The Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) National Conference produced a series of practical solutions for turning the global emissions targets agreed last week at COP26 into reality.
BESA’s two-day online event, which coincided with the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow, attracted around 500 delegates, featured 67 speakers delivering 21 hours of technical and topical content across two streams.
TV personality and architect George Clarke opened the conference with a plea for a global building retrofit revolution. He said the construction and building engineering sectors could play a key role in addressing the climate crisis, but financial incentives would be needed to encourage investment and new approaches from building owners.
He described current government measures to address the carbon impact of housing as “a drop in the ocean” and called for the scrapping of VAT on the restoration and conversion of existing buildings to help tackle the 40% of global emissions that come from the built environment.
Government adviser Professor Cath Noakes gave a keynote address on the second day of the Conference, which was sponsored by Mitsubishi Electric.
She said there should be more focus on human health and well-being as a metric for measuring building services success and greater scrutiny of standards in ventilation installation, commissioning, and maintenance. She added that there was “no excuse” for poorly ventilated buildings adding that a focus on improving building ventilation would be a critical part of the government’s net zero agenda that must also ensure buildings are safer.
As delegates in Glasgow battled hard to agree a consensus about how to limit global warming and “keep 1.5 alive”, those attending the BESA Conference were setting out a series of engineering solutions using existing and emerging technologies to bring that goal closer.
There were detailed discussions about the use of heat networks, heat pumps, hydrogen, and other low carbon solutions. The use of digital systems, including the Internet of Things and digital twins, was also seen as key to helping the sector gather the operating information it needs to tackle the ‘performance gap’ and lack of targeted maintenance.
The Conference also brought delegates up-to-speed with the latest developments around Building Information Modelling (BIM) thanks to a presentation from former chief construction adviser Paul Morrell OBE.
The role of specification also came under the spotlight in a session about the government’s Construction Playbook led by Fergus Harradence deputy director for Infrastructure & Construction at BEIS.
“There is a lot of agreement in government that the focus on lowest cost has delivered bad outcomes for everybody, including government as the client,” he said, while also stressing the need to use modern methods of construction (MMC) and adopt product platforms to make the industry more productive and efficient.
However, several speakers and panellists highlighted skills shortages as a major barrier to widespread adoption of new approaches and to improving the performance of existing buildings.
A session chaired by BESA President Neil Brackenridge concluded that apprenticeship programmes would have to be updated to reflect the drive to net zero and that co-operation between contractors, manufacturers, colleges, and schools, was critical to ensure the right skills were being delivered.
The panel agreed that so-called ‘soft’ skills, like communication, would also be important so that engineers could better explain emerging technologies and the benefits of new approaches to clients. They also said it was not just apprentices that needed training, but that continuous upskilling was vital to make sure the whole workforce could drive low carbon solutions.
There was strong representation from young engineers, whose expertise will be vital in delivering many of the COP26 pledges, the BESA Conference heard. CIBSE president-elect Kevin Mitchell chaired a panel featuring five young engineers who said their generation needed to be part of the wider debate.
Jennifer Cox, electrical engineer at AECOM, said that young engineers would play a key role: “You are more fundamental than you think.
“You come into the industry with knowledge, and we need to make sure that managers are aware that younger members of the team can contribute. Young engineers must be part of the discussion.”
The panel also agreed that delivering net zero was an opportunity to bring about real engineering change: “This is an opportunity to start afresh as built environment professionals and reassess how we approach our designs,” said Alex Hughes, operations analyst at MCS.
“Sustainability, energy efficiency and net zero are no longer ‘nice to haves’ they are fundamental standard requirements.”
“The Conference was a great showcase for our sector and showed that we have real grounds for hope,” said BESA chief executive and conference chair David Frise. “We are at the heart of the big debates around climate change and building safety – and are providing plenty of impetus for the government’s ‘building back better’ agenda.
“The skills issue continues to be a concern and the need for much more robust competence and compliance, but these are right at the top of the Association’s agenda – and the fantastic range and depth of presentations at our conference proved that we are on the right track.”