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Managing carbon impact and reaching net zero in built environment | Episode 3

Zoltán Kozma
checkVerified writer
PUBLISHED ON December 14, 2022

Purpose Champions is an official Goodsted podcast. Each month, I host guests who follow their purpose and strive to create social and environmental impact for their stakeholders and communities 🏆

These stories are full of inspiration and insights for our community to learn from and take action to progress on their own purpose journey. You also hear from leaders of impactful initiatives and have a chance to get involved in their mission by sharing your skills and time.

Follow us on SpotifyApple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts, or Amazon Music so you don't miss any of our future episodes! 🎧

In this episode Gilbert Lennox-King, CEO & Co-founder of Construction Carbon joined us to share insights about carbon efficiency, especially within the built environment sector. Tune in to hear more about carbon impact management, reaching net zero and of course Gilbert’s story and his adventures.

Listen and watch the full episode here:

Episode 3 - Purpose Champions podcast



Selin: Hi everyone. Welcome to the Purpose Champions Podcast, where we shine a spotlight on those championing social and environmental impact for their stakeholders and communities. In this episode, we are welcoming Gilbert-Lennox King, who is the CEO and Co-founder of Construction Carbon. They provide a simple, credible and standardised process for reducing and offsetting the embodied carbon of construction projects, which sounds like a very useful tool and I'm super excited to hear more about that. Hi Gilbert, it's great to have you as our guest in our podcast and I really look forward to hearing more about your story and how those interested in the Net Zero movement can get involved.

Gilbert: Hi Selin.It's great to be here and looking forward to talking about all things energy, construction, carbon.

Selin: Amazing. So to start off with, what's the story of how you started in the energy industry?

Gilbert: Yeah. So basically I started out in 2009 in Hong Kong. We believe there was an opportunity to basically save energy and save carbon for customers. And I went out there with a friend of mine from university. We started a company working with landlords and big energy users, the likes of big corporations like HSBC, JP Morgan, H&M to track, reduce and basically manage their energy consumption down. So doing sort of corporate energy management programs out in Asia and then an American multinational basically liked what we're doing and said, you know, we would really like to invest in your company. So they ended up buying Energenz in 2016. And then I came out to the UK and kind of left Hong Kong. That's sort of when the initial protests were kicking off, so I thought it was probably a good time to get out of Hong Kong and move to London. 

So since then I've moved to London and was working most recently for one of Europe's largest office developers and got heavily involved with the sustainability strategy for new developments, which is slightly different to the work that I was doing in Hong Kong as more around sort of operational energy efficiency. But what happened over the last couple of years is the whole recognition that the building's emissions don't stop when it starts operations. Basically if you're building a project, up to 50% of the emissions that will ever come from that building have already been emitted by the time someone takes the keys. I think that's a reasonably recent realisation within the industry that we should be looking at the whole lifecycle of carbon and not just the energy efficiency of the built asset, once it's actually built and done. 

During that time, during lockdown, I was introduced to Tom Scott, who's now my business partner. He's a construction manager, chartered surveyor, and he basically runs construction projects for small and medium size developers and investors. Tom said that he was really frustrated that the journey to assessing, reducing, offsetting, benchmarking, the whole journey to net zero for construction was not really accessible for small and medium sized developers. My perspective working at it at a large developer is that the life cycle assessment process was not really consistent. So it was really born out of a frustration that the journey to net zero is not really accessible or consistent for most developers. Then that kind of got us going with Construction Carbon. We worked on it for a long period, basically for a year. We were working on it at night, and during COVID when there wasn't a huge amount else we could do and then we started full time on it in December.

Selin: That's super inspirational. Actually, I would really love to hear about an example of one of your projects to really understand how this Construction Carbon worked.

Gilbert: Yeah, we have done projects for small office fit outs and through to large new build projects. But I think probably a good example that I'd like to pull out is a project that we did for a medium sized office developer where they're doing refurbishment. Basically how it starts is we do carbon estimation and we built a basic carbon estimate tool on our website. So if you're doing a small project, you can just go and get an estimate there. But for this particular client, we would get a bill of materials. Depending on how far they are advanced within their construction timeline, we would ask for a cost plan, which is typically like, how much are you going to spend on all the elements for the project and a bill of materials that's associated with that cost plan. 

So X number of, tonnes of cement, or kilograms of steel or whatever it may be.There's basically a carbon estimation phase, there’s a data collection phase and then we can start to do benchmarking to see how their assets sit against similar types of assets. Now benchmarking refurbishment is slightly challenging because what constitutes a refurbishment can be quite different. But essentially we say this is what you want to do, here are some options. Here are the biggest carbon hotspots within your project and here are your lower carbon material options, then basically present that to the project. The contractor then could decide to swap those components out. Towards the end of the project we would do an as-built assessment. So more detailed, getting actual receipts and bills of material, waste records from site, so that we know that this is exactly what went into the project and essentially what came out of it. Afterwards we would generate an as-built report saying 866 tonnes of carbon associated with this project, for example.What typically happens at this point is a developer might just want to know, okay, that's how much carbon, now I'm going to start tracking that. They might say we want to look at options for offsetting those emissions. 

