video Podcast Episode 6

Mitch Cooke from Greengage

This week, we're talking with Mitch Cooke, the Sustainability Director at Greengage Environmental. We talk about Climate Resilience and how it impacts housing providers, the next steps in improving energy efficiency and how do we adapt to a low-carbon way of thinking.

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Podcast Transcript

Alastair:
Hi and welcome to another Switchee podcast. I'm Alastair from Switchee, and I'm joined today by Mitch Cooke. Mitch Cooke is from an organization called Greengage and I think he's probably the best person to tell you a little bit about what they do. So I'm going to hand it over to you, Mitch. Can you tell us a little bit about what Greengage do?

Mitch:
Okay, thank you very much. So Greengage is a sustainability consultancy. We provide advice to our clients on how they might identify and manage their environmental and sustainability impacts. We work across a range of different sectors, including residential, commercial, offices and we provide advice to people who are developing hotels, hospitals, and factories. My team are a range of experts in energy efficiency, climate impacts, social value and social impacts as well as using sustainability benchmarks such as BREEAM, WELL, SKA, LEED and others.

Alastair:
That's great, Mitch. Thank you very much for that. One of the reasons we are really interested in talking with you today is that we work predominantly within the housing sector and a lot of our clients have been scratching their heads a little bit about net-zero. What they're meant to do, and I guess this is a little bit of a plea for help. I know you're quite big into climate resilience and how we're going to sort of get from now to net zero. So yeah, if I could just ask your help, how can you help us?

Mitch:
So, there's quite a lot of discussion at the moment, quite rightly so, about net-zero and how the UK decarbonises to meet its targets on limiting global temperatures risk. So what we're seeing is that councils, who are declaring climate emergencies and clients that are declaring climate emergencies and setting out their action plan, really need some practical advice about how they do that. And so what we are doing ethically in the residential sector, is two things. One is we're helping our clients identify what their carbon footprint is. And what they then need to do as an organization in terms of a governance approach.

So firstly, knowing what they need to do internally, but secondly, what they need to do in terms of their new home development or what they need to do with their existing stock. And what they get in terms of bang for their buck. So what they need to do first, in terms of a priority - so that they can manage the actions and the successes to their pathway. And one of the things that we are quite keen on is identifying for them, the potential impact they have upon their customers - so their residents, and what that means for some of those customers that might be more vulnerable. So those who are ill or infirm or those who are very young or very old. And actually, because climate change will have the greatest impact on those vulnerable groups, it's always about looking at how we might provide quicker actions for those people living in those circumstances.

Alastair
Great. And yeah, the sector does look after a huge diversity of demographics and some of the most vulnerable in society. What sorts of impacts do you think would happen, if they get this wrong? What could go wrong with it?

Mitch:
So some of the things that we've been looking at are increased mortality rates for people over a certain age who have certain health conditions. And if those people have those conditions, and they are in homes that, say, overheat then the outcome for that is quite bad. So, the advice is to look at those homes that might overheat say. And to look at those people who are living in those homes and then put in place a program for rehousing or changing where they live. So I think that the human factors are really important when we look at these things.

But the other thing, of course, is that the resilience side of things in terms of climate impact is not just about ensuring that homes are resilient, it's ensuring their community is resilient as well. So if we're looking at people's homes in a kind of estate or an urban setting - how do those people get to their homes, you know, if the streets flooded? How do they get to their local shop if the shops are flooded out? And what do we as a society need to do to embed features and resilience into the high street and into places where people live, work and take the kids to school?

And often, that's quite a simple approach, when you look at nature-based system, but I can hear you saying, Alastair, "What's a nature-based system?" A nature-based system, or nature-based systems, is essentially looking at how vegetation, so trees, bushes, long grass, can help improve climate impacts by reducing the heat island effect. So what that essentially means is vegetation has a natural cooling effect in the spaces that it's in. So vegetation will help cool spaces therefore ambient air temperature in cities is less than it would be. But it also helps in managing rainwater - it slows down surface water runoff. It prevents or slows down local flooding. And in well-designed systems, you can also integrate nature and biodiversity features. So it's a system that uses nature to control impacts on climate change.

Alastair:
That's very interesting. And, yeah, I can see what you're saying. You are not only trying to find solutions to these problems but also identifying what these problems are likely to be. One of the things that we've been doing with our devices in properties is we have been monitoring under heating to identify fuel poverty and things like that, but also overheating as well. And over the three and a half years, four years, that I've been involved with the business, we've seen comparatively more overheating warnings within properties over the last couple of years. There's no question that these properties are getting warmer and it's summer - it's not someone leaving their heating on all the time. It's in summer, where they can't cool their property. So really, really important.

