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Upskilling cost experts is crucial to decarbonising the built environment

Published: 19/06/2024

As momentum grows in the drive to reduce the construction industry’s impact on the environment, there’s rightly a spotlight on bringing together two prerequisites – a consistent methodology for measuring and reporting whole life carbon emissions, and a consistent dataset of carbon values to draw from. However, neither of these will count for anything if there isn’t enough of a competent and confident workforce able to use them.

BCIS CEO James Fiske makes the case for quantity surveyors and cost experts utilising their existing skills for quantifying the monetary costs of a project to help quantify the environmental costs.

When we launched the Built Environment Carbon Database (BECD) in October 2023, we asked more than 450 construction professionals, for whom it was relevant to their role, if they felt adequately trained and supported to be able to calculate and report carbon emissions. Only 16% were able to say yes with confidence. The majority, 71%, either said they could use some help or they wish it were easier.

The recently updated whole life carbon assessment for the built environment standard by RICS, which provides the consistent methodology, is admittedly complex, and the development of additional resources and training to make it more accessible to professionals from varying disciplines is certainly welcome.

The increase in sustainability and environmental professionals in construction, coming under a myriad of net zero and carbon-related job titles, is an encouraging sign that firms are taking this seriously, even if legislation isn’t yet forcing their hand.

For many used to working on the costs side of construction, however, carbon – and particularly embodied carbon – is a relatively new consideration and therefore the measuring and reporting side is also a relatively new discipline.

Without a national mandate on reporting, and with differing approaches between planning authorities around the UK, the extent to which whole life carbon emissions are considered or mitigated on a project can be something of a postcode, or even a client or contractor lottery.

In a recent Q&A webinar with nearly 300 construction professionals working predominantly as quantity surveyors and cost experts, we asked who would typically be responsible for assessing the whole life carbon emissions on a project.

36% said a sustainability consultant, while 17% said a quantity surveyor and a further 17% said architects.

The tendency for costs to be calculated in isolation from the whole life carbon emissions being measured was reinforced by the 51% of respondents who told us that, on recent projects they had been involved with, cost and carbon tended to be considered as separate issues. Just 12% said they had been considered together, while 24% said they had experienced it both ways, depending on the project.

When we slightly shifted the focus and asked participants who would be best-placed to measure and/or assess whole life carbon emissions alongside costs on a project, 40% said either a quantity surveyor or cost consultant, while 35% said either a sustainability consultant or carbon accountant. If this result is quantity surveyors backing themselves to take on carbon reporting too, I wholeheartedly support them.

Calculating and reporting on cost and carbon at the same time makes sense for various reasons, not least for the time saved in not duplicating a data collection exercise.

The underlying principles of cost estimating are the same as in carbon estimating. Whether you’re at an early stage in the process and working with ranges, uncertainty factors or contingency allowances, or at a detailed design stage and have the exact specifications of particular components or materials to hand, the methodical approach required is the same.

As is, of course, the crucial requirement to consider the whole life cycle of an asset or building. Just like the potential outlay for operational and disposal costs must be appraised alongside upfront expenditure, so too must the emissions for the whole process – from the extraction and transportation of raw materials prior to construction right through to the deconstruction stage, not forgetting to incorporate any potential reuse, recycling or recovery of component parts.

In this way, a quantity surveyor is well-positioned to address the common question of how much more lower carbon options may cost over the life cycle, if anything. Indeed, the easiest way to reduce embodied carbon on a project is to build less and use fewer materials.

The quantity surveyor inhabits a unique and important vantage point on a project as they interact with architects, engineers, contractors and the client. Having an insight which combines cost and carbon, and is also sensitive to the possible demands and restrictions of the supply chain, enables ‘bigger picture’ analysis and makes it much easier to find efficiencies in the design and specification process.

In the future, we expect to see more audits on projects’ green credentials, which will make the accuracy of measurements and reporting being done – in some cases to secure financing – even more critical. If rigour hasn’t been applied to carbon calculations in the same way that quantity surveyors approach cost calculations, they simply won’t stand up to scrutiny.

There is something of a chicken and egg dilemma in all of this. As I have stated, the data and methodology are nothing without the professional to use them. Of course, without the consistent data and methodology, the professional has nothing of substance to use. All aspects of this are a work in progress, and we have to strive to push forward on all fronts.

On the RICS standard, which underpins all of the services that BCIS offers, our poll respondents told us they have significantly varying experience. 42% said they were aware of the standard but hadn’t read it. Less than one quarter, 23%, said they weren’t aware of it. Just 8% said they had read and understood it, and were actively working in line with it.

The resultant disparity, for a group of primarily cost experts at least, is clear. We asked in our poll if the professionals thought they could spot an issue or anomaly with a carbon value on a project as confidently as they could a cost value. 40% said not, while 33% said not really. Just 3% said yes, definitely.

We know we have more work to do to empower quantity surveyors and cost specialists, as well as a whole host of other professionals, to take on this new way of working.

The most pressing concern is that we reduce carbon emissions so we can safeguard the planet for future generations, but that’s not to say that our individual and professional development is not also important. When we asked our respondents if offering whole life carbon assessments would be an enhancement to their job role or the service they offer, 45% said definitely and 34% said probably.

At BCIS, we continue to develop the services we offer, from encouraging industry adoption of the collaborative BECD to combining cost and carbon analysis, in (effortless for the user) compliance with the RICS standard, through our new Life Cycle Evaluator.

Ultimately, it’s everyone’s responsibility to do something to help reduce emissions from the built environment. I’m confident that the industry will continue to rise to the challenge, because the alternative is frankly unthinkable. The pace at which we are seeing new technologies and innovative solutions being brought to projects is exciting but is also indicative of how the workforce will need to grow and adapt in years to come. We know the country needs to invest in green-collar workers and address already widespread skills shortages.

But let’s not forget the resources we already have. It’s fantastic to see so many carbon specialists joining projects to share their expertise. Now I’d love to see more cost specialists upskilling and expanding their capabilities to join them.

Life Cycle Evaluator

Life Cycle Evaluator (LCE) is a compliant whole life cost and carbon solution available for the UK Built Environment. Life Cycle Evaluator is designed to generate fully compliant capital cost, life cycle cost and whole life carbon assessments for your project at the same time.

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