Embodied carbon is the elephant in the room that needs to be addressed
IGBC #BuildingLife Ambassador and D/RES Properties’ Head of Sustainability Robbie McGrath speaks with ROBBIE COUSINS about how the housebuilder has radically reduced the embodied carbon of its residential schemes.
D/RES Properties is Ireland’s third-largest housebuilder. The Durkan brand has been synonymous with house building in Ireland since 1971. Its core target markets are first-time buyers and owner-occupiers, and its development portfolio stretches across the greater Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare areas, all within a 40-kilometre radius of Dublin.
As part of its ethos, it maintains involvement in the residential schemes that it builds to facilitate community development and cohesion. It also supports sustainability initiatives such as recycling and sustainable waste management. More recently, it has been offering homeowners green energy packages should they wish to upgrade their homes from an A2 to an A1 BER rating either before or after taking up residency.
D/RES is also a gold member of the Irish Green Building Council (IGBC) and is actively involved in its programmes, most recently the #BuildingLife campaign.
D/RES Properties’ head of sustainability and BuildingLife ambassador Robbie McGrath joined the company in 2021, having worked as a sustainability consultant for one of the Nordic regions leading blue-chip property management companies for the previous 13 years in Finland. During that time, he was engaged in sustainable commercial, healthcare and educational developments. He worked with the Finnish Green Building Council using many of the sustainability tools it had introduced. He also contributed to its working groups and think tanks on sustainability issues.
He comments, “The Nordic region has been ahead of the game regarding sustainability and developing energy-efficient buildings. Globally, developers of commercial buildings have been the leaders in sustainable building design, considering how efficiently buildings perform once completed and how tenants might use them.”
He explains that when he was looking at returning to Ireland, D/RES attracted him because it not only took its sustainability responsibility very seriously. It also maintained an interest in the communities it built.
“D/RES was the most progressive company that I talked to in terms of sustainability ambitions. There is no ‘greenwashing’ with them. They are proactive on sustainability and are not afraid to embrace innovation to achieve their goals. I also liked that they maintain an interest in the communities they build and use this to inform decisions they make for future developments. I saw them as giving me the most scope to impact the sustainability space in Ireland.”
He says that in recent years, D/RES has integrated ESG into all aspects of its operations, and, as part of his job, he oversees the delivery of the ESG function.
“The D/RES team works together to ensure that all governance, environmental, and social criteria are kept in focus. We provide extensive information on how we operate and manage the company. We use GRESB (Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark) certification to align and benchmark ourselves against European peers.”
GRESB is a statement of operational excellence of investor-driven ESG benchmarking that presents all credentials to potential investors in a structured way.
“We use GRESB as an ESG toolkit to ensure that we’re aligned with global best practice and to see where we stand compared to, say, a German or Swedish equivalent company. We have built this into our continuous operational improvement in order to take a holistic approach to how we address ESG. Rather than reinventing the wheel, GRESB covers everything about how we interact with stakeholders and customers and communities where we develop.”
D/RES Properties development approach
He adds that D/RES defines its function as developing communities rather than housing estates.
“When first looking at a new development, D/RES analyses the feasibility and impact of making changes to building design or materials or the equipment being installed in houses to minimise the embodied and operational carbon in our developments. We plan homes to be sustainable and, when in use, to save owners money.”
He continues, “The traditional model of housebuilding is that once a house is sold, the housebuilder moves on. D/RES has a two-year period after completing development when we have an aftercare service to facilitate the creation of robust communities. In many instances, we still support community initiatives in developments that we have completed three or four years ago. Examples of this include working with waste management providers to bring in recycling skips a couple of times a year. These initiatives keep us involved and inform decisions made for future developments, and it’s a model that we’re continually working to improve.”
When working in Finland, Robbie McGrath had a close connection with the Finnish Green Building Council and was delighted to get the opportunity to develop a connection with IGBC in Ireland.
“The IGBC provides strong leadership in the sustainability space and does excellent work with the small resources that it has.”
He says it brings together a broad base of members to address the sustainability challenges that the Irish construction industry is facing.
“The BuildingLife campaign is a perfect example of cross-sector collaboration at work. Everyone has been coming together to develop practical solutions that will address the challenge of reducing embodied carbon in the sector.
“It has been easy to get on board with BuildingLife because a lot needs to be achieved in a short space of time. Small changes are no longer good enough; we need radical step changes to reduce the carbon footprint of the construction sector dramatically. BuildingLife has highlighted the issues, and the IGBC’s Roadmap to decarbonise Ireland’s built environment across its whole life cycle sets out clear, achievable steps to deliver a zero-carbon sector.”
Embodied carbon refers to the emissions associated with all the activities of procuring, mining, harvesting raw materials, transforming these materials into construction products, transporting them to site and incorporating them into a building, and subsequently maintaining, replacing and removing and disposing at the end of their life.
At the heart of the BuildingLife campaign is the objective of reducing the embodied carbon of Irish construction. Robbie McGrath explains that D/RES Properties has made great strides in reducing the embodied carbon in its developments.
