Rebooting building

Engineers are rethinking their responsibilities in the era of planetary crises

Gavin MacRae

Roofs of the BedZED (Beddington Zero Energy Development) housing complex in Surrey, UK. Wind cowls provide passive ventilation with heat recovery, solar photovoltaic (PV) panels provide electricity for the homes and offices | Photo (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Tom Chance

Shifting to a low-carbon future will require houses, apartment blocks, office towers, schools, hospitals, and more to be redesigned and renovated to be carbon and energy neutral, or negative.

Cities will need to be overhauled to become human-scaled, with more and better public transportation. To weather already baked-in climate change, sea walls must be erected to hold back rising oceans, bridges constructed to withstand more frequent and severe floods, infrastructure fortified against precipitation, storms, and heat.

Basically, a reboot of much of the built world will be needed, requiring vast investment, strong government policy – and legions of engineers.

Enter Engineers Declare, a growing movement of engineers who recognize the urgency of the climate and biodiversity crises, and the enormity of the task ahead for the profession – and who commit to “meeting the needs of our societies without breaching the earth’s ecological boundaries.”

That, says their declaration, will require engineers to “re-imagine our buildings, cities and infrastructures as indivisible components of a larger, constantly regenerating and self-sustaining system.”

Duty to act

“Once you realize what the science is telling you and the scale of the challenge, even after you’ve spent your life trying to do good engineering and be aware of the impact on people and the environment, you put your foot on the accelerator,” says engineer Mike Cook, organizer of the UK branch of Engineers Declare and a partner at international engineering consultancy Buro Happold.

Cook says he’s seeing a new awareness of the planetary crises dawn in the engineering world, driven by the moral duty to act, and also because clients are asking for certainty in a changing climate.

“Industry, investment business, insurance, relies on a level of predictability for the future or it won’t invest. It won’t take the risk, or it won’t insure you because it doesn’t understand the risk. Our whole system relies on, depends on, predictability of the future. Once people feel it’s not predictable, they’re really worried, and they’re not sure they want to invest in a new building or hospital or something. Is it the right investment? Is it in the right place? Will it still be valuable in 60 years? [Clients are saying] ‘help me!’ And engineers are in a good place to help.”

Engineers Declare is part of a larger parent movement, Construction Declares, which includes engineers, architects, project managers, and other vocations in the construction sector, in 18 countries and counting. Since its start in the UK, Engineers Declare has grown to include groups in Australia, France, Singapore, and, as of September 2019, Canada.

Engineer Sunny Ghataurah is the president of AES Engineering, a founding signatory to Canadian Engineers Declare. For AES, Ghataurah says viewing their work through the lens of climate and biodiversity informs the company’s decisions on project design, material selection, and qualifies the projects they pursue.

“Ten years from now climate change won’t be a conversation, it will be the prerequisite of design,” he says.

An important tool toward that end in British Columbia, says Ghataurah, is the BC Step Code, a section of the provincial building code that provides engineers, architects, and builders a set of standards and regulations to construct energy efficient buildings. To date, 64 of BC’s 162 local governments have voluntarily adopted the Step Code, representing the large majority of new residential construction in the province.

The top “step” of the code requires new buildings to be Net Zero Ready, meaning the structure is energy efficient enough that when an on-site source of renewable source of energy is added, such as rooftop solar panels, the building can produce as much energy as it consumes for its operation, averaged over the coarse of a year. When that happens, the building is considered Net Zero.

A similar and further goal is zero carbon, when a building produces or procures carbon-free renewable energy equivalent to the carbon emissions associated with its operation.

Ghataurah expects that in future, Net Zero Ready will be the minimum, and zero carbon will be the norm.

“I’d like to see the industry move towards positive generative type projects,” Ghataurah says, “where constructing a new building reduces your carbon footprint and generates energy, so that we can put that back into the grid. Where not constructing the building would be more detrimental than constructing the building.”

