In the run up to the 4theRegion Green Economy Conference on 22nd November, we hosted the Sustainable Buildings & Construction Roundtable on 27th September, to explore some of the key talking points relating to sustainable construction and development. This gathering of thought leaders and experts in South West Wales highlighted some of the great work taking place in our region, towards a greener and more sustainable future in the construction industry.

Linda Whittaker, the Chief Executive at Tai Tarian, set the tone by sharing their groundbreaking commitment to carbon neutrality by 2030. She emphasised the challengesvof retrofitting existing properties and the importance of embracing new technologies. Linda highlighted their collaboration with organisations like SO Modular, enabling them to develop new techniques and make progress towards their sustainability goals.

Sebastian Haley from Down to Earth emphasised the community angle of their work. Down to Earth focuses on building infrastructure in social housing, education, and healthcare sectors using sustainable construction methods. They employ participants from various backgrounds and run training programs that are as much about wellbeing and health, as they are about skills and employability. Their innovative approach includes exploring Welsh timber for different construction elements, beyond just its structural applications. Alec Thomas, representing the Homes As Power Stations Project, shed light on their efforts to support the development of renewable energy technologies. Their focus lies in increasing the use of solar panels, heat pumps, and other eco-friendly solutions. Alec acknowledged the need for a robust regional supply chain and highlighted the importance of engaging with developers to introduce and pilot new technologies. HAPS is about to award £6m funding for pilot projects across the region.

Rachel Cook from CWIC (Construction Wales Innovation Centre, part of UWTSD) discussed their role in addressing skills gaps through education and training programs. They work closely with stakeholders and partners to understand industry needs and challenges. Rachel emphasised the importance of demystifying sustainable construction concepts through hands-on demonstrations and short courses.

Charlotte Hale, Operations Director at Sevenoaks Modular, shared their commitment to sustainability throughout their manufacturing processes. SO Modular specialises in modern methods of construction, innovative timber frame solutions and off-site construction. She stressed that sustainability is not just about the end products but also about how they operate as a company. Charlotte highlighted their training initiatives, including apprenticeships, and their focus on promoting sustainable options like wood fibre insulation.

Carwyn Davies from Hacer Developments brought attention to their Biophilic Living Project in Swansea City Centre. This mixed-use scheme blends residential, office, exhibition, and educational spaces while incorporating sustainable design principles. Carwyn’s vision is to create a community that values its surroundings and lives closer to nature within an urban environment. Partnerships with a wide range of local organisations means that this development is piloting a wide range of innovative technology systems, and will be gathering data so that everyone can learn more about how these systems perform.

Elfed Roberts from Pobl Group discussed their ambitions for decarbonizing their housing stock and creating sustainable communities. With a focus on placemaking, Pobl Group is a
major South Wales housing association (RSL) aiming to build homes that not only meet energy efficiency standards but also foster a sense of community. Elfed highlighted projects like Gwynfaen, which utilises locally sourced timber and benefited from a landscape-led approach to the design of the scheme.

The participants acknowledged that sustainable construction can involve higher costs but emphasised the importance of government support and sharing knowledge and good practices. They encouraged private sector developers to recognize the long-term benefits of sustainable construction while acknowledging the need for initial support and legislation to drive widespread adoption.

The roundtable showcased the pioneering spirit of South West Wales in embracing sustainability in the construction industry. These leaders are not only building sustainable structures but also creating communities that value their environment. With ongoing collaboration, innovation, and support, South West Wales is well on its way to building a greener future for generations to come.

Key insights from the discussion:
1. Public sector and private sector developers are interested in creating sustainable, low carbon homes, but there are challenges in getting large house builders to adopt new methods without legislation forcing them to do so. Large house builders may not adopt new methods unless they are required to by law. 80% of new homes in Wales are built by the private sector so it’s essential to address this.

2. The cost difference between incorporating renewable energy and storage technologies in construction projects compared to conventional methods can be significant. Having said that, the cost of some technologies has come down significantly (solar panels have reduced in price by half in the last six months – those that are coming from China, that is.) In many situations, off-site manufacturing (modular, panelised, volumetric) is a more convenient, faster and therefore more cost effective option than traditional methods.

3. There is a need for a cultural shift towards long-term thinking and considering the social return on investment in sustainable construction. The social value and wellbeing benefits of sustainable construction should be considered alongside cost considerations when evaluating projects.

4. Decentralised energy systems, such as district heating schemes and hydrogen-based solutions, could be explored as alternatives to traditional energy sources.

5. Telling success stories and sharing positive experiences with renewable technologies and sustainable construction can help drive demand and change in the market.

6. Red tape and regulatory challenges can hinder the implementation of innovative solutions and require a collaborative effort between industry, government, and academia to overcome.

Skills & Training
Overall, there is recognition that skills and training will play a significant role in scaling up sustainable construction practices in South West Wales (and beyond) and that sustained, holistic efforts are needed to address the skill gap and create a workforce capable of implementing these methods effectively.

1. There is a need to develop the skill base to match the growth of sustainable construction and the use of natural-based materials.

2. The workforce needs to be trained to work with new technologies, such as wood fibre insulation and energy-efficient building methods.

3. There is a need to change the culture within education and younger generations to encourage them to pursue careers in the construction industry and develop the necessary skills for sustainable construction.

4. Innovation in apprenticeships and training programs is important for developing the required skills in the workforce.

5. The availability of skilled craftsmen to work with natural-based materials is crucial for maintaining and improving the quality of sustainable builds.

Opinions on hydrogen as an alternative energy source were varied among the participants in this roundtable discussion. While there is interest in investing in green hydrogen, which is produced using renewable energy and does not emit carbon, there are concerns about its energy-intensive production process. It is noted that green hydrogen requires four times [more energy compared to other renewable energy sources, raising questions about its overall efficiency and environmental impact. However, if it could be distributed using the existing gas infrastructure, this would be a huge advantage. Hydrogen boilers have been trialled elsewhere, they work and could be a pathway forward.

However, the need for further research and development was emphasised to explore the viability and cost-effectiveness of hydrogen as an energy solution. There is a recognition that blue hydrogen, which involves converting natural gas into hydrogen while capturing and storing the carbon emissions, is not environmentally friendly, although it is currently favoured by the UK government due to its feasibility and lower costs.

The discussion at this Sustainable Buildings & Construction Roundtable showcased the inspiring work being done in South West Wales towards creating sustainable and greener communities. The examples shared by regional colleagues demonstrates the potential for innovation and positive change in the construction industry. By sharing stories, case studies, and exemplars, we can inspire others and de-risk sustainable practices, encouraging more private sector developers to embrace sustainability. There is much to learn from these pioneering examples, and if we’re serious about doing things differently, we can create a more sustainable future for our region and beyond. This conversation is part of the build up towards the Regional Green Economy Conference taking place in Swansea Arena on 22nd November 2023. The event is free to attend, and exhibition space is still available for businesses, organisations and projects from across South West Wales.

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