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How do infrastructures designers rise to the carbon crunch challenge? Terry Ellis

Imagine walking into a supermarket and not knowing how much anything costs. This is the challenge infrastructure designers face as they grapple with the challenge of measuring and reducing carbon.

Cutting carbon in the power, water, communications, transport and water sectors could yield a £1.5 billion economic benefit to the UK, said the Government’s Infrastructure Carbon Review, published in November 2013. And the climate change imperative for reducing emissions is stronger than ever. Leading infrastructure industry practitioners are regularly achieving savings of 40% capital carbon and 30% operational carbon, realising major gains in commercial efficiency. But spreading knowledge so that others can do the same is difficult. One of the key challenges in designing for low-carbon is knowledge transfer from those who are carbon footprinting or climate change ‘experts’ to other influential practitioners and decision makers.

Framing the problem

Good design balances competing issues – the design process is a problem solving exercise. As well as addressing the fundamental functional objective, designers must address cost, safety and environmental issues. In most cases these factors form a ‘natural’ part of the design process.

A development team may include experts in all these areas, and generally all members of the design team will have an appreciation of the issues. Often that general awareness stems from regulation or legislation, and it builds with experience. Initially these issues may have been addressed by ‘end of pipe’ solutions: designs were tested to see if they’d pass or fail. But with time it has become clear that all these issues offer opportunity to add value to the project so, for example, mitigating environmental issues now forms an integral part of most design briefs.

This appreciation allows designers to re-frame the project brief in different dimensions, producing different options on their way to the optimal solution. In the absence of these dimensions the potential for innovation is lost.

When it comes to an issue such as carbon, project teams initially lack the knowledge to address it in a design. Without a statutory requirement or their client’s mandate to do so, they have no reason to devote resources to understanding the issue. Most designers are aware of climate change as an issue. But equally, most don’t understand how the issue relates to their work. The potential value of carbon and the financial gains achievable through reduction are even less understood. This was one of the key barriers to advancing the carbon agenda identified in the Infrastructure Carbon Review.

Knowledge transfer

Carbon footprinting experts hold key knowledge. They can identify where the carbon is in a solution and explain the consequences of design alterations. Carbon experts do not need prior knowledge of the industry to estimate a footprint and its impact. This is similar to an accountant who does not need to understand a client’s business in detail to keep their accounts in order. However, it helps if they do have insight and understanding. Without it, carbon footprinting is a one-way process: information is passed to the carbon expert from the designer, and an answer is produced.

In order to enable intelligent, value-adding carbon conscious decisions, the carbon expert must pass information back to the designer, who can assess it against other performance criteria. But this arrangement is potentially cumbersome, like taking every item of shopping to the cashier to find out the cost of the week’s groceries.

Ideally, the designer should be equipped with a decent working knowledge of carbon emissions and factors, such that they can recognise in broad terms the impact that design decisions may have. This would complement the contribution of a carbon footprinting expert who understands the design process within a particular industry, and can guide the designer with appropriate information and tools.

Baby steps

Simplicity and familiarity aid adoption of new processes and ideas. It is important for both the expert and the designer to recognise that achieving high levels and detail may not be possible or appropriate at the beginning of the knowledge exchange process. All of those companies that today are using detailed and narrowly focused carbon data to inform design and strategic decisions started simple. It is more valuable to have a general appreciation of the carbon impacts of many materials than specific knowledge of only a few when evaluating the potential performance of a new asset. This follows the pareto principle where disproportionate amount of effort may be needed to establish the detail, and which may not affect the outcome of any assessment.

This may go against the instincts of many designers, particularly those familiar with working to specific standards and detailed specifications. Tools and processes that have a high-level of detail require more user input. Where the starting level of knowledge is low they can be intimidating; target users will reject them. In order to encourage use of processes and tools, the expert should assess how to make tools as easy, seamless and efficient as possible. The relationship between expert and designer should play to the skills and strengths of each.

That said, there is a strong argument for developing industry-specific tools: generic tools don’t provide the right information fast enough, while experts and their industry-specific knowledge are key to developing the tools. Generic or specific, tools and processes should never be ‘finished’. They should be continually evaluated and developed as user competence increases, increasing the potential to realise the benefits of cutting carbon.

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