What happened over the last few years is there are various different industry bodies that have put guidance into place around what net zero means. That's been quite a rapidly evolving space over the last two years and basically the UK Green Building Council have determined options for offsetting. There’s essentially four registries that you can take. You can basically go to the Gold Standard, VERRA, the UK Woodland Trust or the UK Peatland Code. Then they say you should use the Oxford Offsetting Principles, which is essentially looking at additionality. So making sure that what offsets are purchased, are additional and wouldn't have happened without that funding — that's the concept of additionality. There are also minimum reporting requirements that the UK Green Building Council have set out. That shows this is how you should report, it should be on a publicly accessible registry showing exactly how much carbon was associated with this project, what you did to reduce, what you did to offset, how you set against benchmarks and that it was independently third party verified. 

Then you can claim that that project was net zero for construction. Now, there has been quite a lot of thought going into what net zero means for different parts of the asset lifecycle. So net zero for construction, net zero in operation and net zero whole life carbon, the three main concepts. It has taken a little while for those three definitions to evolve and for the industry to kind of agree on what that means. That to be honest hasn't 100% been clarified and declared, but I'd say we're at a pretty close point now to getting towards industry consensus. That is building on the work that a number of different industry organisations have made over the last few years. Looking at definitions, looking at benchmarks, looking at what should constitute net zero for different parts of the building's asset lifecycle. It's a number of different things all coming together at one time, which is quite exciting.

Selin: Yeah, it sounds so great and actually it's quite a complicated subject and what you're doing is simplifying it and making it very accessible, so more construction companies can engage with it, which is amazing. You were mentioning the topic of net zero. And just to recap for the listeners, the global temperature increase needs to be limited to 1.5 degrees, and it's already 1.1 degrees warmer than in the 1800s. In order to do this, the emissions need to be really reduced by 45% by 2030 and we need to reach net zero by 2050.

Selin: How do you see the built environment sector progressing on this objective? Do you see enough momentum to help us reach this goal?

Gilbert: Yes, I feel quite positive that there is some momentum, but there obviously needs to be a lot more towards helping reach this goal. I think it was almost like construction was the industry's dirty secret that no one really wanted to tackle because that was just too difficult. But now it’s easier with common standards, common ways of measuring the whole lifecycle, carbon impact of assets, common benchmarks and this huge swell of motivation within the industry to firstly have common standards so everyone can work towards and get to net zero. So talking about a race to net zero, but really it is a race to lots of companies that are making commitments, corporate level commitments, even local councils are making a commitment to be net zero. 

There has been quite a big learning journey to understanding what that net zero actually means for the built environment and for different stakeholders within the built environment sector. Particularly within developers, I think that there's a really positive groundswell of industry action. You can see that the various different industry bodies are doing a lot of work to try and move forward common standards, common benchmarks, training programs, and I just mentioned a couple of those. The first one is the London Energy Transformation Initiative, and in the UK, that was really looking at embodied carbon. So the upfront impact of a building and basically publishing benchmarks for different types of asset: office, residential, education, health care. And looking at what good looks like. Is it 100 kilograms of CO2 per square metre or a 1000 kilograms of CO2 per square metre? And they actually just started to collect data on projects and understanding what good looks and then they aligned their work with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) benchmarks and then the Institute of Structural Engineers and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. Basically all of these organisations have pulled together and said there's no point in each one of us doing our own separate thing. Let's all get together and create a UK Net Zero Carbon Building Standard. That's kind of where the industry is at the moment and it's a very exciting time. 

What is happening with the Net Zero Carbon Building Standard is it's expanding on the work that the London Energy Transformation Initiative, the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, Institute Structural Engineers and all these different institutes have done. There's basically ten organisations, many hundreds of consultants and industry players are involved. They’re basically contributing data with the intent to make it as wide as possible in terms of all the different types of asset types. So not just offices and homes, but schools, data centres, shopping malls, as many different asset types as possible. They’re collecting information, looking at what good looks like for that particular type of asset. If you're building a new data centre, what are the benchmarks for that? What are the benchmarks for new buildings, for operational and what good looks like? Basically it’s a big data collection exercise, standardising those data sets and then publishing benchmarks. And that will really define the steps as to how the UK can meet the government's goals. Also it's marrying up bottom up benchmarks with the top down benchmarks that the government has set and pulling them together and saying for this particular asset, this is the minimum acceptable. This is what your target is and what you're trying to get to. Then teams can work towards all those different benchmarks but it's quite a big piece of work and it’s exciting that the whole industry is pulling together on this. But at the same time it's slightly daunting because there’s quite a lot going on. 

