Last week, NCI and the Construction Industry Research and Information Association (CIRIA) jointly hosted ‘Beyond concepts: Natural capital tools for the UK construction industry’ – a meeting that brought together construction professionals with scientists and others to discuss the application of natural capital principles in the built environment.

Setting the Scene

Chair Professor Mike Acreman introduced the session by emphasising the need for a combination of natural capital and built capital to provide the optimal environment for society to live in, with the five capitals a useful framework for the discussion. These are the types of capital from which we derive the goods and services we need to improve the quality of our lives; with manufactured, financial, human and social capital all supported by natural capital.

Biodiversity is an important part of natural capital and ecosystem services, and Michael Small from CIRIA explained that they realised there was a need for a greater understanding of biodiversity in the construction industry. CIRIA has been working with CIEEM and IEMA to draft principles and guidance for net gain of biodiversity in construction projects, as well as establishing the ‘BIG Biodiversity Challenge’ asking businesses to do one thing for biodiversity in their builds, which has so far seen over 450 entries by over 150 organisations. There is clearly interest from industry to engage in this agenda, so how does this work in practice?

The Natural Capital Approach in Practice

Dr Martina Girvan explained how Arcadis see the natural capital approach, what tools they use and how they want to take this further. Arcadis have looked at the natural capital approach in terms of guiding corporate strategy, securing sustainable finance, and a sustainable supply chain; and have developed these ideas in a white paper ‘Making Natural Capital Count’.

Our natural capital is complex- this is what makes it so productive, resistant to perturbations and resilient, however this complexity is difficult to communicate and measure – and not everything that counts can be measured.  This has had implications in practice– for instance the measurement and valuation of biodiversity has suffered in favour of assets like Carbon, for which there are more developed methodologies for measurement and monitoring.  Martina emphasised that a ‘one stop tool’ for measuring natural capital will not be sufficient – we need a range of tools and approaches to reflect the complexity of these systems.

Case Studies

Arcadis are working with Birmingham City Council to develop a Sustainability Framework which draws together a range of sustainability standards and examples of Best Practice that, if embedded, will drive the sustainability aspirations of the Smithfield redevelopment.

In another practical example, Arcadis are working with Syngenta to evaluate the natural capital of Multi-Field Margins; can they add real natural capital value to agricultural land which is also reflected in a more sustainable business without a significant decrease in productivity? This project aims to identify the simplest, most implementable measures, and communicate the benefits so that interventions are actioned and monitored. This requires good messaging to make sure that the intervention options are communicated and that farmers and others are empowered and able to use the tool appropriately.

Arcadis is involved in the development of Platform BEE; a web based tool which provides a simplified life cycle analysis. It will provide users a rapid and general insight into the type, location and intensity of their most important impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems in their value chains.  Based on the outcome they make clear decisions on how these impacts can be managed. Exiobase-ReCiPe data is at the heart of this tool– giving a simple data entry form to map the impact drivers of certain commodities.

Martin Ballard from Willmott Dixon emphasised the need for collaboration on this agenda, and echoed CIRIA’s thoughts on the ‘one thing’ companies can do to incorporate natural capital into their decisions: What are the small incremental differences we can make for reasonable investment and what are the differences that these can make to people and the environment?

Martin explored whether there is a difference in private and public sector assets, and how we can communicate, or convince that we can leave benefit after our service delivery, on assets that we don’t own. We need to help to support decision-making that benefits the natural environment, without always having to tackle the challenge of communicating the complexity.

Case Study

Willmott Dixon are piloting the SPADES tool (Spatial Decisions on Ecosystem Services)– on a Prime Place development in London – a triangle of land that is enclosed by heavily used transport lines. In this development, Air Quality and Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems are a focus, with the SPADES dashboard being used to look at overall predicted outcomes of interventions such as green infrastructure. This enables decision-making for the ecosystem services of environmental interventions, and ensures that green infrastructure delivers more than solely an improved or saleable appearance.

The Natural Capital Protocol

Steven Bullock from Trucost is involved with the development of the Natural Capital Coalition’s Protocol and Sector Guides. The Protocol provides a standardised framework for natural capital accounting, to help inform decision making, making information trusted and actionable as well as reportable. The Protocol brings together existing methodologies for valuing natural capital, and allows companies to assess risks and opportunities; estimate total value and/or net impact of decisions; compare options, assess impact on stakeholders, and communicate findings internally or externally – for more detail see our previous blog on the Protocol.

Steven emphasised that the Protocol is an iterative process, with the most successful projects thinking about applications from the outset. The Coalition has worked on Sector Guides for the Food and Beverage and Apparel sectors, which are seen as a good testing ground due to complex supply-chains. These guides are designed to be used alongside the Protocol, and provide sector- specific context and joint learning. Further sector guides are to be developed in Real Estate, and Finance and Forestry and Steven encouraged those with expertise in these sectors to get in touch.

Next Steps

There was much discussion from the audience on a range of issues such as how to incorporate long term cost savings; how SMEs can get involved in natural capital activities; and the practicalities of making decisions without a full set of data or information.

NCI and CIRIA are keen to take this conversation further – please check back for information on future events, and if you have feedback on the session or ideas for workshops please get in touch.

NCI is also hosting the ‘Making Natural Capital Data Meaningful’ event next Thursday 20 October in central London – please register if you would like to attend and explore some of these issues further.

  • Speaker presentations are available at the NCI event page
  • Follow the discussion on Twitter via #NatCapConstruct

Sincere thanks to Kier Group, for sponsoring the event