DAVID BROWNE, Director, RKD Architects, and IGBC #BuildingLife ambassador, speaks with Robbie Cousins about what he sees as the critical factors needed to bring about a zero-carbon construction sector by 2050.
A former president of the Royal Institute of the Architects in Ireland, David Browne is one of Ireland’s most respected architects and has been at the forefront of the country’s construction industry for several decades. His ability to see the big picture and bring a collaborative approach to initiatives he is engaged in has made him one of the industry’s go-to people when it comes to effecting change in the sector.
The Irish Green Building Council’s (IGBC’s) ‘Building a Zero Carbon Ireland: A Roadmap to decarbonise Ireland’s Built Environment across its Whole Life Cycle’ report presents a set of recommendations to halve our sector emissions by 2030 and to decarbonise Ireland’s built environment by 2050. The IGBC established the #BuildingLife campaign to promote this roadmap. As part of the campaign, a number of #BuildingLife ambassadors from across the construction sector were appointed to promote and agitate for the adoption of the roadmap within their individual fields.
David Browne was one of the first ambassadors to be appointed, and he fully endorses the roadmap goals and the IGBC’s call for a collaborative approach to buildings across their lifecycles.
He heads up the Sustainability Committee of the influential Construction Sector Group’s Innovation and Digital Adoption Subgroup. He is also the chairperson of Irish Cities 2070, a group of architects and other building professionals looking to create a long-term vision of urban design and urban policy in Ireland.
IGBC #BuildingLife Campaign
Discussing the IGBC #BuildingLife campaign, he says his involvement came about because he saw it as a great opportunity to address the environmental impacts of buildings across their lifecycle, something he adds that there has been much talk about but little transformative change until recently.
“I supported what the IGBC was trying to achieve with the #BuildingLife campaign when I first heard about it,” David Browne comments. “Collaborating to develop a roadmap and tools to reach carbon neutrality in the built environment by 2050 will be essential if we are to realise net-zero building. There has been huge innovation in this field in Ireland. But we need greater collaboration between the public and private sectors to deliver it at the scale necessary to address Ireland’s climate change commitments meaningfully. We must all act urgently, consistently and together to solve this problem. That is why I fully endorse the #BuildingLife campaign and am delighted to see the calibre of the other people and organisations supporting it.”
CSG Innovation And Digital Adoption Subgroup
From 2020, David Browne played a key role in the CSG Innovation and Digital Adoption Subgroup, being appointed chair of the Sustainability Committee. He says that the subgroup has made remarkable progress in the three years since its establishment, with stakeholders drawn from across the spectrum of private and public stakeholders.
“At the moment, I chair the Sustainability Committee of the CSG Innovation and Digital Adoption Subgroup, and we are in the final stages of producing a document called ‘Guidance towards the circular economy for the Irish construction sector’.
“Construction and demolition have a huge impact within Ireland. Thirty-seven per cent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Ireland are from buildings. This breaks down 23% from operational emissions associated with the energy required to heat, cool and light our buildings, and 14% is accounted for by the embodied carbon that goes into constructing the buildings.
“It should be noted that 50% of all material extraction, 33% of all potable water use, and 50% of total waste by weight are all currently generated by construction and demolition activities. And 82% of this waste is backfilled, 10% is sent for disposal, and only 8% is recycled. This is all according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Waste Statistics Summary Report for 2021.”
David Browne comments that, overall, the achievements of the Innovation Subgroup to date have been outstanding. “We now have an MMC demonstration park underway in Mount Lucas, Co Offaly; Construct Innovate centred in Galway University; Build Digital centred in TU Dublin, and a Digital Construction Training Skillnet. These will drive innovation, more efficient construction, new learning and digital adoption across the sector in the coming years. I am also delighted that due to the subgroup’s oversight work, the last few outlier local authorities should accept digital planning submissions by June next year.”
Sustainability in Action
David Browne contends that there is a compelling argument for moving away from a linear to a circular economy and enormous opportunities for construction to reduce its carbon footprint by doing this.
He explains, “We need to design for less waste with more reuse and make existing building and infrastructure stock more circular through renovation and adaptation to maximise their asset value and extending their functional life, and through designing new buildings and infrastructure to be as circular as possible.”
Browne adds that while there has been much discussion around sustainability and circularity over the years, it is only recently that both are coming into the mainstream. He believes, in part, this has been driven by the growth of foreign direct investment (FDI) clients, as well as through the work of many Irish people in the built environment sector, public, private and academic areas, not least the IGBC.
RKD Architects, where he is a director and has worked all of his career, was one of the first practices in the country to incorporate BREEAM and LEED into its operations as far back as 2006.
“In 2006, when RKD first started offering LEED and BREEAM services to its clients, it was seen as a novelty. It is now the norm for commercial, residential and many public sector buildings. Tech companies, industrialists and other FDI clients have been driving change to meet their ESG requirements. The embodied carbon emissions associated with the production of building materials and the construction of buildings as well as optimising design for sustainability are finally under the microscope, and this is a welcome fact.”
Referring again to the #BuildingLife campaign, he says that it has helped raise awareness about these issues, with the industry and its clients talking and now, in many cases, embedding sustainability at all stages of a building’s life, from design to planning, construction, use and disposal, and, hopefully, in the near future, retrofit and reuse.
