In conversation with the Institute for Sustainability's Terry McGivern

Looking at sustainability in the building sector this week, edie talks to Terry McGivern, head of resource efficient building at the Institute for Sustainability, on why the sustainability agenda is starting to drive up building performance standards and client requirements.

What area will you be focusing on next in terms of sustainability?

According to the Carbon Trust, existing building stock (over 25 million homes and 1.8m non domestic buildings) represents the single largest contributor to CO2 emissions in the UK. Low carbon retrofit (or refurbishment) of building stock also offers one of the most accessible, "easy win" opportunities for making real progress on meeting UK CO2 reduction targets over the next five to ten years.

Whilst awareness and interest in low carbon retrofit has increased rapidly over the last two or three years, substantial investment in energy, resource and carbon reduction measures still remains in its infancy. The large majority of potential customers (both public and private, housing and non-housing) still remain to be convinced of the benefits or the solutions on offer, or motivated to take early action themselves. At the same time the supply chain has neither the capacity nor yet developed a compelling delivery "package" that can convert this increased interest into large-scale investment and improvement.

So that is the number one challenge we, and the whole industry, face and will be focusing on next - developing solutions that can galvanise large numbers of public and private customers to act, and formulating new supply chain approaches that can deliver quality assured, affordable retrofit at scale.

What are the major changes you see happening in your industry?

It's early days to generalise about such a large and disparate industry, but the low carbon and wider sustainability agenda is starting to drive up building performance standards and client requirements; encouraging the supply chain to seek better solutions for delivering low carbon retrofit and new build at scale; demanding more effective communication and collaboration between the whole building team for the life of the building; cutting down product and construction waste; requiring formal monitoring and evaluation of new and refurbished buildings, and ultimately guaranteeing their long term performance.

This potential for step change in a conservative industry is one of the most exciting aspects of sustainability in the built environment sector - and a key focus of our Resource Efficient Buildings work at the Institute - aside from the obviously pivotal role the industry can play in helping to improve UK and international environmental performance.

What are the challenges for someone in your position?

The sheer scale and depth of the green challenge means transformational change is impossible to effect in a short timescale, and we all have to accept that and stick with it. Also the complexity and diversity of the industry presents its own challenges when bringing disparate parties together to collaborate and develop practical, scaleable building solutions.

What motivates you?

An exciting opportunity (or challenge whichever way round you view it) where I can make a real difference. I'm particularly motivated by the opportunity to influence and participate directly in this exceptional period of change for the built environment sector - and the direct impact that will have on wider sustainability targets - environmental, economic and social.

What's the most exciting part of your job?

Bringing together many different people, organisations and communities - from industry, public sector, academia, and wider society - to collaborate on projects that can bring real, practical benefits to local communities, economies and society at large for the long term.

What green innovation do you think can revolutionise the economy?

Low carbon building retrofit approaches that can deliver quality assured, affordable retrofit at scale - and the many processes, skills and technologies associated with this - has major UK and global market application/potential. The UK alone needs to retrofit over 20 million homes over the next 40 years if the Government is to meet its mandatory carbon reduction targets by 2050. That's 500,000 a year, which equates to one per minute - and represents a market value of some £500 billion. And the environmental challenge of improving the energy/resource efficiency of existing buildings stock is by no means restricted to the UK - it is a growing international opportunity, in mainland Europe and beyond.

What's the big focus over the next 12 months for the environment?

I think there is a need to ensure that the long term vision and strategy of a low carbon Britain and green economy stays fully on track. Government must ensure that short term difficulties and distractions like the slow take up of Green Deal, delay of RHI, and the recent renewed emphasis on finite resources (for example fracking for natural gas) - do not deflect us from the ultimate low carbon goal. This remains a unique environmental, economic and social opportunity and must not be lost amongst short term pressures.

What tips or advice would you give to newly appointed sustainability professionals?

Congratulate yourself on picking the right career and securing a position in a competitive world ! .. but then be patient and accept it will take time to develop and bring everybody else on board with your own sustainability aspirations. Gradually encourage people and organisations who don't necessarily share your passion for the subject by demonstrating the specific, practical benefits of sustainability from their point of view. No amount of preaching or cajoling will do the trick- people are gradually getting it, there's no doubt about that - but it will take time.

