Q&A with Penny Gowler, Head of Sustainability at Elliott Wood – Latest

Q&A with Penny Gowler, Head of Sustainability at Elliott Wood

Q1. Tell us about your role as Head of Sustainability at Elliott Wood?

The focus of the role is to grow a team that can offer a full range of sustainability services to clients, beyond those we’ve always offered as part of our core structural & civil engineering services.

I’m also responsible for coordinating Elliott Wood’s activity within industry groups such as UKGBC, IStructE, LETI, ACAN and RICS and continually upskilling Elliott Wood’s staff so they become literate in both their core engineering profession and sustainability.

I oversee all sustainability related issues within the company including our achievement of carbon neutrality and our road map to net zero.

Q2. Why is sustainability such an important topic to you personally?

I feel a huge responsibility to leave a world fit for my children to grow up in and live happy, healthy lives. If we don’t change the way we live our lives today then our children and grandchildren won’t be able to enjoy simple pleasures like building sandcastles on the beach because it will be too hot, or the sea level will have risen so high that the beaches we know will no longer be there.

Through my profession I am able to have a far bigger impact by reducing material use and carbon within the construction industry than I can in my personal life. That’s why I do what I do.

Q3. What’s the one change you would like to see in the built environment that would help to reduce the industry’s impact on the environment?

So many changes I’d like to see! Probably the first, most obvious is regulation of embodied carbon. Other than the London Plan requirements there is no legislation requiring projects to calculate the embodied carbon of the proposed development – only operational energy is covered by Building Regs. The industry has proposed Part Z is incorporated in Building Regulations with carbon limits set and gradually reduced (made more stringent) over time but we’re waiting for the government. The industry is ready, the government needs to act ASAP.

Q4. How do you feel the industry has responded to the climate crisis in recent years?

I think there’s definitely been a step change in the past 18 months to two years. Everyone is talking about carbon and Circular Economy. However, I do feel there’s still a lot of greenwashing out there. Due to the lack of regulation, people can vary base data to tell the story they want to tell – what we need is a truly standardised approach to measuring embodied carbon. For structures this exists with the IStructE’s How to Calculate Embodied Carbon guide and The Structural Carbon Tool (EW & IstructE), but too many people are interpreting things their own way and not following the guidance and generating preposterous claims. So in summary, there’s been a step change in attitudes towards sustainable design and construction but not enough standardisation and most importantly not enough action! We have a long way to go.

Q5. Are there any organisations or initiatives that have particularly impressed you in terms of their track record in sustainability?

I think the IStructE has been a leading light in helping to educate structural engineers and dig into the big questions to find answers and provide guidance. Since Will Arnold joined the IStructE there has been immense progress – Will and the Climate Emergency Task Group have made and continue to make a huge positive impact. Well done!

UKGBC is another organisation that has done a brilliant job of bringing a wide range of different disciplines together to try and solve some of the big sustainability issues the industry faces. Their Road Map to Net Zero led by Tom Spurrier and delivered at COP26 is a very important piece of work.

Q6. What changes do you think engineers can make to the way they work to help projects become more sustainable?

Engineers can do so much, regardless of seniority or the type of projects they work on! Question everything!! Question the client and the brief, to check whether construction is the right answer, ask why the client wants to knock down a building that’s 20 years old and use your initiative to create alternative options for retaining the existing building. Even if you’re not involved at the early stages you can have a positive impact – calculate the embodied carbon at each stage of a project and suggest changes, think carefully about your design, the grids, the loadings, the utilisation of all the structural elements. Sustainable design is not always about using low carbon materials, it’s about getting the fundamentals right.

Continue to educate themselves – the next couple of decades is a hugely exciting time for structural engineers and we have a fantastic opportunity to reinvent ourselves as the custodians of carbon.

Q7. Is there a particular project that you’ve worked on where the client and design team were able to push the envelope and reduce embodied carbon? How was this achieved?

We’re working on a couple of projects currently where we’re looking at reusing an entire steel frame or steel elements from one building to construct a new build. This massively reduces the embodied carbon of the new development and will help to reduce carbon emissions in the atmosphere now.

Q8. Part of your role is to champion sustainable practices internally at Elliott Wood. How do you keep sustainability top of the agenda and encourage colleagues to prioritize it in our designs and ethos?

I try to lead by example. Getting involved in industry initiatives like The Structural Carbon Tool, the IStructE Climate Emergency Task Group , UKGBC working groups and the RICS BECD (Building Embodied Carbon Database) means I keep abreast of the latest developments in the industry and can usually be helpful to engineers working on projects or those who have questions. I try and encourage EW engineers to think differently, to question the status quo and I run regular Academy sessions, record videos and generally try and do what I say I’ll do to keep sustainability at the top of the agenda. I’m supported by a number of other engineers and consultants who are just as passionate about sustainability as I am!

Q.9 And in the industry more generally, for anyone who would also like to effect change?

By doing regular events such as the webinar series Bitesize to Reuse last Autumn, writing articles, posting on LinkedIn, being approachable and responsive generally!