Philip Watson Everything is Connected Article for Building Magazine

A crisis makes us reassess our relationship with the world – and that should trigger a radical approach to the climate emergency.

‘When can things get back to normal?’ This question is increasingly asked of Ministers and their scientific advisers in daily briefings. Everyone looks forward to a time when we can move freely and without fear but this period of upheaval could give us the opportunity to re-evaluate what’s really important to us. As Rebecca Solnit, an author who has specialised in the impact of disasters on society, wrote in The Guardian last week:

“The first lesson a disaster teaches is that everything is connected. In fact, disasters…are crash courses in those connections. At moments of immense change, we see with new clarity the systems – political, economic, social, ecological – in which we are immersed as they change around us. We see what’s strong, what’s weak, what’s corrupt, what matters and what doesn’t.”

This sense of being connected, of being part of a global whole, might help us move to a more conscious belief that how we behave, organise our society, manage production and consumption really does matter. My hope is that we emerge from this crisis with a different sense of ourselves and our relationship with the world. We have seen some great examples of construction firms coming together to work on vital projects during the crisis, as highlighted by Building’s Proud to Help campaign. This campaign also called for views on how we as a sector can emerge from this stronger, better, and prepared to make changes. My hope is that we will realise the need to act on climate change emergencies rather than just virtuously declare them.

What we’ve learnt from the past month is that profound change is possible – practically overnight and with little upset. The construction industry has been going through an interminable period of conflict as the traditional models of operation and supply chain control resist the need for transformation of how we design and build and even how we measure value. So, with what new clarity might we see our industry through the lens of this crisis?

Firstly, there’s a greater need for equality in how we treat the workforce. The definition and value of key workers needs reassessment and I hope that as we phase back to work that the health and safety of workers is kept first and foremost. Secondly, as asthma sufferers breathing easier during lockdown will attest, we need to address pollution. Greener, cleaner transport is vital. Walkable and cyclable cities suddenly seem absolutely necessary rather than utopian pipedreams.

Finally, and this is where this period of re-assessment of our own activities has come into sharp focus, we need to use this crisis to reset our approach to climate change. Before COVID-19 HLM was in the process of setting environmental performance targets for the buildings we design. Operational energy, heat loads, embodied carbon, and water usage targets that the RIBA has set for 2030 were always going to become our benchmarks for much earlier realisation. Subsequently, our resolve has hardened. We’re now talking in terms of months rather than years. Covid-19 has taught us there’s no time to lose.

This opinion piece, by Philip, featured in Building Magazine on 16th April 2020