Under pressure

Engineers can affect emissions not only by how they design and build, but by what they don’t design and build. Australia’s Engineers Declare proclamation includes a tweak to the language that reflects this, with signatories vowing to “Evaluate all new projects against the environmental necessity to mitigate climate breakdown, and encourage our clients to adopt this approach.”

Engineering firms that sign on to visible, harmful projects could increasingly see their clients and employee talent dwindle, or even have their social licence revoked.

In Australia last December, activists campaigning to stop the construction of the Carmichael coal mine targeted engineering consultancy GHD, a contractor for the project’s backer, Indian multinational Adani Group. Over a dozen protests at GHD offices reportedly had the firm in “crisis mode,” just as a string of Australian municipalities voiced their disapproval by vowing to steer spending away from GHD and other Adani contractors. Days later, GHD announced to staff that the company had concluded their work with Adani Group, ending a decade-long association.

Tellingly, the crisis was caused in part by internal pressure, after employees bombarded GHD management with questions and complaints about the company’s involvement in the controversial coal project.

“The firms that haven’t started to recognize the importance of planetary impact and aren’t able to prove that they’re making significant changes towards that being more positive, I think engineers, young engineers, won’t want to work for them,” says Cook. “Why would ethically-minded young engineers go work for a firm … that has a carbon footprint the size of an elephant?”

Millennial(s) shift

Bloomberg reports that in the UK, fewer engineering graduates are pursuing careers in oil and gas, citing uncertainty about the future of fossil fuels, and qualms about a sector they view as less than ethical. To boost recruitment, some oil companies are offering higher starting salaries, and overhauling their promotional material to appeal to a younger demographic.

Market research firm Trendence UK found that 91% of surveyed students cared about working for an ethical company, and 67% considered it unethical to work a job that contributed to climate change, according to Bloomberg.

Engineer John Clague, a former president of the province’s engineering professional body, Engineers and Geoscientists BC (EGBC), and emeritus professor in the department of earth sciences at Simon Fraser University, says at SFU, he’s noticed a shift.

“Just recently we are seeing a lesser enrolment in the traditional fields of geology that support the metals and hydrocarbon industries. We’re seeing more enrolment in more the environmental or science side of things, so geotechnical and environmental.”

Clague notes, however, that a transition from fossil fuels won’t happen overnight, and says engineers in the petroleum sector have a legitimate role to play in that transition.

In a 2017 survey by Engineers and Geoscientists BC of its members, three-quarters of respondents regarded climate change with a degree of urgency, but 43% found it “difficult” or “very difficult” to consider climate change in their work. Barriers to action included lack of mandate, client demand, support, time, and resources. Only one in four felt the EGBC was doing enough to support their efforts.

The EGBC formed a climate change advisory group in 2018, to direct policy development and changes to practice guidelines. The group is due to submit an action plan in November, with the goal of enabling a proactive response to climate change by the EGBC.

A matter of interpretation?

In a 2018 article in PolicyNote, David Huntley, physics professor emeritus at SFU, and environmental engineer Romilly Cavanaugh, argue that the duty of engineers to act is already spelled out in black and white, in the ethics codes of engineering professional organizations. For instance, the Engineers and Geoscientists BC ethics code states members shall: “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public, the protection of the environment, and promote health and safety within the workplace.”

“Taken at face value, the above-mentioned [code] of ethics mean that none of these professionals should engage in the design or construction of any new fossil fuel infrastructure,” Huntley and Cavanaugh write.

“I’ve seen their advertisements, you know, ‘Engineers and Geoscientists BC: keeping you safe every day,’” says Huntley. “It really troubles me. They should tell people the way it is – engineers, by developing fossil fuels and burning them, are not keeping the world safe.”

But change appears to be coming. Cook says that in the UK, it’s now difficult to attend an engineering conference or gathering that doesn’t have climate emergency response as a main theme. “So we can’t be accused of hiding our heads in the sand. Now it is important that we open our eyes fully to the stark reality, and don’t put our sunglasses on to the unpalatable truth.”

Professionals in the construction sector can visit to join the declaration.

This article appears in our April-May issue.








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