Complex Built Environment Systems (CBES) Platform Grant Renewal Bid: Built Environment Systems Thinking

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Bartlett Sch of Env, Energy & Resources


The first Complex Built Environment Systems (CBES) Platform Grant consolidated a truly interdisciplinary, world-leading research group which focussed on the complexity of the context of our research activities and seeded a new Institute (UCL Energy). The second Platform Grant underpinned the development of a strategic programme of fundamental research aimed at understanding the unintended consequences of decarbonising the built environment, enabled CBES to become a world leader in this area and seeded three new UCL Institutes (Environmental Design & Engineering, Sustainable Heritage and Sustainable Resources). Supported by a third Platform Grant, our vision for CBES is now to transform scientific understanding of the systemic nature of a sustainable built environment.

In a recent award-winning paper, resulting from our work under the current Platform Grant, we identified over 100 unintended consequences of energy efficiency interventions in homes. Taking moisture as just one example, we can demonstrate why a systems thinking approach is now so vital. By 2030, it will be government policy that every home in the UK will benefit from measures to improve energy efficiency. This is approximately 25 million homes - all our homes will be affected in some way. The total cost will be ~ £10 billion a year. The UK only has the chance once to do this correctly. Unfortunately, it is now clear that we are not dealing with these complex issues correctly. For example, a recent low energy refurbishment of ~400 dwellings in the north of England has had a 100% failure rate due to disastrous moisture issues which will cost millions to rectify. This has huge implications for the entire decarbonisation plan, for the health of the building occupants, for the communities involved and for the economic value of these properties. For the issue of moisture therefore, we have taken the decisive step to set up the new 'UK Centre for Moisture in Buildings' to link building engineering physics,health, building use, quality and process in a coherent way. Our thesis therefore, more widely, is that the built environment is a complex system that can only be successfully tackled via a new interdisciplinary systems thinking approach - performance emerges from the interplay of fundamental engineering and physical factors with process and structure. Such a systems thinking process was piloted in our project 'Housing, Energy and Wellbeing' (HEW) in the current Platform Grant and has led to close collaboration with a very large body of stakeholders from government, industry, NGOs and community groups who provide an invaluable resource for future research.

Enabling this new, systemically integrated approach to built environment research will require a major change in the way we undertake our research - this will be a fundamental departure from business as usual. The development of such a novel methodological framework and the associated re-structuring and development of an interdisciplinary research group will involve a strategic, long-term perspective as well as some risk. The flexible Platform funding will be vital here in that it will enable approaches not possible with responsive mode funding. There are also likely to be some key policy changes in this specific area over the next 5 years - Platform funding will enable us to react to research opportunities in a timely manner and dynamically maintain research leadership in the field.

The careers of CBES team members will be managed and developed through strategic action. Career development activities specifically enabled by Platform funding will include: (i) a new series of regular 'systems thinking' workshops to develop personal research agendas within our broader system of research; (ii) new industrial/policy mentoring via secondments; (iii) new skills training for staff through external training courses; (iv) enhanced stakeholder engagement via our unique series of regular workshops.

Planned Impact

The beneficiaries of our research outcomes include policy makers and regulatory agencies, international policy organisations, the commercial private sector and industry; and local government. The ultimate beneficiaries of the research will be the general population due to improved and sustainable built environments supported by the introduction of appropriate policies. We will devote specific Investigator and RA resource to our impact activities.

Understanding the systemic nature of a sustainable built environment poses a critical and urgent global challenge. A high performing sustainable built environment is essential for (i) reducing carbon emissions (ii) enabling energy affordability and security (iii) the health and wellbeing of the population. Additionally, the development of competitive new industries and products is essential to economic success. Energy efficiency technologies and industries offer a double benefit because they enable domestic industries to perform more efficiently and provide the basis for new exports. However, despite its importance there is currently no systematic way of understanding the integrated performance of built environment systems.

The new strategic programme of work that we propose is thus essential in order to provide a better understanding of such systems. The work will have great impact by, for example, providing evidence to (i) support the development of relevant built environment assessment methods, technologies and tools, (ii) support the development of relevant policy and regulations in order to effectively implement such tools and (iii) explicitly support the implementation of evidence and the creation of change that fulfils multiple criteria of sustainability and wellbeing. We expect the combination of our built environment science and complex systems work to help improve integration across government departments and reduce tensions between policy objectives with respect to, for example, energy demand and occupant health, wellbeing and productivity. This will be achieved by articulating a shared set of objectives and indicators and understanding the links between them to support policy analysis. If successfully embedded into policy processes, the work has the potential to have significant beneficial impacts, including: improving wellbeing outcomes related to buildings at a whole population level; significantly improving the value for money of spending across building objectives, potentially saving £billions; improving workplace productivity and increasing the likelihood of successful carbon emission reductions. Demonstrating improved decision-making in this complex area has wider currency as many countries are currently attempting to implement policies that might improve the wellbeing and environmental impacts of built environments. The process we are establishing has the potential to place the UK at the forefront of this area of research.

A particular strength of a key component of our proposed new approach, i.e. using participatory system dynamics as a collaborative learning tool, is the direct dissemination that occurs through participation. The systems thinking pilot project that we ran under the existing Platform Grant has already led to collaboration with the government to explore new policy directions.

Finally, and importantly, this programme of work, underpinned by the Platform Grant, will employ a number of researchers who will benefit greatly from the highly cross-disciplinary working environment which offers them the opportunity and tools to gain a broad range of understanding and experience of the issues that arise in such research. The researchers will transfer their skills and experiences in their future career opportunities in academia, industry, government etc.


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