The future of sustainability in the built environment – a Q&A with Munish Datta

13th October 2021 by CMIA

Building Change: Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

Munish Datta is director at UK Green Building Council where he is responsible for leading the organisations membership strategy and enabling the delivery of its mission to radically improve the sustainability of the built environment. As a Fellow at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, he also empowers senior business leaders & organisations to tackle critical global challenges.

Munish Datta is passionate about the crucial role every sector of society – government, business, civic, each individual – must play to create a truly sustainable world. Among other roles, Munish is Head Tutor on CISL’s ‘Sustainable Real Estate: Creating a Better Built Environment online course. More details on our online programmes are available here.

We sat down (virtually) with Munish to find out what he thinks a future fit built environment looks like.

CISL: Broadly speaking, what does a sustainable built environment mean to you?

Munish Datta (MD): A sustainable built environment achieves positive outcomes. This can be described as creating buildings and places that repair and restore nature, improve resiliency to a changing climate, enable greater equity within society and achieve the best possible health and wellbeing outcomes for people. By achieving this vision, we will create real estate that generates sustainable value across three, interdependent dimensions: ecological, economic and societal. Given the sector’s impacts (40% global carbon emissions, 50% natural materials extraction), it’s omnipresence (humans spend 90% of our life in and around the built environment) and influence on our quality of life, the built environment will make or break our quest for a sustainable future.

CISL: What is the single biggest challenge facing the sector in its ability to move towards a more sustainable business model?

MD: The overriding challenge faced by the sector is the way in which it seeks to create value, both in terms of scope and the time horizon within which value is sought. In terms of scope, to achieve the vision I have set out, we need to include ecological and societal value generation along with the currently dominant economic value aspired of real estate assets. We need to generate value in these three dimensions over the whole 60-80y lifetime of a real asset, and not limit it to the interests of stakeholders who have an interest in the asset for the relative short term. Overcoming this challenge will encourage the sector to value existing assets more and to create new assets in an altogether different manner.

CISL: What opportunities are there for individuals and organisations who are embedding sustainability in their practices?

MD: In an increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, sustainability is much more than an opportunity. It is becoming an imperative for individuals morally, and for organisations in terms of how investable they are, their societal and legal licence and ability to operate, and how they are perceived by their most important stakeholders – the people who work for them, with them and their clients and customers. Any individual or organisation not embedding sustainability risks becoming irrelevant and losing value exponentially. As an asset class, real estate is unique as the opportunity of integrating sustainability is very measurable, tangible and in many cases the benefits are immediate and, in all cases, guaranteed.

CISL: What built environment sustainability trends or developments are you excited about and why? 

MD: I am intrigued by how innovation and technology is unlocking huge opportunity in every part of the real estate value chain in terms of how we invest in assets (with blockchain), design them (with building information modelling, augmented reality and virtual reality), how we build (modularly and automatedly) and how we operate buildings efficiently (smart IOT sensors, artificial intelligence).

Perhaps an even more exciting trend is the inspiration we can take from nature to apply solutions it provides in the form of blue and green infrastructure within the built environment to create more resilience, build back nature and attain better health and wellbeing outcomes for occupants. Research shows that, in peak sunshine, the temperature of buildings and pavement can be up to 20 degrees Celsius cooler on a summer day thanks to shade from trees. In addition to from improved comfort, lower financial and environmental costs of cooling, urban tree cover provides health and wellbeing and aesthetic benefits. So much to like.

This blend of human ingenuity and natural wonder is really exciting.

CISL: What advice would you give to professionals looking to start or continue on their own sustainability journey?

This is an incredibly exciting time for real estate professionals to be embedding sustainability into your role and organisations – we are amid a sustainability revolution which, as Al Gore has remarked, ‘has the magnitude of the Industrial Revolution and the speed of the Digital Revolution’. Real estate is at the epicentre of this revolution and the opportunities that come from this are boundless. The learning journey from the Sustainable Real Estate online course will equip you with the latest knowledge, skills, motivation and industry wide network to make sure that you and your organisation are ready to harness benefits that are clear and increasingly present and de-risk your built environment from being stranded.