Is it time to review our approach to the use of timber for taller buildings?
Claire Pomroy, Director of Development, Hines, speaks with ROBBIE COUSINS about the use of timber in taller buildings, the 15-minute city concept and the importance of designing for performance in reducing carbon emissions.
Hines, one of the world’s largest privately-held real estate investors and managers, is active in 28 countries, with $92.3B in global assets under management((as of 30/06//22).
Hines in Ireland
Hines established a foothold in the Irish market in 2011 when it set up operations in Ireland. Today, it employs circa 60 people in Ireland and has a €3.5B portfolio of assets across retail, office and residential projects under management.
Globally, Hines’ reach has enabled it to pioneer and support innovation in sustainability and modern construction techniques. In Ireland, it is an active supporter of the Irish Green Building Council’s (IGBC’s) #BuildingLife campaign. Through this campaign, Hines is working to leverage learnings from other markets to facilitate the reduction of whole-life carbon emissions in Irish building stock.
IGBC #BuildingLife ambassador Claire Pomroy, Director of Development, Hines, left Ireland to start her engineering career, first in Australia for 10 years before spending four years working in Switzerland. Returning to Ireland four years ago, she first worked on Macquarie Capital’s PPP of TU Dublin’s new Grangegorman Campus before joining Hines, which she says attracted her because of its innovative approach to development.
Now, in addition to being one of the key executives heading up Hines’ development operations in Ireland, she also heads up the country’s ESG responsibilities.
“As a director in the Hines Ireland office, my day-to-day job is overseeing the development of large urban regeneration schemes,” Claire Pomroy explains. “But I also wear an ESG hat and oversee the ESG function in Ireland in coordination with my European counterparts in the organisation.”
Use of timber
She comments that as a campaigning body, the IGBC has become an important advocate for dismantling barriers to higher-density timber housing in Ireland through the #Buildinglife campaign, and these barriers not only need to be removed, but all stakeholders need to be resourced and upskilled to make this feasible.
“A recent Joint Oireachtas Committee report has recommended that the government now looks to potentially permit timber structures over 10 metres and engage with building control and fire authorities to achieve this.
“If we are looking to build taller buildings, particularly with timber, the challenge is not just around deregulating timber. We also need to ensure that all stakeholders are resourced and upskilled accordingly and that there is wider industry engagement on aspects such as insurance coverage. Forestry licencing will likely need to be rebooted. It is all about having joined-up thinking and action.”
Modern methods of construction
Pomroy adds the modern methods of construction (MMC) sector needs to scale up quickly if it is to play the essential role required of it in future housing delivery in Ireland.
“It is great to see the introduction of ConstructInnovate, Ireland’s new national Construction Technology Centre; the Build Digital Project; and Enterprise Ireland’s Built to Innovate programme coming out of the Housing for All policy. These programmes will help underpin and drive investment and efficiency, particularly in the MMC sector.
“But Ireland is still trailing in areas such as building with timber. By comparison, in Amsterdam, its 32 local municipalities signed new regulations that commit to building a minimum of 20% of all new homes, including apartments, with timber from 2025.
“We need to dismantle barriers identified that currently inhibit, or slow down the adoption of low-carbon development typologies, construction methods, products and processes.”
Pomroy explains that Hines wants to leverage its international standing and do all it can to facilitate the transition to a low-carbon Irish property market.
“We have produced an open-source embodied carbon reduction guide in collaboration with a top international structural and civil engineering firm. We are also investing in developing innovative, sustainable construction practices and materials.”
In Barcelona, for instance, Hines is developing the T3 Diagonal Mar building, a 3,610-square-metre five-storey office building, which is being built using cross-laminated timber (CLT).
“T3 Diagonal Mar is the first fully wooden building of its kind to be constructed by Hines in Europe. The CLT structure is part of our innovative ‘T3’ family of buildings, a new generation of offices built on three pillars: The warmth and sustainability of timber, superior transit connectivity and cutting-edge technology.
