Last January, at the turn of the decade, a cross-sector push for corporate climate action was well underway. Calls for a better built environment were growing also in the construction industry. In Australia, hundreds of architecture firms signed onto 'Architects Declare' — an alliance that recognises the looming climate and biodiversity emergencies and today has close to 1000 signatories.

The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic slowdown has forced many industries to stop, reflect and hopefully change.

Coronavirus and the case for sustainable construction

It seems the slowdown won't last long in construction. A report published by McKinsey in June on the future of the industry predicts that COVID-19 will accelerate its long overdue transformation. And there's no denying it, it needs a makeover.

Globally, the built environment creates around 40% of emissions. In Australia the construction, operation and maintenance of buildings accounts for around a quarter of our annual greenhouse gas emissions. If we are to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement's objectives to cap the average global temperature rise at 2ºC, then something has to change in construction — and fast.

Indeed, McKinsey's paper says that sustainability and our conversations around climate change are key forces that will shape the global construction landscape, pushing the industry to decarbonise. On top of the public pressure to reduce emissions, another driver is the growth of physical climate risks that will affect infrastructure.

In short, you can't build for the future without factoring in climate change. To survive this major disruption, the construction industry needs to change its practices, as well as work to transform existing built landscapes.

The good news is, agile early movers will not only survive — they will thrive. And by future-proofing their businesses against growing climate risks, they will attract investors who are increasingly moving their money to back companies with a strong ESG profile.

Two places for change: Optimise the new and transform the old

A sustainable revolution in construction that allows us to transform and decarbonise our built environment can happen in two places.

Firstly, new construction projects — whether they are homes, offices or entire precincts — must be sustainable every step of the way to be prepared for floods, cyclones, heatwaves and other climate disasters that are becoming increasingly common. Construction companies should consider geography and risk when choosing building sites, source their electricity from renewables, use smart technology to regulate AC and heat, use sustainable insulation to optimise temperature regulation, use recycled water, natural cooling architecture, green roofs and so on — the possibilities are endless.

While the net zero building materials and transport solutions involved in construction are not yet available in many cases, there are sustainable options available, like insulated ventilation ducts from recycled glass. The industry needs to take a critical look at their current practices and more actively pursue these solutions to prepare for a shifting future.

In the meantime, organisations can compensate for the unavoidable emissions associated with new construction by investing in climate action projects. They can also source more sustainable building materials, such as climate neutral concrete.

The Australian Government's Climate Active program has a carbon neutral standard for buildings and precincts that can communicate this impact, and a growing number of entities are getting certified, including Sydney's CBD waterfront urban renewal project Barangaroo. This became Australia's first government-certified carbon neutral precinct in 2019 — a partnership between the New South Wales State Government and ASX-listed property group, Lendlease Australia. Frasers Property's Minnippi Quarter residential development is another example of a residential precinct with in-built sustainability initiatives, including the ability for new homeowners to select a Climate Active carbon neutral certified home by offsetting all emissions associated with building.

However, we can't just focus on new projects — half the buildings that will feature in Australia's built environment in 2050 are already standing. . This means that decarbonising the existing built environment is equally as important.

It is important that existing buildings make the effort — a short-term cost that will pay off in the long run — to retrofit with sustainable solutions to optimise their efficiency and thus reduce their carbon footprint. Only as a second step should organisations then make their buildings carbon neutral, as outlined above. At South Pole we've partnered with Ecovantage to combine these two steps into one.

Surviving and thriving

Companies in construction that move to become early adopters will reap the benefits — and there are some already doing so.

Alongside the emergence of a number of smaller sustainability and climate-focused construction and architecture firms, such as sustainability guidance and planning consultancy HIP V HYPE in Melbourne and East Sydney-based responsible construction company Verdecon, big players are introducing significant sustainability strategies. These include Lendlease and Frasers Property, which alongside its "A Different Way" sustainability strategy is a certified Climate Active carbon neutral organisation.

Alongside carbon neutral certification, building certification standards such as the world-class Green Building Council of Australia's Green Star sustainability rating scheme create healthy competition in the sector and assist committed organisations in communicating their climate impact.

The coronavirus has put things on hold for many industries, but now is the time for the construction industry to put in place the policies and practices to help transform Australia's built environment and truly build back better.