Combating the impact of the climate crisis in the built environment

Bonnie Chu Healthcare Design Director
Combatting the impact of the climate crisis in the built environment
Home Insights Combating the impact of the climate crisis in the built environment

The climate crisis is having a devastating impact on the world around us and our physical wellbeing.

Without immediate and bold action, it will define the health of current and future generations and will challenge already overwhelmed health systems.

Health system themselves have a huge role to play in supporting ambitions to limit global warming, mitigating risks, be that from poor air quality, extreme weather conditions or a loss of food security.

The NHS’ carbon emissions are 4% of England’s total carbon footprint and make up 40% of the UK’s public sector emissions.

In 2020, its carbon footprint was 6.1 metric tonnes a staggering figure equivalent to the whole of Denmark. It plans to reduce this drastically, aiming to achieve zero carbon for direct emissions by 2040 and the same for the emissions it indirectly influences in the supply chain by 2045. There is, however, a long way to go.

The scale of the challenge is enormous and successful decarbonisation will need to take the full range of NHS services and facilities into consideration. Finding the resources to tackle this is not going to be easy and so we must work together to find viable, cost-effective solutions.

Three key ways the private sector must work with the public sector to address the impacts of the climate crisis.


Firstly, as with all climate challenges, we must collaborate, share experiences and work closely with communities.  By way of example, 6.7 billion road miles are travelled every year by UK patients and visitors to acute healthcare facilities.

Working with local authority partners, we have an incredible opportunity to bring healthcare facilities to local areas, not only increasing access to vital services, which can improve wellbeing, but also reducing travel time and therefore emissions. We can also support NHS Trusts in acting as sustainability leaders in their local communities, helping them to use their vast buying power to influence the behaviours of local suppliers to minimise their carbon footprint.

Secondly, we must improve data collection. By collecting as much data as we can about how we use our buildings and how we can effectively use technology, we can bridge the gap between assets and business outcomes. Smart facilities management and operations can help to collect and analyse data faster and more efficiently, ultimately improving the user experience and helping to better manage operational costs.

This technology will help to establish a baseline and enable us to understand how building use impacts performance, allowing inefficiencies to be targeted and performance optimised. This, in turn, will provides the data to help address business outcomes such as achieving net zero carbon emissions, as well as improving productivity, wellbeing and sustainability. Whilst an upfront investment is required, we can collaborate with customers to achieve the optimum solution by reviewing operating and capital expenses to inform payback periods, particularly at the moment when looking at energy usage.

The final approach is cross sector learning. Dealing with climate change is a universal issue, and it is important we look beyond our immediate sectors to learn from others who may be further ahead. For example, we developed Net Zero Carbon in Operation (NZCiO) solutions for the Department for Education in under 6 months, which are currently being implemented across four of our latest schools. 

These solutions offer a 11-16% improvement on embodied carbon, will be carbon negative in operation for the first 7-10 years, and will export 55% of electricity generated from solar panels back onto the national grid. These learnings can and should – be transferred into primary care community health facilities to accelerate the NHS’ journey towards net zero.

Decarbonising our built environment and in particular the NHS estate – must not be overlooked when facing the climate crisis and the associated physical and mental health backlog confronting the NHS. And, within the private sector, we need to take a step back, work closely with our public sector partners to bring solutions to the community, collect as much data as possible and share learnings, to deliver a more sustainable future that still puts planet and patient health front and centre.