Rumford Club debate 14 Jan 2016: What might the future look like in a world of advancing technology and finite resources?

The speaker was Cat Hirst, Head of L&D at the UK Green Building Council. The facilitator was Alex Smith (CIBSE Journal).

Originally another speaker had been engaged to give an alternative view to Cat but at the last moment he could not attend, so Cat had magnanimously jumped into the breach and provided two perspectives on the future, one more negative and the other more positive. She drew a picture of what life might be like in 2050.

This also appeared in the February issue of the CIBSE Journal – please see

Alternative views on the future

The subsequent debate on what building services engineers could do to help steer construction to a more sustainable future was a mixture of optimism that engineers could meet the technical challenges, and uncertainty over whether innovation would be stifled by an industry wary of taking risks. 

In her doomsday scenario Hirst predicted what life would be like in 2050 if the world had done nothing to combat climate change. She drew attention to the 2006 Stern Report, which suggested that countries would need to spend 1% of GDP on measures to combat the effects of climate change but said that by 2050, if nothing had been done, this could grow to 10% of GDP. She said that if nations didn’t limit to temperatures to 1.5⁰C above those in 1990, as agreed in Paris in 2015, temperatures could be 3⁰C higher by 2050.

She said that extreme flooding and drought would be experienced across the globe if nothing was done, and predicted that hundreds of millions would be displaced, ecosystems destroyed and species made extinct.

Hirst said there was an alternative brighter future if we heeded the current warnings on climate change and resource scarcity. She said emissions could be driven down by new ways of working, and the adoption of renewables and other intelligent technologies such as driverless cars.

Clients need to be educated

AECOM director Ant Wilson responded by saying that engineers had a responsibility to educate clients about building using more environmentally sensitive methods of construction. ‘I think technology can get us through, but I think we should be educating our clients, and taking it more seriously.

‘What we need to do as engineers is spend a bit more time learning how to motivate how to mentor, and how to pass on skills,’ he said.

Wilson said that if the industry didn’t do anything now it would be harder and harder to get people using fewer resources. ‘We have to do a lot of the moral things and this doesn’t always go down well,’ said Wilson.

Briony Turner, knowledge exchange manager at ARCC Network, said professional ethics made it the duty of designers to warn clients of the impact of their buildings on the environment. She said there was an ongoing debate among professions about when should designers act on their ‘knowledge’.  She said she felt optimistic partly because ‘we’re having this debate and it’s not being laughed out of the room.’

A focus on cost and legal liability is hampering progress

Some of the practicing engineers in the room said that convincing companies to do the ‘right thing’ and develop more energy and resource efficient buildings could be challenging. One said: ‘Finance drives the majority of business decisions we make. What is happening today is not sustainable – it can’t continue.’

He said that change could be made by osmosis or marginal gains. ‘You need engineers putting forward better solutions but it’s about doing it through osmosis and marginal gains. I’ve sat in front of clients and said I’m going to change the world tomorrow – but when they come to sign the contract they say “I’m not going to do it. I want to sign what we had before.” You have to do in small steps rather than trying to make wholesale change.’

Cat Hirst said UKGBC members such as Ikea and the Bank of Scotland wanted to change, and were looking to engineers to lead the way.

‘All the clients we have say they want to be challenged more by the design team. The clients don’t always have the skills and the foresight to develop that brief themselves. There’s a huge opportunity to improve them.’

One engineer said that liability was holding people back. He said: ‘In any organisation you deal with corporate vision, then you get to the grey suits who need to limit their liability. It’s all about quantified liability. If you quantify the liability and it becomes something acceptable then you can change.’

Understanding cause and effect

Others said that enlightened self-interest would ensure markets delivered low-carbon buildings in time to avoid permanently damaging the climate. ‘It is common sense if you use fuel efficiently you will save money,’ said one engineer. ‘If you tell them you can save energy by doing things properly, you have got the accountant’s attention.’

For designers to have more influence over clients they have to understand the consequences of their designs on the operation of the building, according to one engineer. He said: ‘Until we as engineers bridge the gap, we’ve no chance of convincing the client, we have to understand operation, and operation have to understand design.’

Some concluding remarks

BSRIA chief executive Julia Evans said that a new generation coming to the workplace would have a significant impact. ‘Their perspective is dramatically different. I look to create an environment where they can flourish, and I look to them to be contributing to this move towards a more sustainable economy,’ she said.

The audience believed that if engineers were to make a difference they had to get their arguments across in the right way.

‘If we don’t communicate what is needed, how can we expect the client to do the right thing?’ said Ant Wilson. ‘We’ve got to do our homework. Let’s build on our presentations and persuasive natures to get people to do the right thing.’

Our next meeting

11 February 2016: “Will the performance of buildings in the future be helped or hindered by the lack of practical skills in the next generation of design engineers?” David Arnold and Stuart Thompson.