“The on-site fabrication for the structure of this building was completed in approximately two months by six people with a small crane. We are now looking at ways to mimic this across Europe and scale up. It is quite a game-changer.”
The concept also extends beyond Europe. T3 Bayside in Toronto, Canada, is the latest in the global series of modern workspaces to be built with Hines’ proprietary T3 concept.
She adds, “Timber resonates with people. It’s very attractive, and it has low embodied carbon as well as being a speedy material with which to build. There is a lot of housing stock to be built in Ireland, and we want to unlock the use of MMC and mass timber to address not just the environmental considerations but equally viability.”
Prioritise what we build
According to the Paris Climate Agreement Roadmap to 2050, buildings represent an estimated 36% of global final energy consumption and 39% (28% operations, 11% materials and construction) of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.
Pomroy explains she was interested to learn about the estimated extent of embodied carbon associated with Ireland’s road-building programme under the National Development Plan.
“As illustrated in the IGBC’s Building Zero Carbon Ireland document, the embodied carbon of Ireland’s newly planned roads would far exceed emissions for construction of any other type of infrastructure, such as public transport, schools, hospitals or even the infrastructure required to decarbonise our electricity. “In Ireland, there’s been over-reliance on cars. We need to challenge ourselves by focusing on concepts such as the 15-minute city, where compact neighbourhoods allow residents to access their daily needs (housing, work, food, health, education, culture and leisure) within a short walk or bike ride. The concept is being implemented in Paris and other major cities, and a programme was recently launched by the C40 Mayors group [A global network of mayors taking urgent action to confront the climate crisis to support it to go mainstream]. It is positive to see the concept appearing in the newly adopted Dublin City Council Development Plan (2022-2028) as informing the plan’s strategic context and vision.” Pomroy also points out that household sizes are declining and aligning more with the EU average. “We need to consider the type and mix of housing needed in future. The IGBC’s Building Zero Carbon Ireland Roadmap notes that we likely already have a sufficiency of three- and four-bedroom stock in most areas and an undersupply of one- and two-bedroom homes. We also have much larger homes than our EU neighbours and should be aiming to reduce our average new home size to meet future needs, as well as make adaptive reuse of existing buildings where viable.”
Design for Performance
Pomroy says that collaborating with colleagues across Hines’ European network and her experience in other markets gives her useful insight into innovation in the sustainability space, something that has also helped in her role as a #BuildingLife ambassador. “I had worked previously both on the design side and in advisory roles for environmental bodies promoting the sustainable agenda in Australia, where there has been a huge focus on whole-life carbon and a ‘design for performance’ approach that transformed the market. The IGBC #BuildingLife campaign is now highlighting the well-evidenced ‘performance gap’ between design and operation when developing new commercial assets.”
Addressing the performance gap
The performance gap that Pomroy refers to is the gap between how buildings are expected to perform in emissions terms and how they actually perform.
She explains, “To date, Ireland’s energy performance regulations promote efficiency in theory with Building Energy Ratings (BERs) – but there is no visibility post-completion on the actual kilowatts and carbon intensity of the energy used. Operational performance has not been required to be reported or benchmarked and has therefore been invisible to the market, especially for investors and occupiers. However, this will evolve rapidly in the coming years as we transition to a low-carbon economy and the regulatory landscape shifts. I’m very much behind the #Buildinglife campaign’s focus on this and highlighting the business case of design for performance.”
Claire Pomroy notes that across the commercial office sector, Australia has achieved significant reductions in energy intensity by focusing on operational performance.
According to IGBC’s Building Zero Carbon Ireland Roadmap, over the past 14 years, Australian offices rated using NABERS [a tool for benchmarking operational performance] have achieved savings of 42% and reduced carbon emissions by 53%, which is one of the fastest transformations of buildings globally. The introduction of NABERS has led to a ‘design for performance’ approach with a very high correlation between the simulated design and the post-occupancy performance.
