Engineering a Sustainable Future

New Green Bee Podcast Episode: Seb Wood, of engineering consultancy Whitby Wood, discusses the changing nature of our human infrastructure as the impact climate change becomes ever clearer.

Seb highlights the changes needed in engineering; in practice, legislation, materials and ethos.A must-listen for any business navigating between the need for profit and the imperative of sustainability.

Transcript:

Alia: Hi, I’m Alia Eshaq, this is The Green Beehive where we host business leaders and experts from different industries to discuss the transition towards sustainability, providing you with insights and solutions from all both sectors of business, and now over to Ed.

Ed: Thank you, Alia. Welcome to The Green Beehive. Everybody on this episode, we’re delighted to welcome SebWood from engineering consultancy Whitby Wood. So Hello, Seb. Please introduce yourself. Tell us a little bit more about who you are and what you do.

Seb: So I’m a structural engineer. So what structure engineers do is on a typical building. If you imagine an architect might work with a client, the structural engineer makes sure that it stands up. And I have a structural engineering practice headquartered in London. Whitney Wood. Sorry about the cutting noises upstairs.

Ed: I wouldn’t worry about power tools. You’re a structural engineer. Frankly, it’d be disappointing if there weren’t any power tools. We’re talking at a time of huge importance and hopefully big change around sustainability. What’s changed or what’s changing in your industry at the moment, the economy is changing people’s view of properties, changing offices. Have they got the same value as they had before because people aren’t using them? Do you change them into something else?

Seb: There’s this sort of the commercial bit that I think is shifting band people don’t really know where the rock is, as opposed to the quicksand and simultaneously, which I don’t think people have grappled with in the slides just yet. Which is what we’re talking about today is climate change and what that’s going to do. They haven’t grappled with what it means carbon wise, environmentally, but they also haven’t more importantly, the real big sort of iceberg that’s coming or whatever the analogy is adaption. So the climate has changed. We will get more water, cities will be underwater and you either abandon them or you adapt them. And I don’t think people have even started to think about that yet. For what I do, there’s both the sort of the emotional side where it’s I need to do the right thing, and I should be doing the right thing. But there’s also the sort of practical advice side. But your clients are operating in the commercial realities of today, not tomorrow. That makes sense. So trying to persuade them that they’re building a building that will be used in three years time, because that’s how long it takes or four years time and that the world is going to be a very different place and is difficult. I think people are beginning to wake up to the fact they have to take a big gulp. The paradigm has changed for them, and a lot of them just aren’t ready for it.

Ed: Brilliant. Thanks for that. Tell us about how your ideology impacts your business. How is Whitby Wood interested in those issues of sustainability?

Seb: So I think it’s probably worth saying that there’s sort of environmental sustainability, which is the sustainability most people understand the predominant issue of today is carbon emissions and global warming. But there’s also plastics in the oceans, deforestation and habitat loss on we go and we go and we go. But really, the whole thing about sustainability, as we all know, is this balance between nature, the economy and society. From a personal point of view, I definitely see the point of it all, is about the survival and happiness of humanity. I think that’s quite an important thing in terms of ethos of the practice. A lot of people don’t understand what structural civil engineers do, but structural and civil engineers basically think they’re the center of the universe, because if you look out of your window, pretty much anything that you look at is the product of a structural civil engineer’s brain, whether it’s sewage, roads, buildings, motorways bridges, the infrastructure of society. So in order to solve the sustainability challenges of our time, which are, to a large extent, scientific, those solutions are going to come out of people’s minds. They’re going to come out of their imagination. The ethos of the practice is definitely to create a place where we try and hire great people, but that they are made to be comfortable and happy and inspired to try and trigger their ability to be imaginative, to come up to these very complex problems that we have a lot of people listening. I lay people here have no understanding of engineering or potentially sustainability issues, either.

Ed: What sort of projects are you involved with at Whitney wood? What do you build? What do you design and what do you engineer?

Seb: I mean, we’re a five year old practice, and it’s probably just worth saying that anyone who started a business, you start with great aspirations and then you end up doing what you end up doing. So you might plan to be the engineer that works for all the most famous architects in the world. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to pay the bills. And so you tend to start doing what you tend to start doing, and then that becomes you, certainly in the beginning. So we predominantly at the moment design multi story residential buildings for developers, for housing associations, affordable housing. We design offices for developers and also for specific users. The first building I ever designed when I came out of the University was the BBC headquarters in the center of London. But we also do more industrial stuff. We do distribution sheds, we do foot bridges, and it’s always a structure. So when you see in any city, you see the sort of skeletal frame going up. If a building is a human body, we design the skeleton and perhaps the muscles as well.

Ed: Okay.

I think I get that.

I think I get that.

Another understanding gap for me here is, how do you apply in ecological sustainability or ethics? How do you apply sustainability and ethics to engineering? How does that work?

