The rise of ESG and net zero carbon has greatly increased our industry’s appetite for innovation and new thinking. After three decades of relative stability (characterised by green building certifications and regulations) there is now an emerging drive to deliver buildings that better appeal to a wider, more sustainably savvy audience.

In other industries, green and healthy products have been outperforming traditional items for years. Concepts like organic, “free-from” and – perhaps most intriguing of all – “plant-based” have been used to create large markets and profits. It is perhaps little wonder that, given their success elsewhere, such terms are entering the language of green buildings and the built environment more generally.

G&T is committed to helping deliver sustainable and net zero carbon buildings and infrastructure projects. Using the learnings from our own net zero journey and knowledge from over three decades of experience ‘Plant-Based Places’ builds on our recent carbon strategy series, exploring the idea of ‘plant-based’ and its relationship to construction and real estate. As we enter a period defined by “zero” (carbon, water, waste, plastics … you name it, the list is only going to grow), we suggest that nature sets the example. After all, plants have been at this (by design and for free) since the beginning of time.

What do we mean by “plant-based” and why now?

To some degree, the idea of a plant-based approach to buildings is not new. “Biophilic” design and materials have been around for decades, albeit more at the fringe. “Biomimicry” is another term (again decades old) that has been used to define how inanimate objects (like buildings) can more sustainably perform operations by copying nature (for example, operating on renewables, biodegrading without harm, etc.) When we speak of plant-based buildings, we refer not just to natural materials, but an overall model based on plant-like processes.

To be sure, plant-based is an emerging concept but there are several reasons why it may have advantages over biophilic or biomimicry – not least of which is in the name. Biophilia and biomimicry are derived from science and not immediately accessible to wide audiences. Plant-based, on the other hand, is one of the world’s leading brand categories. As such, plant-based conveys an immediate familiarity and connotations of products that are good for the planet and people. At a time when net zero carbon and healthy buildings are key drivers for occupiers, buildings that can align with a concept that implies both have a mainstream winning market strategy.

An ESG model based on plants is not as far-fetched as it may initially sound. What plants do – operate on renewables, produce no waste, eliminate toxins – is a masterclass on the future of sustainable buildings. What plants need – natural light, fresh air, organic materials, etc – reads like a Grade-A occupier wish list.

The plant-based model also counters the criticisms that have dogged sustainable buildings for years, namely that they are expensive, technical, deliver questionable financial returns and do not resonate with users. On the contrary, a plant-based approach can be inexpensive, intuitive, known to be highly profitable (in other industries) and prized by consumers (and investors).

Key Areas of Interest

In the following series of articles, we’ll discover the key opportuntiy areas where delivering a plant-based approach could have an impact, how new developments are shaping the industry and what this could mean for the future of sustainable buildings.

We will suggest ways to adapt to changes in the market and regulation and suggest strategies that can be used incrementally or embraced whole-heartedly, depending on the appetite for innovation.

Key topics we will cover include:

The Drive to Net Zero Carbon

Without question, one of the biggest drivers towards using more natural and plant-based materials (ie timber) has been net zero carbon. Net zero carbon has put the spotlight on just how carbon-intensive the construction of buildings can be when using highly manufactured products.

But it is not just timber, or materials in general, that are highlighted by the net zero carbon agenda. The need to generate electricity from renewables (preferably on-site) is another main element of net zero that also points to a plant-based agenda (the world’s plants consume 100% renewables).

Here we will examine how plants can add to and inform a net zero carbon building approach, both in terms of components and operational effectiveness.

The Rise of Healthy Buildings

If net zero is the dominant sustainability concern, healthy buildings is a close second. But what if the same strategy that enabled net zero carbon buildings also fostered human wellness?

Plant-based materials are naturally less carbon intensive, but they have also been shown to increase the physical and mental health of occupants. We will explore research on how natural and plant-based materials assist human health, wellness and productivity. In addition, we’ll suggest how plant-based processes (sequestering carbon, removing toxins from the air) are finding their way into innovative building techniques.

Alternative Materials

For numerous reasons (including carbon and health), there has been a newfound focus on developing more sustainable, natural and plant-based construction products. This includes mainstays like timber and natural insulation, but the list is growing to include regenerative products, bioplastics and even vegan products.

Some of the interest is driven by the products themselves, but development is also fostered by what plant products can do – regenerate, be grown locally and contribute to a circular economy. In this article, we will look at how current innovative products are making their way into buildings and what the future of plant-based materials is likely to look like.

The Impact of Regulation

While it is true that some plant-based materials face regulatory barriers to entry, in other instances they are being positively legislated. France, for example, now has a requirement that new buildings have certain percentages of bio-based materials (not coincidentally, France is also the first country to have embodied carbon regulation). France presents a window into the future of regulation, and indeed there are many calls within the United Kingdom and elsewhere for planners and regulatory bodies to institute standards for encouraging bio-based buildings.

We will look at the challenges of introducing plant-based materials into buildings, what is changing and how future policy changes may encourage buildings to use more plant-based components and principles in operation.

The Future of ESG

The conclusion of the series will take a broader look at what is happening in the industry, how ESG is forcing new ways of thinking and why a plant-based approach to buildings may make commercial sense.

There has been more change to sustainable buildings in the last three years than in the previous three decades, and the move has undeniably been towards more natural, health-promoting and impact-reducing buildings.

Ideas that have been at the fringe, including net zero and wellness, are now top selling points for buildings. Is a plant-based approach the next concept to move from theoretical concept into the mainstream? This article will set out the pace of change and explore why buildings of the future may be more grown than manufactured.

To find out more about our previous series on carbon strategy, read all about it here.