Explaining what design for performance looks like, she says, “For new build commercial projects, sophisticated energy modelling tests a range of dynamic design approaches against potential operational scenarios, including faults and poor calibration. The design review process is often audited, and there are contractual arrangements that outline the builder’s guarantee to achieve a specified base building outcome, which in turn can be stepped down to other designers. Monitoring of real-time data is then critical, and the use of predictive analytics helps turn this into actionable information for facility and asset management teams to fine-tune the asset and drive performance year on year.
“For premium new builds, design is pushed to its very limits, and innovative technologies are called for to ensure market-leading performance can be achieved in use. Performance is, of course, impacted by how the space is occupied; therefore, early engagement and building strong relationships with occupiers are critical.
“Many studies of Australia’s market transformation have shown that once benchmarked information was made available, occupiers and investors quickly understood the value of better-performing buildings. This effectively decoupled investment in energy performance from payback periods to lettability and cap rates. This competitive advantage drove the market-led transformation in the early days. With today’s high energy prices and the regulatory backdrop, there is now more incentive than ever from tenants and occupiers to align.”
She continues, “In Ireland, we need to be as ambitious as possible when designing a new building, particularly as the planning process is lengthy and the regulations are being updated so often. From a risk management perspective, it makes perfect sense to get this right. We always look ahead because we need to future-proof our developments.
Pomroy notes that Hines’ European Core Fund has achieved 36% carbon reductions from 2016 to 2022 on landlord-controlled parts of its portfolio, for which several buildings are located in Dublin. Hines is currently working on road-mapping the decarbonisation of all of its Irish assets. “There will likely be less aggressive and slower regulation for existing buildings, but this is where the greatest innovation and divergence from business-as-usual is required. Practicalities may also come to bear, such as occupants with long-term leases that can impede timelines for deep retrofits, so both short- and long-term planning is required.
Carbon Risk Real Estate Monitor
She continues, “We have been using a science-based decarbonisation trajectory tool known as the Carbon Risk Real Estate Monitor (CRREM). This provides the real estate industry with science-based decarbonisation pathways aligned with the Paris Climate Agreement goals of limiting the global temperature rise to below 1.5°C.”
CRREM is an EU-funded tool to manage asset-stranding risks and renovation strategies. “We’ve been applying this across our standing assets for a while now, and we have seen increased traction in decision-making by key investors that want to push out the potential stranding year for a platform to be no sooner than 10 years away, which leads to action.
Another element of this work is moving to a point where developments are fully electrified for heating and cooling as the electricity grid moves towards more renewable sources of energy.”
She adds, “We are heading towards full electrification, but we are also looking to reduce energy demand as part of this process. The CRREM tool has enabled us to plan for both reducing the energy demand and carbon emissions by the fuel source that we’re using.”
She points out that CRREM provides some interesting insights into the makeup of other countries’ national grids.
“Some European countries have different grids and, as a result, different trajectories. For example, France has a lot of nuclear power, which is currently considered a transitionary fuel under the EU Taxonomy. Sweden has a lot of hydroelectric power. So the trajectory for assets in these countries, utilising their grid electricity, is really down the CRREM graph, demonstrating good performance. In Ireland, our wind power is choppy, and we have a way to go regarding our grid emissions. So, the more on-site renewables and load balancing we can integrate, the better.”
Globally, Pomroy notes that Europe’s CRREM tool joined forces with the internationally leading Science-Based-Targets- initiative (SBTi) earlier this year. “Hines has committed to set science-based targets (SBT) to help further reduce our environmental impact, building on our global target to achieve net-zero operational carbon in our building portfolio by 2040”.
She refers to the importance of collaboration between all stakeholders if progress is to be made.
“As an international organisation, Hines can take learnings from one market and apply them in other markets. We have achieved much through collaborating with our peers and industry stakeholders.
“In Ireland, IGBC’s #BuildingLife campaign has brought together top stakeholders and thought leaders from across the sector to find solutions that reduce carbon emissions across the whole construction process. But time is running out, and we need greater buy-in to be successful. There is also much to be learned from our EU neighbours. Ireland must redouble our efforts to keep pace. And urgently so,” Claire Pomroy concludes.