This series has focused on the emerging concept of plant-based places, one that is gathering more interest in the industry. We have shown that a drive for net zero carbon and healthy environments has bolstered the choice of bio-based materials. Forthcoming regulation and innovative natural products are reinforcing this trend.

Along the way, we have also suggested that performance expectations of buildings (onsite renewable energy generation, energy storage, water conservation, circular economy, zero waste, etc) have made a nature-based model an attractive one to consider as part of futureproofing. After all, plants have been doing what is being asked of buildings since the beginning of time.

But lingering questions remain: will the concept of plant-based, which has attained significant appeal in other industries, gain mainstream status in construction and real estate? How exactly will we move away from conventional materials and practices? What forces are likely to help or hinder a more nature-based approach to buildings?

In our final article in this series, we address these questions. We draw on examples from other industries that have been much quicker to develop and extol the virtues of plant-based products. We also detail how ESG in the built environment is changing and how this reinforces the use of natural materials and models.

Our view is based on our experience in thought leadership on net zero carbon and health & wellbeing. These two concepts were fighting for acceptance in our industry less than a decade ago. Once regarded as “niche” or “fringe,” they are now shaping not only ESG, but development itself. We believe that the speed of change is surprising, but the content of that change is not. In this piece we will show that there is a pattern emerging as the scope of ESG widens, one that favours a more natural, bio-based approach to buildings.

Ideas, patterns and “issue expansion”

Items like “embodied carbon,” “net zero,” “health & wellbeing” and “biodiversity net gain” are not just important new, individual ideas. Viewed collectively, they represent a clear and identifiable trend towards new ingredients, transparency and performance, health labelling, more natural products and cleaner environments, both indoors and outdoors.

Indeed, one of the main challenges for clients is to see the overall pattern and direction in a period of rapid change – and to know how to respond. Presently there is a tendency to treat each challenge like net zero or wellness individually, without recognising that these items are being redefined and expanded almost continuously – and that they are symbiotic.

A good example of this is net zero carbon. Initially, the concept covered operational emissions only. The definition rapidly expanded to also cover embodied carbon, whole life carbon, onsite renewable expectations and energy use intensities. Early adopters – and there were many - who made commitments to be net zero based on an early version of the concept suddenly found themselves potentially overcommitted. Moreover, a strategy to be net zero carbon operationally (more fabric, more plant, triple glazing, etc) was potentially in direct conflict with a version of net zero that included embodied carbon. The lesson of “issue expansion” is a simple but important one for ESG – requirements are likely to increase, not decrease, over time once they have made it onto the agenda.

We are seeing a similar thing with environmental product declarations (EPDs), which are presently screened primarily for embodied carbon reasons. But going forward, the kinds of screens are likely to increase, to cover items like toxicity, water use, plastic content, animal products and so on. Better to think about these items now, at least with the foresight to know that these issues are likely to emerge as part of wider interest in materials and transparency.

The cautionary tale going forward is that a piecemeal approach to ESG is likely to be insufficient. A reliable model based on sound principles may serve as an effective “covering law” for emerging ESG. This is the promise of a strategy based on the principles of nature.

What to Expect Going Forward

If expanding issues and changing expectations sound familiar, they ought to – just about every major industry is dealing with these concerns. The rise of plant-based products in other markets has been a direct response to questions about provenance, transport miles, manufacturing processes, additives, animal-cruelty, human health and environmental degradation. These issues are now coming to the fore in construction and real estate, precisely at the same time as stakeholders are becoming more informed and primed for a different and better product.

Drawing on the trajectory of recent changes in ESG, we present the following three factors, all of which point to a mainstreaming of plant-based places:

1. There will be an increased focus on building materials and their impacts

Net zero carbon frameworks, required whole life carbon assessments (under the London Plan) and the growth of wellness certifications (WELL and Fitwell) have all contributed to a new-found focus on the environmental and health impacts of materials.

Plant-based materials, which are typically lower in embodied carbon and simultaneously promote healthy interiors, have benefitted considerably from screening of a building’s ingredients. It is important to note that we are just at the beginning of the process (embodied carbon analysis for buildings is less than a decade old) and more categories are on the way (pay particular attention to RICS focus on plastics and toxic materials).

2. A performance-based approach to ESG will expand

Landlord and tenant carbon reporting, real-time indoor environmental quality (IEQ) monitoring, renewable energy and energy storage requirements and circularity have all grown in prevalence and importance. It is not simply what buildings are made of that is important – it is what they do (or don’t do) for occupants and the environment that is increasingly critical.

