Accepting the challenge

A week after being cited three times in the House of Lords Select Committee on National Policy for the Built Environment in their report 'Building Better Places', CIBSE's Head of Sustainable Development Sara Kassam examines what this report means for the wider industry.

As one of the leading professional organisations for building performance in the UK, CIBSE is often invited to submit evidence to Parliament as it considers new laws to pass, scrub and amend. This is one of the most important functions that the Institution carries out, both because it makes Parliament more informed in its decisions, and because it gives building services engineers a voice at the highest level.

It can be a lengthy process, as reports and recommendations can take months or even years to produce, but last week produced a significant moment when CIBSE was cited multiple times in the long-anticipated ‘Building Better Places’ report by the House of Lords Select Committee on National Policy for the Built Environment.

So it’s a significant step to have your industry’s potential formally recognised, but is it one we’re ready for? While exciting, the implication of this report is also very challenging, engineering in the built environment is important to the health of the planet and society, so engineers have to demonstrate that they’re willing and able to make a difference. Not just to their buildings, but to society as a whole.

Westminster has embraced the built environment to tackle climate change
Building performance is almost a no-brainer – any client with a social conscience or even just an eye on their bottom line wants their building to be more efficient and cheaper to run, and there is growing recognition that better buildings make for happier and more productive users. And before, this might have been enough. The client is happy with their product, the engineer is satisfied with a job well done. But now, the challenge is to think ‘beyond buildings’ to the wider community.

So what does that mean? Well it might be more helpful to take a systems thinking approach. Good performance doesn't stop at a specific component, a specific system or even a specific building, it extends out of the door and into all the other buildings in the community, and into the facilities that serve them. That sounds like a big job, and it is, but luckily the built environment sector is a diverse one, full of every kind of skill necessary to succeed – they just need to work together.

Realising that everything is connected in the face of climate change is a good start, and it all flows from there. It means seeing the bigger picture in every decision you make; your building might not get much benefit out of a heat network, but what if you had a word with the designers of the new housing estate next door to see if you could share one? Is there a material you could you that would enhance the outside of your building that would benefit the community too, like a living wall for example? How does your building fit in with the people around it, are there public spaces or are you just a high-performing island, disconnected from the local environment?

2016 BPA winner Arboreal Architecture's Clapham Retrofit used reclaimed and period
materials to fit in with the local community, with advice from English Heritage
The degree to which we can spread total building performance into local communities is limited only by our imaginations and our willingness to collaborate. Back at the level we started at, helping strategically to shape the future of the built environment is just as important as what you do in your own back yard. This very report is evidence of that fact: the recommendation to create  a new Chief Advisor for the Built Environment may not have gone anywhere had it not been supported by a number of institutions, including CIBSE, presenting a united front.

The ‘Building Better Places’ report is a major opportunity. It places building services engineering on a pedestal front-and-centre, a place we've always known it deserves. The key now is to grasp the opportunity, start to live out the role in every area of your professional life, and encourage others to do the same. That way, engineers can truly become leaders in creating  sustainable built environment 


  1. Although I agree with much of this, I would very much like to see the Institution as "CIBSE" present and consult its Council about formal representations made on behalf of the Institution as a whole. It is, precisely, "grasping the opportunity" to broaden opinion, give it stability, and as summarised in the last line, give the whole Institution a sense of moral purpose.


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