Building with nature in mind

by Jayne Manley

As climate change rises up public and corporate agendas, rarely are there opportunities to design and construct a building that has potential to demonstrate and encourage future sustainable construction and inspire future generations.

Earth Trust seized this opportunity to do something forward-thinking and truly special: what has influenced our thinking as we work with a very different industry to the one we are used to? In essence, we have applied the same care to our building projects as we do to managing our green spaces. Through our projects, we strive for sustainability balancing people’s access and food needs with thriving biodiversity and healthy ecosystems. Fundamentally working locally, yet thoughtful and with wider reaching impact, making a difference and caring for the planet. But first, there needs to be some context for this first phase of what will be a much bigger sustainability programme.

Homes England has been established as the government’s ‘housing accelerator’. In response to the need for homes across the country and to give you an idea of scale, the number of new homes created in England hit its highest level in almost 30 years pre-Covid crisis: more than 240,000 properties were added in 2018-19. In March, the government announced an increase in housing investment to build at least 1 million new homes by the end of the Parliament. The construction industry also includes corporate buildings, business parks and infrastructure such as road and transport networks on which these rely. For many of you, I’m sure you will have experienced the scale of development first hand.

Climate change has been rising up the agenda and there has been a marked shift in the last year with central government committing the UK to achieving net-zero carbon by 2050, and parliament, county and district government passing climate emergency declarations. Around 10% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions are directly associated with construction activities and this rises to 45% when taking into account the whole of the built environment sector (UK Green Building Council). One of the main products used in construction is cement but if the cement industry was a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world. In 2015, it generated around 2.8bn tonnes of CO2, equivalent to 8% of the global total – a greater share than any country other than China or the US. So, we need to minimise our use of cement. In addition to the contribution to atmospheric carbon, development also impacts on habitats, species and ecosystems. Whilst a mitigation hierarchy is supposed to counter this impact, there is no getting away from it, some habitats (and the species that are associated with them) are irreplaceable.

So, when considering building for the future, how have we gone about it?

The right partnership

I’m sure every project says that success is about the partnership, and in this case, it really is! From the beginning we were looking for people who shared the Earth Trust passion and ‘got’ what we are about. We were not looking for organisations who were solely contract-led although of course keeping on time and to budget is critical. We will share more of the partnerships we are forging later: the design team who have experience, knowledge and creativity; construction industry professionals that understand our scale of ambition and buy into the importance of our project, and who will go the extra mile when it comes to finding acceptable materials and tracing their origin. And of course, identifying funding partners who are forward thinkers, willing and able to be investors in the future.

Scale of ambition

Our ambition was to create a building that would ‘speak Earth Trust’ and influence through its design and build. We aimed to encourage sustainable behaviours and some of the main areas we have focused on are working practices, materials and collaboration to reduce construction waste. We want to explore more close-to-market sustainable materials (which contain lower embodied carbon) whilst thinking about the long term performance of the building.

How we use the building

We want visitors and school children that will use the Earth Lab to be part of ‘sustainability in action’, whether it’s the wildlife that will find a home on its walls and roof, the water collections and recycling from its curved landscape-esque roof or the timber that locks up carbon at a rate of about one tonne of CO2 per m3. Once inside, the inspiration will continue with climate science meeting art and technology.

For now, building work for the first phase is underway (the construction team were mobilising when Covid-19 struck) and we plan to share more with you throughout the summer. Do expect opportunities to experience and learn about how this impactful project is progressing. Our lessons so far? Keep focused on our mission, use resources wisely but with influence; nothing goes smoothly with a construction project and everything becomes more difficult when Covid-19 comes along!

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