“At RKD, we are targeting to achieve a carbon-neutral workplace by 2030, and we are helping to improve the sustainability capabilities of our staff. For example, we recently published a playbook of sustainability actions to be taken at every building design stage. We are also committed to driving this ambition with our clients.
“We have developed an early design performance analysis workflow and are working towards a new post-occupancy evaluation service offer. This is to expand our services as sustainability consultants and ensure optimal value for our clients.”
Recent work by RKD’s research team includes ‘Eco-design for Sustainable Products’, ‘Embodied Carbon’ in collaboration with UCD, ‘Designing Manufacturing Plants of the Future’, ‘Designing for Circularity and Green Public Procurement for Cement and Concrete’.
Irish Cities 2070 Initiative
As chair of Irish Cities 2070, David Browne is working with architects and other building professionals to create a long-term vision of urban design and urban policy in Ireland, testing options that link livelihood with liveability for Irish cities of different scales to thrive.
“We want to explore the spatial implications of policy on urban areas, set out highly practical actions, and underline the value of evidence-based decisions to achieve sustainable placemaking. Last year, we completed a study of Galway city to imagine its sustainable and liveable long-term urban future.
“With the Galway city study, we’ve looked at a do-nothing scenario in which Galway’s footprint would double between now and 2070. We then demonstrated that there’s enough land within the existing city boundaries to enable its capacity to expand to accommodate a tripling of its population. So that would be moving the population from its current 80,000 to about 250,000 accommodated within the existing city boundaries using somewhat more dense development, generally three to four storeys in suburban areas and six to eight in areas close to the city centre.
“The reality for the country is that we’ve got to do this. At a macro level, this has huge potential in terms of saving energy, reducing materials usage and improving the way people live.”
“The Galway study has now been taken on board by the Greater Galway Forum, a body focused on long-term strategic thinking and planning for the region. “Whereas our report is a spatial and environmental study, the Greater Galway Forum is adding a cultural, social and economic study to this with a view to using the combined studies as a blueprint for the development of Galway over the next 50 or so years.”
David Browne says that recently, some owners focused on their ESG commitments are concerned about the vulnerability of older building stock in their portfolio to become stranded assets.
“Clients with large building portfolios, much of which was constructed between the 60s and 90s, are particularly concerned as the standards to which they were built fall far short of today’s requirements. RKD has been working with some owners to assess their building portfolios and what, if anything, can be done to bring them up to current standards.
“To this end, we take a 60-year view of a building in terms of its energy performance and adaptability to inform the renovate or demolish question.
“One instance in which this approach has been successful is a well-known office building near Dublin city centre. The client wanted to put the building to better use. The then 8,500 sq-metre building had the potential to be increased to 17,000 sq metres. We assessed if it would be more viable to build on to the original building or demolish it and rebuild a completely new complex.
“Although it was marginal, after assessment, we concluded that as the building had a 100mm non-structural screen, the floor-to-floor height was adequate to facilitate modern services being installed. In addition, the cores designed in the ‘70s were compliant with current standards.
“The building was remodelled and doubled in size with the additional 8,500-sq-metre new build. In addition to the new services installation, the original cladding was replaced with a modern energy-efficient system. By doing this, there was a saving of about 40% on the new build, which was a crucial factor in keeping the building.”
He adds that while some buildings can be adapted, many more would not facilitate a modern fit-out and need to be demolished and replaced, commenting, “The preponderance now is moving much more towards trying to keep buildings. It is worth recalling that we have the ultimate reusable buildings with our Georgian building stock, most of which survived up to three centuries and are still being adapted for new purposes.”
David Browne believes all new buildings should be designed and planned to be as circular as possible.
“Linear thinking is to take, make, use, and dispose of the asset. This thinking was at play with many buildings constructed in the second half of the twentieth century.
“With circular thinking, we are enabling, no, ensuring reuse and working in a way that makes the most of all materials throughout a building’s life and beyond. There is great potential in this way of thinking. We’ve taken the first step on the journey. But there is a considerable amount of work to be done. Through the work of the CSG Innovation Group and IGBC, we are looking at more practical ways to make our building and infrastructure stock circular, but there is a long way to go.
“For example, at the moment, if you want to exchange materials, there isn’t a digital platform where you can access information on what’s available to exchange. A further difficulty, for example, will be assessing the fitness-for-purpose of a large aluminium and glass facade taken from an older building for reuse on another. Also, there is little or no physical infrastructure for storing and exchanging materials for reuse. We need to address these issues.”
He closes by giving an operational example that has facilitated and encouraged sustainable thinking in the Netherlands.
“At Schiphol Airport outside Amsterdam, all the light fittings are leased to the airport. This means that the supplier takes responsibility for maintaining light levels within airport buildings and benefits from providing sustainable, suitable light fittings and ensuring they operate and have long-life lamps.
“In Ireland, we need to look at all elements of our buildings through a circularity lens. Remember, the energy required to operate buildings accounts for 23% of all GHG emissions. The potential impacts of changing how we view the operation of buildings are enormous.
“The Irish construction industry has shown itself to be a leader in managing change and addressing major challenges in recent years. Given what has been achieved through taking a collaborative approach to sustainability and circularity, I am confident we are on the road to halving our sector emissions, although it will be a real challenge to achieve this by 2030 and decarbonising our built environment by 2050 will need a great deal of new thinking and approaches across the construction sector. There is a lot of work to be done, particularly in the short term, and collaboration is key to achieving these goals,” David Browne concludes.