“Addressing embodied carbon is a big focus for D/RES. I have been carrying out life cycle assessments (LCAs) of buildings since 2010. LCA is very close to my heart, and it is an easy way to show people the impacts of their decisions. It is good to see it moving to the mainstream within the industry in Ireland.
“D/RES has now pretty much transferred completely to timber frame and away from concrete block. This has helped to substantially reduce the embodied carbon of our developments. By switching to timber frame and concentrating on the fabric of our buildings, we have cut our emissions for starter homes from 12,000 kgs of CO2 per sq metre to 430 kg per sq metre, and there is still a lot of scope to get this down further. The industry objective is to reduce carbon emissions by 51% by 2030. We’re already at that point and are pushing to get it further down.”
Environmental Product Declarations
Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) are a standardised way of providing data about the environmental impacts of a product through the product life cycle.
Robbie McGrath says that EPDs have become essential to help D/RES make sustainable decisions.
“The house building sector is at a point where we are re-engineering how we build homes. D/RES analyses every small part of the process before we start building. We take a fabric-first approach to make sure we have the building envelope the way we want it, having the lowest viable carbon impact. We look for materials that will contribute to keeping the embodied carbon of our developments low. EPDs are essential in helping us choose the right products to do this.
“I work closely with our supply chain to inform and educate them about what we want to achieve and what is required to get to our target level of emissions. This approach has proven to be a win-win for everyone, as our suppliers are benefiting from improving the sustainability of their product offerings.
“Ultimately, we need transparency on the materials we use to select the right balance for our housing. EPDs facilitate quick decision-making at the all-important design stage.
Robbie McGrath explains that D/RES Properties is now offering its customers options to upgrade their energy supply with green loan packages from AIB.
“For our recent Tinakilly Park residential development with Ardale Properties in Rathnew, Co Wicklow, we made a decision to have zero-fossil fuels for heating provision. Each home has electrical heat pumps with mechanical heat recovery ventilation.
“We have also introduced our Positive Living Upgrade product with our energy partner Pinergy to give residents the option to futureproof new homes with an A1 renewable electrical energy upgrade option.”
This community-based housing energy model is developed on a microgrid basis.
“As part of the Positive Living Upgrade package, residents can get 7.5KW batteries to store generated energy and manage the energy flow throughout the house during the day. All the houses on the estate are connected over a microgrid to support the energy demand in the area on the national grid. Neighbours will be able to share energy peer-to-peer when possible in the coming years. Our goal is to give customers more energy security and self-sufficiency.
“We offer the upgrade as part of the build, or owners can take up the offer three or more years down the line. There is also a Green Loan package available from AIB.”
Sustainable building materials
McGrath says that significant progress has been made recently in addressing carbon-emission reductions, especially on the product side.
“A growing number of new and smaller manufacturers are disrupting the market and driving change through innovation, while some established larger players have been slow to change.
“Smaller manufacturers, by their nature, tend to be agile. They are getting their EPDs in line and using low-carbon materials. This is getting them out in front in being able to offer the products that the market needs now. This is an exciting prospect and shows that solutions are coming down the line. We want to work with these types of companies to help them build up economies of scale.”
He mentions that he sees mass timber as being a very important material for future construction.
“One of my passions is mass timber. Fire resistance, structural integrity and environmental attributes are making new tall mass timber buildings among the most innovative structures in the world. But there needs to be a change in Irish building regulations in order for such buildings to be constructed here.
“D/RES is currently looking at mass timber. Cross-laminated timber (CLT) is used all over Europe for taller buildings. D/RES is looking at testing CLT as a solution for creche buildings, so we are ready to integrate it into our housebuilding operations when the time is right. We need building and fire regulations that will enable this. Services also need to be resourced so that it is safe to go higher with mass timber frame buildings.”
Biodiversity has become a vital feature of all D/RES Properties developments in recent years.
“Biodiversity is an integral part of the design process in every D/RES development. We use biophilic design, whereby we aim to integrate nature into our buildings. We consider the material makeup of our interiors to give residents an indirect connection to nature. For example, we include features such as exposed wood and maximise natural daylight in spaces with the height of windows and the connection to nature outside. We also have green spaces and pockets all over our developments. Every house that D/RES Properties builds has a maximum of a five-minute walk to a green space.
“In our Tinakilly Park development with Ardale Properties, we are putting in Wicklow’s largest park, comprising 14 acres of new parkland with not just mature trees, but grass and wild meadows with a biodiverse interconnected ecosystem of water bodies connected to the wildflower meadows so that amphibians can move from one water body to another.
“Our overall goal is to have a net positive impact for all of our developments.”
In closing, Robbie McGrath refers back to the IGBC’s BuildingLife campaign, commenting that embodied carbon is the elephant in the room that people have ignored for far too long.
“As we have improved the energy efficiency of our buildings, embodied carbon is now standing out more. It is the elephant in the room that can no longer be ignored. This is a challenge we can address if we work together as a sector with government and regulatory bodies to ensure that we can deliver on the goals in the government’s Climate Action Plan,” he concludes.