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Professor Mark Gaterell demystifies the role of construction in our net-zero future

  • 11 November 2021
  • 15 min listen

38% of global carbon emissions come from the construction and built environment sectors. As COP26 continues in Glasgow, Professor Mark Gaterell chats to the Life Solved podcast about why we need to find sustainable futures for our cities and buildings.

Sustainable building

In his work at the School of Civil Engineering and Surveying, Mark's focused on how to future-proof buildings and ensure that those we have can adapt to changing climates.

Why is this such a vital part of the climate change conversation? Because our homes, workplaces and businesses all add to the amount of carbon in the atmosphere when reliant upon fossil fuel-powered heating and hot water. Mark says that the massive number of people living in urban areas all adds up to a significant carbon footprint:

From about 2015, we had just over half of the global population living in urban areas. I think by 2050, 70% of the global population will be in urban areas. So the way that we design and manage our cities is going to be increasingly important

Mark Gaterell, Professor of Sustainable Construction

It’s not just the insulation, tech and energy used by buildings that play a part in this, though. Mark says that by thinking about how buildings work on a city-wide scale and interact with their environments, there’s an opportunity to design smarter systems too:

We need to consider how we manage the space between those buildings and the materials we use, the biodiversity or the planting that we adopt in those spaces so that we don't just continue to cause problems for ourselves.

Mark Gaterell, Professor of Sustainable Construction

Redefining decarbonisation

When looking at the built environment from this perspective, Mark thinks that a more holistic view of what decarbonisation means emerges. Rather than thinking about energy use in isolation, he’s looking at how buildings can be adapted, retrofitted or designed to actually reduce the demand for energy in the first place. That includes things like insulation but also their aspect in relation to the sun’s ‘free’ energy, as well as a building’s suitability for the different heating tech options on the market.

Citizens of the future

Another interesting angle that engineers must take into consideration is what the needs of future citizens will look like. Buildings often outlast their original intended use here in the UK (Victorian sewers, anyone?!), so assuming present concepts of comfort will apply in climates 25 years from now might spell problems further down the line.

So how are builders thinking around this?

We work a lot with psychologists and social scientists to help us understand what our occupants expect of comfort in their buildings and how they perceive the comfort provided to them. And that is essential.

Mark Gaterell, Professor of Sustainable Construction

What’s more, Mark says that as we make decisions upon sustainability as nations, we must also consider how we can support developing countries to also take part in the climate fightback:

It's as simple as some very specific positive action. The time for rhetoric is well and truly over.

Mark Gaterell, Professor of Sustainable Construction

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