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Sustainability in Construction – An Interview with Dr Deborah Pullen, BRE Trust

The BRE Trust is an independent charity with a focus on research and education in the built environment. With several subsidiaries dedicated to the standards and certification in sustainability, the organisation has been aiming to establish a more environmentally conscious construction sector through carbon emission reduction projects, as well as other activities and services which are beneficial to the built environment. Recently we sat down with BRE Trust’s executive director, Dr Deborah Pullen, to discuss the intersection between environmental measurement and social value, and what more can be done to promote a more sustainable future.

 

This conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.

 

BRE Group was a publicly owned establishment up until 1997. What has been the charity’s journey in environmental measurement since then and how does that tie into your legacy as an organisation?

So as you mentioned we were privatised in 1997 and at that point the charity was being set up to support BRE going forward as a national asset. Even at that time we were developing the sustainability standard we know today: BREEAM, which will soon be hitting its 30 year anniversary. Initially our primary driver was to create a framework which allowed companies to measure and monitor their ability to deliver and operate assets in the built environment in a sustainable way. Over time the portfolio of standards has developed and extended to all sorts of different building types. The construction and design has also moved on to operation and we see that as a primary move forward. We need to walk-the-talk on the ambition of design and how buildings are actually operated.

I also think our journey has been about understanding various stakeholders in the piece. This isn’t just about clients and the parts of industry that have to build; it’s about those who occupy buildings, those who run their businesses from them and those who live in them. We’re trying to understand that a lot more, particularly in relation to research and education programmes. This is where we begin to engage with other specialists who have experience in fields like social science and ask, “What does “good” look like? What does social value mean? How do we then feed that back in a systematic way to the industry that has to deliver this?”

Jumping off from that, in relation to combating climate change, where does social value come into practice?

At the highest level, when we look into how social value plays into this, it’s really about maintaining the resources that we have, the consideration for external influences, and how we need to design and build assets which are adaptable and resilient to changes in the future. All of this now is coming to the fore and we need to be understanding and applying that at its source rather than just being able to mitigate further down the line, which is probably where the industry has been. We know enough about the implications of these things, and because our stock of buildings has been there long enough we can track back and examine how things operate now in relation to how they were designed and considered 50 or 100 years ago. We can project forward much better now when it comes to optimising the buildings that we put in place today that will still be here a century from now.

What scope do you think there is to bring social value measurement and environmental measurement together to deliver a more sustainable future?

So we try to engage with those who are endeavouring to apply social value now, and that can include people in the third sector, community groups, or organisations who might not have an active framework around which they’re applying it. This is why connections and forming partnerships are so important to us because through these networks we can get a better appreciation of what social value really means.

We also have to make sure that our own standards are in line with social value in a meaningful way because if the standards and certification frameworks we put out are too complex, too cumbersome, extra cost, extra effort, or the supply chain isn’t well placed to understand how to do it, the time through which we can apply this just gets heavily protracted.

What should we be doing now to build a sustainable future as we navigate our way out of the COVID-19 pandemic?

This will involve some of the things that we’ve been doing anyway but it certainly does focus your mind when you have a globally disruptive event like COVID-19. We need to be, wherever possible, doing more in relation to all the factors I’ve mentioned about saving resources. Whilst we’ve had a strategy and still continue to work with key clients and through supply chains to make sure that regulation is delivered effectively, we need to be working with all industry and all communities as much as we can. Part of that is sharing what could be done now and in many cases that isn’t even about extra cost, or even risk. So sharing education information, in usable ways out to anyone who have a desire to do make positive change is really important. Even in the charity we’re starting to look for tools and models that can be applied to small shopkeepers and small businesses, while trying to collaborate with third party trade groups and networks that they might be part of that could actually apply grants and try to do this in a more consistent way.

 

Thank you Deborah for speaking with us! We’ll be announcing details on our upcoming Climate Emergency webinar very soon. To read and download BRE Trust’s annual review, click the button below