought-provoking Brilliant Buildings - Delivering Sustainability publication

Looking to the future

The price of renewable technologies continues to fall, whilst the cost of fossil fuels and the risk of families living in fuel poverty continues to increase. And with the UK’s target to become Net Zero carbon by 2050, we hope that soon we won’t have to emphasise the need for buildings to have excellent airtightness or thermal performance – it will be demanded.

Our ambition is to deliver low carbon buildings that perform as designed, as standard. It’s not that we don’t want to have the conversation about green buildings with our customers, rather that we think that it should go without saying; our future customers will already know that’s what they are going to get when they choose to work with us.