Presently, the built environment in the United Kingdom generates around 25% of the country’s overall greenhouse gas pollution from its buildings and infrastructure[i]. With the often devastating impacts of climate change continuing to dominate headlines, there has never been greater awareness or drive to reduce this percentage.

The Government published a 10-point plan in November 2020 for a Green Industrial Revolution, outlining a path to achieving Net Zero by 2050. This was followed in 2021 by the UK Green Building Council’s Net Zero Whole Life Carbon Roadmap, which outlines the common vision and industry-wide actions for achieving net zero carbon in the construction, operation, and demolition of buildings and infrastructure in the UK.

What is clear is that everyone working in the built environment has a part to play in making these plans and initiatives a reality. Here, Matt Smith – Associate at Whitfield Consulting Services – shares his thoughts on the role we as a company, and as individual engineers, can play.

We all have a role

The protection of the environment and the reduction of harmful emissions is widely recognised as a vitally important matter. As the need for practical solutions to sustainability challenges continues to grow and evolve, engineers and the wider construction sector will be fundamental in the building of a greener world.

The UK has set strong environmental ambitions, and all WCS engineers know that the infrastructure we design must be as sustainable as possible to contribute towards achieving these targets and that as designers, we share a responsibility to meet these challenges as part of our everyday working practice.

It’s no secret that many essential infrastructure projects are not inherently ‘green’ in their construction, and it often feels that there’s little we can do directly to really drive construction projects in an environmentally sustainable direction.

This doesn’t mean we can’t champion an ethos that supports the larger sustainability goal, however, or ensure we are doing what we can to contribute marginal gains towards achieving this goal.

What can design engineers do?

When we work on designs, we do so conscious that the resulting infrastructure will have an impact for decades to come. Ultimately, the aim of good engineering is to create a solution which has longevity in mind. From fairly small projects to larger ones, we think about not only the design life of the construction and what kind of forces it will be subjected to, which will degrade it over time, but also try to look forward to how the building may need to be maintained during its design life and how the design can bring longevity.

We’re approaching a large development project in Scotland like this at the moment. This particular example requires the design of large, open-plan buildings to house electrical equipment. Sections of this equipment will likely need replacing in around ten years, so we’re designing the buildings with easily removable roof sections so that larger demolitions or wholesale replacement of the buildings won’t be required in order for the equipment to receive this essential maintenance and upgrades.

Other design considerations include whether an existing structure can be refurbished to extend its life for another 50 years, rather than demolishing and re-building. Or, ensuring material efficiency in the design to reduce the volume of carbon heavy materials, for example. We’re always seeking these kinds of sustainable interventions, wherever possible.  

Pursuing the right kind of work

It’s not just about the way we design infrastructure, the kind of infrastructure we are designing for is also important to us. Seeking out work in the rail sector is a strategic decision for us, for example. By its very nature, the work we do to renew and modernise essential rail infrastructure plays a significant part in providing alternatives to cars or air travel.

For our work on the UKPNS project for Northern Trains, Battery Electric Multiple Units (BEMU), we have been brought in early to develop the civils side of the project to replace the old diesel rolling stock on three branch lines with battery charged modern sets, reducing emissions and contributing to energy efficiency in the network. When the trains arrive at the terminus, there are charging points at the stations. The trains wait at the station before moving to the platform for passengers to board, so that when they leave the station, they are charged to complete another journey.  

Our work in EV charging infrastructure is also contributing to cleaner air alternatives to the petrol engine, which you can read more about here. These are just a few examples of how, by pursuing work in the areas of infrastructure civils, we can be part of the national push for sustainable, lower emissions, renewable energy infrastructure.

The UK’s future infrastructure will inevitably be formed of projects large and small, some greener in their construction than others, but WCS is always actively searching for ways to help make more sustainable projects and infrastructure a reality.     

As technology and techniques continue to grow and develop in ways we don’t expect, and at pace, there will always be more those working in the built environment can do. Our responsibility, as employers, is to ensure our people continue to be supported in their learning about the latest innovations, and encouraged to look for ways to apply those learnings into every project we work on.

To find out more about Whitfield Consulting Services, please visit our contact page.

[1] Climate change – UKGBC – UK Green Building Council