In terms of thinking about future expectations of buildings, it is helpful to model them after natural or plant-based processes. Buildings that capture and store renewable energy and water are an advantage, as are those that can purify environments and be recycled and/or provide no waste at end of life. In other words, the model for future buildings is nature, and plant-based materials and processes are reliable models in an ever-changing ESG landscape.

3. The market, not regulation, will lead the way

Sustainability used to be driven primarily by regulation and technical building certifications – having the right EPC and BREEAM ratings were sufficient for investors, planners and occupiers. While these things may still be important, it is the market more than anything that is driving ESG changes. The two biggest drivers for buildings – net zero and wellbeing – have emerged largely in the absence of regulation.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the built environment is how slow it has been to adopt concepts that have been hugely successful in other industries – organic, “free from” and natural, to name just a few. Instead, acronyms and technical terms understood largely by professional audiences have been the norm for conveying the idea that buildings are good for the environment and people.

But this is changing, with the term “plant-based” being employed frequently by material providers, architects, and other built environment professionals. Within the last three years there has been a significant rise in the number of professional articles on plant-based architectural and operational solutions.

Bio is the “Next Big Thing”

France was the first country in the world to enact embodied carbon regulation. It subsequently required new buildings to have 50% of materials be bio-based. The two pieces of regulation are closely connected, as it would be virtually impossible to meet France’s embodied carbon requirements without a substantial proportion of plant-based materials.

In the UK, there is not presently national embodied carbon regulation, but there is likely to be in the short term. In addition, The London Plan (which does capture embodied carbon) has effectively pushed the agenda on a national scale.

Not surprisingly - and similar to France - the net zero carbon requirements of The London Plan have forced more Government attention on promoting plant-based materials, including the recently announced Timber in Construction Roadmap. If there is a tightening net zero carbon landscape, particularly with regard to construction carbon, there will be an increasing demand for bio-based materials.

The demand is not exclusive to carbon regulation. In the UK, the most recent requirement to be placed on developers is a “biodiversity net gain,” which effectively requires projects to improve environmental conditions on site compared to pre-construction activities. In terms of best practice, the wildly successful carbon reporting initiative, the Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), has spawned a copycat organisation, the Taskforce on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures (TCND).

The subtext behind all these efforts is that better care of and use of nature is the solution to the carbon problem. This is true both in terms of better “ingredients” for buildings, but also in recognising that the processes of nature like sequestration and purification are effective and worth promoting.

The idea of “nature-based solutions,” of which plant-based materials and processes are paramount, is at the core of next generation sustainability. Nature based solutions effectively deal with climate change, water use, waste mitigation, biodiversity, health & wellbeing and so on – in other words, all the things that will be expected of buildings in the near term. As the concept of ESG widens and deepens, so too does the role that plant-based solutions will play.

Questions to Ask Going Forward

As the plant-based agenda advances, there are three main questions that will help clients prepare:

  1. What can I learn from other industries and products? Other industries like food, clothing, and medicine have already begun the plant-based journey. Many of the arguments (and solutions) are the same. Not only do other industries influence consumer expectations about buildings, but they also indicate upcoming hurdles and opportunities. A good example of this is plastic, which has dominated other industries for many years and now looks poised to become a bigger issue for the built environment. Predicting the future is never easy, but a good place for clients to begin is to simply look at what is happening elsewhere and ask: What if that came here?
  2. What does issue expansion look like? There is no doubt that design teams have more to think about than ever before as expectations of buildings increase. But a sure-fire way to anticipate change is to ask: What would this issue look like if it expanded? This is what happened to carbon. But what about the concept of “net zero” as applied to other areas like water, waste, toxicity, animal-cruelty, etc? All of these issue areas are being discussed in other industries. To some degree they will be asked of buildings. This does not mean that action is required immediately but rather that clients should anticipate that ESG concepts like these will expand within and across issue areas.
  3. What nature-based materials and processes can I begin to implement? As this series has shown, there are currently many bio-based materials that can be substituted for conventional products with the same (or better) performance at the same costs. These are perhaps an early place to start, as they can immediately contribute to higher ESG credentials. But there is also an element of looking forward to the kinds of ways plant-based principles can influence more systemic requirements of buildings such as energy and water storage, air purification, nourishment, regeneration and biodegradability.

If ESG concerns continue to dominate – and the evidence suggests that they will – then thinking about buildings as “grown” and “living systems” can be a helpful way to anticipate expectations about future buildings. Like all innovation, the process will take time and permeate at different rates, but plant-based products can do three critical things: replace conventional materials, inform operational strategies and communicate sustainability in a way that resonates with a market prepared and primed for plant-based change.

To find out more about our plant-based places series, read our previous articles.

If you are looking to implement plant-based strategies on your next development, get in touch with our experts today.