The establishment of Centres of Excellence in integrated sustainable building design, to help the construction industry meet UK climate change policy targets, could create over £1 billion of savings by 2030 and cut carbon emissions by 3.5 million tonnes a year, according to a report published today by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The proposed centres would also act as a hub to educate future sustainable construction experts and share knowledge between construction companies, academics and policy makers.

The report  The Case for Centres of Excellence in sustainable building design (866.15 KB)  is the result of an exercise to establish the costs and benefits for the UK economy in creating a network of centres of excellence in integrated sustainable design and construction. It also evaluates the need for new skills and approaches in sustainable design in order for the construction industry to deliver low carbon buildings at the lowest cost for society.

The UK climate change policy targets an 80% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2050 and energy consumption in the built environment is responsible for around 45% of CO2 emissions, the principal greenhouse gas. The construction industry therefore has a major role to play in achieving the UK’s target: the centres would help by disseminating knowledge, providing interdisciplinary education for students and professionals, researching low carbon design techniques and technologies and acting as portals to academic research capability for businesses, the media and policy makers.

The report evaluated the economic benefits for UK plc in just one of the activities of the proposed centres: the provision of specialist undergraduate engineering education. Engineering graduates trained at the proposed centres would enter the construction industry equipped with skills to deliver the most cost-effective carbon abatement, informed by an integrated education bringing engineering physics, engineering, architectural and systems design together.

Seed funding of just £30 million over five years to establish four such centres of excellence would deliver cumulative savings with a net present value in excess of £1 billion by 2030 and a reduction in carbon emissions of 3.5 million tonnes of CO2 per annum. By 2050 the cumulative savings could have risen to over £6 billion net present value and a reduction in emissions of nearly 11 million tonnes of CO2 per annum.

At present, low carbon buildings are often more expensive than anticipated and yet still fail to deliver the expected carbon abatement. The construction industry lacks a replicable approach to delivering affordable and reliable low carbon buildings, yet it has the lowest investment in training research and development of any sector in the UK economy. While some UK firms are world leaders in sustainable building, 80% of UK construction work is delivered by small and medium businesses without the resources to implement the radical changes needed. Thus, the centres of excellence would provide a focus for dissemination of knowledge and provide continuing professional education as well as undergraduate and postgraduate teaching.

Report author Doug King, Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor in Building Engineering Physics at the University of Bath, says: “The construction industry must make a step change into the low carbon paradigm to meet ambitious targets for low carbon refurbishment and zero carbon new buildings set by government policy, but it needs to be equipped to do it at a cost that is affordable to society.

“Centres of excellence would help to equip the construction industry with the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve dramatic carbon reductions through energy conservation, without relying on expensive technological EcoBling. Graduates would be equipped with skills that are presently in great demand in the industry and they will help to rebalance the economy by avoiding unnecessary expenditure on imported technologies, such as photovoltaics, while reducing the need to build more energy generation capacity in the UK. Overall the saving could be £1bn in less than two decades – all for a relatively modest investment in engineering education.”

Notes for editors

  1. For the last six years the Academy has run a pilot scheme placing experts in low carbon construction into UK universities as Visiting Professors in Building Engineering Physics and the graduates they have taught are now beginning to take up positions in industry. The scheme demonstrated the opportunity that would arise from deeper penetration of low carbon design skills via centres of excellence.
  2. The project was funded by the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers, the Happold Trust, King Shaw Associates Ltd, the Ove Arup Foundation, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the University of Bath Knowledge Transfer Partnership and the Centre for Window & Cladding Technology,
  3. The report forms part of the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) Low Carbon Construction Action Plan. Doug King, Principal of King Shaw Associates Ltd and Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor in Building Engineering Physics, prepared the report with contributions from Dr Paul Combie, Deputy Head, department of Architecture and Civil Engineering at the University of Bath and Steve Arnold of Metroeconimica.
  4. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community

For more information please contact

Sarah Griffiths at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0655