Selin: Yes, exactly. And you were mentioning the other day that you were leading this part of the initiative as well, and together with Construction Carbon, I can imagine that that's a lot of work. So do you need any support with any of this? Do you have people working with you?

Selin: For those who are listening, if they are interested to get involved, is there anything they can get involved with?

Gilbert: Yeah, basically the chair of the Net Zero Carbon Building Standard, Technical Steering group is Clara Bagenal George who's one of the initial initiators of the London Energy Transformation Initiative. The Government's Board is chaired by David Partridge, so I'm just basically a part of one of the working groups, so I’m part of the puzzle. But there is a lot of things that need to be done within the Net Zero Carbon Building Standard and whether you are a consultant working on a particular type of asset and you think that you can contribute some data or whether you are a new graduate who just wants to get involved and support anyway you can, I think that there's quite a lot of work to be done. I would encourage anyone to firstly go to the website, sign up, and get involved. There's an event coming up on the 17th November that will kind of explain the work today and what's happening into the future. So I'd encourage anyone who is keen to know more about that. If you can contribute data, there's a number of volunteer opportunities as well. If you want to get involved, then by all means just get in touch, because right now the Net Zero Carbon Building Standard is not really like a standalone entity just yet. It's more of a collaborative cross-industry organisation, like a body that will eventually end up administering the Net Zero Carbon Building Standard and revising the standard. But at this point in time, it's not like a separate company or organisation with its own staff if that makes sense.

Selin: Perfect. Yes, that makes a lot of sense. And actually I was wondering with regards to Construction Carbon or this building standard or anything to do with carbon reduction — would you have any final call to actions for those who are listening to this podcast?

Selin: Anything that you would encourage anyone to do in order to help us progress to the net zero objective?

Gilbert: Absolutely, yes. One of the things that we're doing at Construction Carbon is developing an industry wide training program, because one of the things that we identified quite early on is for apples to apples comparison, there needs to be a common industry wide life cycle assessment training program. So that's one thing that we're working on. The other thing is obviously the Net Zero Carbon Building Standard and I see that as primarily kind of publishing the benchmarks and the rules of how to get to net zero buildings. Those are two pieces of work. I'd say sort of get involved in Net Zero Carbon Building Standard and enrol in a life cycle assessor training program which will be launched sometime next year. 

There’s also a huge demand for lifecycle assessors that will be growing as the recognition that lifecycle carbon is important. So whether you are making products, specifying products, so whether you're an architect, engineer, fresh graduate — the understanding of the whole lifecycle impact of everything is important related to the construction industry. Whether it be manufacturing floor slabs or plasterboard or any type of product that goes into a building or whether you're someone who's actually designing and building buildings. I think that recognition about the whole lifecycle carbon impact is gaining importance and transparency.

What I think will happen with this, there's a great sort of analogy regarding this called NABERS in Australia, the National Australian Built Environment Rating System. Basically it was like a voluntary program for energy efficiency in existing buildings and they would take your existing energy consumption from a building and say you contribute that information to a database and it'll basically give you like a star rating system. So you might have a three or four star up to six star rating for your asset. Then what happened was, once the leading landlords started publishing the neighbours’ star rating, then the leading tenant said, well, we're not going to take office space And it’s got three stars and more, then the government said, okay we’ll not take space, and this has got four stars more. Basically you've got like this ratcheting up of performance competition, which is I think you'll see something similar with whole life carbon and embodied carbon benchmarks with operational and upfront embodied carbon. I think it is quite a useful analogy to look at because people sort of rush to the whole thing saying, well the government needs to come in and legislate. Well, maybe, they don't necessarily need to and we don't need to wait for that. Perhaps we can just start publishing the scores now. And if one developer starts publishing that they got an ‘A’ then the next one's going to ask how did they get it? We want ‘A’ too. Then you start this competition of trying to get up the scores of carbon efficiency, if you like. So I think that is something that needs to happen so that everyone can understand it. There's no reason why you should have to be a PhD in carbon before you can understand what the whole life cycle of carbon is. I should be able to explain to my six year old daughter that this building is more efficient than that one. I think that needs to happen.

Selin: Thank you so much for all that information. Actually, that sounds super like actionable and really hopeful also that we don't have to wait for the government and we can also take a lot of action. All of what you said is very informative for anyone who's listening and who wants to get involved. There are so many ways to get involved. I'm also now excited to go and check everything out to learn more about this subject. So thank you so much for your time, Gilbert. I really appreciate that and we'll keep in touch and I'm looking forward to hearing all about the progress.

Gilbert: Thanks very much Selin.