Seb: It’s tricky but straightforward at the same time. So I’ll deal with the environmental bit first, because in a way that’s easier, essentially, for an engineer, if you take out of the picture whether a building should be there or not or what its use is, if you’re just talking about a building that you’re building, the structural engineer or the civil engineer deals with certain things. So let’s talk about the structural engineer first. And that is the frame that I’ve just described to you. And fundamentally, the first question is about materials. And so what we talk about is a hierarchy. So if we think about carbon emissions, so emissions get emitted through some sort of process. And the main one for many structural engineers of today is as a result of the production of cement and concrete and the smelting and re smelting of steel work. And then you might have the kiln burning of bricks. So heat energy producing emissions.

The first thing for a structural engineer in terms of sustainability is using buildings that already exist, because obviously that process has already happened, that emission has already been emitted. And so if you’re repurposing a building, there’s a huge reduction on the potential of harm. So if I knock down a building and rebuild it, I’m going to use a whole load of Virgin materials that will need to be processed and will release carbon emissions. If you’re not going to refurbish a building or a building doesn’t already exist. So you’re going to build a new one, then it’s about choice of material simplistically. And it’s not as simple as this. But if I choose to building out of timber, which is a natural material as opposed to steel or concrete, I’m going to be emitting a lot less carbon into the atmosphere.

The next sort of step on that hierarchy. So I’m going down the hierarchy of effect here is the specification of that material. So let’s say just for argument’s sake, you could melt steel using purely renewable energy. You might argue that. Okay, there’s a process of digging up the steel out of the ground iron or processing in terms of melting it. If you could do that with renewable energy, you could say that it was a zero carbon or carbon neutral process. So the design of and use of materials is our principal concern about carbon emissions. But it’s not just that because obviously we put toxic paints on steel work to protect it from fire. We put up facades that are processed and they use energy and so on and so on. But simplistically it’s about these materials.

Then in the ground, we’ve also got what happens to waste. So how do you pump waste when you turn on your tap in the morning? Although you get this lovely water coming out, it’s actually quite a carbon intensive process because it’s got to be processed. It’s got to be cleaned and it’s got to be pumped. And all of that uses energy so it’s about the calculation of the least impact way of making all these things happen. There’s a lot more to it, but simplistically, there’s a sort of bite of environmental impact there on the social side, it’s a lot more complicated because you could argue there’s some engineers who say That’s not my job.

Gov Ed the developers turned up and said, Design me a building, and I’m designing his building, and it’s his choice, whether it’s a socially responsible building or not, or whether the money that he uses to build the building is from a socially responsible source or whatever. There are choices one can make as an engineer, and we certainly make as a practice about the sorts of projects you might choose not to get involved with. So some obvious ones for some more forward thinking engineering consultancies of today might be, I ain’t going to do anything to do with oil and gas, because oil and gas is a dying duck. If we’re going to get to a zero carbon world that doesn’t exist unless you believe in the fantasy of carbon capture storage, principally, it’s probably about choosing the sorts of clients you might work for on one hand and then environmentally, what materials we choose and how we use those materials so that we have the least environmental impact.

Ed: Genuinely fascinating from my perspective, let alone the podcast. Right. So Whitby would make these choices to make these decisions around sustainability and social impact. Are you outliers within your sector? Are you one of the few making these choices or has this whole sector embrace this ethos?

Seb: We are blessed in, particularly in London, but in the UK with quite a number of really high quality structural engineering practices, particularly the SMEs, they’ve got some really innovative thinking, doing some really good stuff. But let’s talk about the engineering sector as a whole. I would say that the under 30s, I’m doing massive generalization here. You’ve got a massive people. This isn’t just engineering. It’s probably across society massive desire to change the way things are happening and out of that is coming innovation in different ways in terms of a practice.

I don’t know what’s inside the heads of other leaders of practices, but I certainly know they are concerned about this stuff, how willing they are to engage with the client and tell them, I don’t think you should do this. I think you should do this. It’s difficult to tell. So in our sector we have a movement called Architects Declare and a movement called Engineers Declare group of people that sort of spontaneously came together and said as consultancies, we declare that there is a climate emergency and we must all do something about it and everyone put it on their Instagram and everyone felt good about it. And then actually, there were some interesting cases of some practices who were then asked, Well, if you’re signed up to Architects Declare or Engineers Declare, you’re still designing an airport or you’re still designing this or whatever. How does that work? And I have huge sympathy for those practices because they’re operating within the commercial realities of the world. But there are these difficulties of like, okay, well, London has got six airports and this country over here that’s developing doesn’t have any. And we’ve been asked to design one. Is it our place to say that they don’t deserve an airport? The mix of whether people are really taking the issue really seriously, but don’t feel they know how to operate within this new paradigm that we’re all going to have to operate in. Whether they’re saying it just to get their marketing points, e.g, green Wash or somewhere in between is difficult.

