Protecting Biodiversity – Construction’s Challenge

As climate change continues to dominate the news, social and business agenda, architects and developers are increasingly seeking to deliver biodiversity in construction —giving back to nature—and have minimal impact on the environment, both in construction and operation.

Reconciling Construction and Biodiversity  

It is an inescapable fact that at times the construction of our modern world can negatively impact the natural environment. As the need for towns and cities has grown, as homes, business properties, roads and railways have been planned and built, disputes have inevitably arisen between those who want to protect the world around them and those who wish to build on it.  

Take the construction of HS2, currently the U.K.’s largest infrastructure project. While it has been hailed as an important component in the green travel revolution, delivery of the £100bn high-speed railway has courted controversy from the start, causing what the U.K.’s Wildlife Trusts claim is “irreparable damage to precious wildlife sites,” a charge robustly rejected by those building the line

While pressure continues to be heaped on those building HS2, politicians—and, to an extent, the construction industry—continue to stress that developments ought not to come at the expense of our precious flora and fauna.  

With this in mind, on New Year’s Eve 2020 the U.K. parliament enacted a new environment bill that includes a requirement that rather than simply reduce their impact on the natural world, many construction projects should result in a 10% ‘biodiversity net gain.’ This means a developer has to leave the site 10% better off in terms of biodiversity than when they began working on it. 

To Offset or Not Offset? 

Increasing biodiversity through architecture will be an enormous challenge. Many developers will likely have to pay to counteract the environmental impact of their scheme via the process of offsetting, like those seeking to mitigate their carbon emissions. Alternatively, they can get involved in a commercial rewilding scheme, which sees nonproductive land—also known as “soft estate”—turned into a haven for plants and animals.   

Depending on the site and developer, one construction scheme can result in better biodiversity gains than another. Part of Kidbrooke Village, a new housing scheme in south London being delivered by Berkeley Group, was awarded the ‘Sir David Attenborough Award for Enhancing Biodiversity’ last year. The housebuilder claims that once the whole development is completed it will have achieved a net biodiversity gain of more than 200%. 

Impressive as Kidbrooke Village is in terms of protecting and encouraging nature while at the same time delivering thousands of new homes, such examples are relatively rare, and there is still much work to do.  

Attitudes toward biodiversity are reflected in a recent poll of construction firms by consultant KPMG, which revealed fewer than 25% even included biodiversity in their reporting procedures. Richard Threlfall, partner and global head of infrastructure and KPMG IMPACT, says this is not good enough. “We are, I believe, at risk of a head-on collision between our country’s aspirations for construction and the growing focus on biodiversity.” 

A ‘Biodiversity Emergency’ 

Threlfall has called for the industry to report on its efforts for biodiversity in construction against standards such as those issued by the global reporting initiative. He would like to see construction companies include the supply chain when considering biodiversity targets, and to go ‘above and beyond’ in terms of environmental impact assessments. 

He also wants to see firms refusing to bid for or accept any job “that carries material controversy or question marks on grounds of biodiversity impact.”  

The threat to the environment posed by development has prompted many others to act. A collective of architects going under the banner ‘UK Architects Declare’ has called for a “paradigm shift” in the ways buildings are commissioned, designed and built. 

The group has declared a climate and biodiversity emergency, highlighting the fact that the built environment accounts for nearly 40% of energy-related COemissions and setting out the steps architects, developers and clients need to take “to strengthen our working practices to create architecture and urbanism that has a more positive impact on the world around us.” 

With more than 1,100 practices backing its campaign, including firms such as Hawkins\Brown, PLP Architecture and WilkinsonEyre, the collective said it will seek to “raise awareness of the climate and biodiversity emergencies and the urgent need for action among our clients and supply chains … and establish climate and biodiversity mitigation principles as the key measure of our industry’s success.” 

The group also wants studios and architectural practices to “adopt more regenerative design principles … with the aim of designing architecture and urbanism that goes beyond the standard of net zero carbon in use.” 

Stakeholders and Responsibilities 

Meanwhile, a major report, ‘The Economics of Diversity,’ written by Cambridge University academic Partha Dasgupta and published last year by the U.K. government, covers many of the sensitivities around developing projects in the natural world, highlighting the responsibility of all stakeholders to ensure the impact of such schemes on their surroundings is kept to a minimum. 

Summarising what the report labels as “options for change,” Dasgupta argues that success stories seen around the world “not only show us what is possible, they also demonstrate that the same ingenuity … that has led us to make [damaging] demands on the biosphere … can be redeployed to bring about transformative change, perhaps even in just as short a time.” 

Much like other environmentalist standard bearers, including broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, Professor Dasgupta believes that if we take responsibility and act now, permanent damage can be averted.  

As he says in his report, “it is not too late for us, both individually and collectively, to make the conscious decision to change paths. Our descendants deserve nothing less.”

Thoughtful architecture pays healthy dividends