What do you like most about your job?

Endless new and challenging opportunities to address in the fast changing sustainability agenda coupled with the working circumstances and resources (albeit never enough) to tackle them and make a real difference. Also working in an environment where there's a high degree of shared aspirations and interest.

What's the worst aspect of your job?

These are massive, complex challenges that have been building up for a long time and require the buy-in and cooperation of a diverse range of people and organisations, - and processes that don't always move as fast as you would wish. But that's the way it is and the potential outcomes are worth the hassle and the wait.

What do you think this year has in store for the green economy?

Well we're already half way through and in my immediate areas of focus of resource efficient buildings/built environment, the first half of the year was dominated by the launch of the Government's Green Deal and ECO programmes. The slow start to the Green Deal simply served to reinforce what I've said above - low carbon retrofit of UK building stock remains the single largest and early carbon reduction opportunity, but nobody - Government or otherwise - should be disheartened by the difficulties and obstructions along the way. The Green Deal/ building retrofit challenge remains as a top priority and I'm convinced it will start to roll out in volume over the next two to three years.

What period of time would you visit if you had access to a time machine?

I'd certainly be very interested to see how, in maybe 50 years, all of our efforts to secure a more sustainable environment will have turned out. It would be so much easier if we could know now!

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Seeing our family of three successfully through the "rapids" to age 21 - last one finishing at Bristol University next year. We've all survived intact and now comes the fun bit of watching them mature as independent individuals and hopefully avoid at least some of my mistakes! If over the next 10 years I can play a part in encouraging and gradually fashioning a more sustainable environment for them and their families for the long term that will be something to be proud of.

If you could go back in time, who would you like to meet?

Sir Winston Churchill. You have to admire a man who, against all the odds, refused to be deflected from the enormous challenges he faced and inspired millions of others to think and act the same. Maybe we could learn some lessons from that generation and that sense of purpose.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

Not sure if it was direct advice or a mix of that and life experience. Things almost always take longer to come to fruition than you think; and don't expect them to turn out the way you envisage without a great deal of hard work and commitment. Don't give up if it doesn't happen first (or even fifth!) time around. With determination and perseverance, it probably will.

Worst advice?

"Keep going on the motorway and you'll miss the worst of the floods" - this was in 2007 when Tewkesbury in Gloucester, just off the M5, was suffering some of the worst floods of the past century. I took the advice and swept on past the next junction only to get stuck in a 17 hour delayed traffic jam. That's climate change for you!!

What's your top tip for employee engagement?

Treat everybody equally and fairly, and do your best to listen to and understand others' opinions even if you don't 100% agree with them.

What state do you see the planet in in 30 years?

Mankind is remarkably resilient and adaptable but I hope it will not take mega crises to make people change their behaviour en masse. The question is whether and how long humanity can continue to grow and prosper in increasingly extreme environmental circumstances. I'm an optimist and believe that within 30 years we will have developed solutions that will not only trigger mass change in environmental investment and behaviour, but will also lead to a more economically and socially sustainable world.

What do you say to the climate change sceptics?

I respect their right to a different opinion but I've always viewed sustainability as more than just addressing environmental issues anyway. We should be taking this unique opportunity, not just to tackle environmental imperatives, but to develop more sustainable, local, community-friendly approaches to business and greater social cohesion on the back of it.

What's been your biggest win (environmentally)?

Demonstrating to Government and others the key importance of retrofit of existing buildings in the carbon reduction process, and helping to shift attention to this essential task. Then working with a wide range of industry, public sector, academic and community organisations to formulate new approaches that can deliver quality assured, affordable retrofit at scale. I'm not for one minute claiming this as my personal "win" or indeed that we have yet won the battle - it has been, and continues to be, a huge collaborative effort - but I'm proud to be playing a part in such an important challenge.

Terry McGivern is the head of resource efficient building at the Institute for Sustainability

For more interviews visit our 'In conversation' series section


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