I mean, we are designing a number of multi storey concrete frames, and we have lots of staff saying we now feel uncomfortable doing this. We’re just about to release in the run up to Cop 26, a pathway to zero. And what we’re trying to do with that is to say, here is a pathway. We don’t know if it’s exactly right or not, but it’s an idea and we’re going to try and do it.

There is so much greenwash out there. It is very difficult to see people who are genuinely going to start moving to a place where they say we aren’t going to do this sort of work anymore, which ultimately that must be what it demands. I mean, ultimately, as a society, we’re going to have to say there are some things we can’t do anymore, or we are going to have to find a different way of doing it. So in our world, if we’re going to carry on using concrete, we’ve got to find a zero carbon way of producing something like cement. If we’re going to fly around the world, we need to use green hydrogen. So in order to question, are we outliers?

I think emotionally, I feel like we are what hasn’t really happened yet, as far as I know, is a sort of more someone to step out, which I think we’re going to probably do in the months ahead where you step out and say, actually, we want to go in this direction and the risk that entails, or maybe it’s an opportunity whether there will be clients who turn around and say, I’ve been waiting for someone to do that and they’ll jump on us or whether people will say, you’re saying you don’t want to do our stuff anymore. So we’re not going to give you any more jobs there’s that sort of commercial fear, I guess we’ve still got to pay the bills, we’ve got to pay the salaries. We don’t want to lose all our stuff.

Ed: How do we make that transition so interesting? It’s quite a pessimistic picture you painted. Are there positives that you can glean?

Seb: I’m hugely optimistic, Ed. People always want to find some sort of technical solution that gives them an excuse to carry on doing what they did before. And I think fundamentally, it’s a bit of fear and a bit of laziness. But if you think big and you go, okay, we are going to reach, we have to reach carbon zero by 2050 or 2040 or whatever the hell that we get to. If that happens in the same way that we said in COVID, we can no longer travel around and everyone needs to stay at home. Everyone went fine. We’ve got to do that because we have to. Otherwise, bad things happen if we get to the same point with climate change and we say, no, this has to happen. There’s monstrous opportunity. I mean, it’s so exciting because it releases inventiveness and there are certain things that happen. Like, for example, people worry terribly about concrete and steel. We do a lot of concrete and steel because we do quite tall buildings and also concrete and steel are, frankly, been too cheap. But imagine if we said, okay, well, you know what? We don’t need to have a 40 storey skyscraper. We only need an eight storey building. Or actually, we’re going to extend the buildings we’ve already got. We could be using timber a hell of a lot more a beautiful, wonderful renewable material, construction, engineering. And I’m sure this is true in other parts of the world. What happens is I’ve grown up designing steel and concrete,

and so I’m 20 years into my career or 22 years into my career, I’m doing a house extension. I’m designing out of timber. And I’m thinking I’ve done timber before. It’s going to learn that. And actually, there are many wonderful materials. And in the engineering, we’ve probably got a bit lazy because we know how to do steel and concrete and we know we can buy it. And we know there are lots of builders who can build out of it.

I think, actually, when you set a different set of rules, it creates a different paradigm of what you can operate withinand you can try different things. Why haven’t we worked out how to do electric short haul flights? But I can bet your bottom dollar if the airline industry was taxed to the Hill, they’d find a different way of doing it. And it’s exciting. If we take this seriously, it’s not like we all have to be back in Sackcloth. I think there will be a release of inventiveness. There’s some wonderful things that can happen that’s brilliant. What needs to happen to make this Penny drop so that we reach this point of total saturation in the understanding that we need to act right now.

My feeling is that in my industry more and more of what I’d call the sort of mainstream, high quality developers getit. They’re clever people. These people don’t run large development organizations without being clever and thoughtful. But also the insurance industry. And the money is saying, Hang on a second. In my left hand, I’m paying out for a disaster in this part of the world. And my right hand, I’m paying for a carbon intensive industry. I can’t do that anymore. So things are shifting. So I think what probably needs to happen is a combination of the people of the country saying, we need to do things differently, but also the powerful voices that I listened to because they command billion pound empires, saying to the government, we understand that as a business, we are going to have to transition here, but we need to change the game. So if you’re a property developer that owns an expensive tower block in the center of London on the NASA maps that have just come out showing that within ten to 20 years are going to be regularly flooded.

You have a commercial and strategic interest in changing the game. And those people already know but need to reach out together and go to the government and say, we need to incentivize different behaviors. It cannot be commercially more viable to knock down a perfectly good building and build another one. But we need to change the incentives so that these very clever and capable people come up with solutions that are zero.

Alia: Karma thanks for listening. I’m Alia, CEO of Green Bee. If you’d like to find experts to help your business in any sphere within sustainability, please visit our platform at greenbeeinsights.com.

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