So look, with regards to your experience in the housing industry specifically, do you think that we're set up to adapt to a new kind of low carbon way of thinking or how could you help us to do that?

Mitch:
Well, I think we all getting there. I think what we are seeing, you know, almost on a daily basis, ignoring what's going on around Covid, is the ongoing recognition that we are in a climate emergency and we're in a biodiversity emergency. So actually I think the public awareness of the issues is even greater now than it has been at any other time. So I think there is an understanding, or recognition, that something needs to be done. I think the challenge is moving that recognition into action. And we are seeing there is a move into planning policy and development control. We're also seeing quite a lot of enlightened clients do more than they need to. Currently through legislation or guidance. So I think there is momentum. I think actually though that the momentum needs to speed up and I think there's a real urgency in what is needed.

Alastair:
Yeah. I think there would be a lot of people that we speak to that would be offended if we said to them that they needed to start. And some people that would agree with that fact but certainly it needs to speed up. I think everybody would agree with that. So I guess here's a kind of question, what the first next step? So the housing providers have obviously done some things in the past, with regards to energy efficiency. They now have the label of climate emergency declaration or net-zero, whatever they want to latch on to. What's the first next step?

Mitch:
So I think that I'll answer that in two ways. So, for when there's a new development, I think it's understanding how you can make those buildings as energy-efficient and passive as possible. So there's no overreliance on energy. And actually, consideration of overheating is now something that's really becoming quite common. It's not throughout the UK, but it's becoming quite common. And actually, some of that is a perception. So if you would say to somebody, "You need to be careful in the UK of overheating" they might give you a quizzical look. I mean, most have an image of living in the UK that it's cold and wet and you need to insulate your homes for heat not cold or cool. So I think that there's a perception element about what needs to be considered in the design. And overheating is an important principle in terms of building performance. What you're not doing is you're not building a requirement in the future if you don't consider everything now for air conditioning.

But what we don't want to do is see new homes being built in a few years time that need to be retrofitted with air conditioning. So that would be counter-productive and even more problematic. So I think there is an understanding in New Build. I think the existing stock is more challenging. And I think in that instance, what we need to be looking at is who is going to be using those homes. Thinking about those that might be at risk. And identifying what that risk is and then putting in governance and management around that risk. That will be about, as we've mentioned before, vulnerable groups and vulnerable people.

Alastair:
That's great. So I've got a slightly different question for you now. It's around the same theme. But we, as a technology company, obviously think that technology is the answer to all of life's conundrums. Is there anything, any sort of particular projects or upcoming technological advancements that you're particularly excited about at the moment?

Mitch:
So what we are excited about is seeing the number of towns creating frameworks going forward that have sustainability and climate resilience as a key theme. And we've worked on a number, that, you know, are live now or fairly recently. So, I think in most of the ones which are now coming out to support climate change, social value, placemaking, resilience and sustainability are all fed together or feeding each other. And I think that's a real recognition that, actually, you can make really nice places that people want to be in. And people want to meet and congregate and walk and cycle and go through. But you can also make those places very productive for the community. You can make them attractive for people to come together, therefore you address issues around social isolation or community separation. You can look at intergenerational mixing.

So there's lots of social value and benefits that come from well-designed places. But you can also create those places so they are climate-resilient and we reconnect people with nature. But there's a huge amount of evidence to show that people get a great deal of mental and physical well-being by being in spaces where nature is present. And so I think if I look at the positives, I see placemaking that has all of those threads coming together, is now becoming quite normal, as opposed to the individual exemplar project.

But if we are talking about projects there is one, or a couple, that at the moment I'm really excited about. There's one called "Golden Valley", which is an extension to Cheltenham. Which is looking at how it can use nature-based systems for placemaking and how you might encourage people to be more active through landscape design and connecting people with nature. And that addresses things like child obesity and community isolation. And so, that's really exciting. I mean it's not a whiz-bang technology thing, but it is exciting for me as an ecologist.

But I would say this from a technology point of view, there are some things which I, you know, also think are exciting and I think monitoring and having data and being able to analyse data in that way, I think is really exciting. Particularly around climatic controlling homes. So, I think gone are the days where your central heating heats all the rooms to the same temperature, irrespective of whether somebody is in it or not. And so I think systems in homes will become quite intelligent. They'll know your behaviour. They'll know that you're in the front room from 9 to 10 when the kids have gone to bed, but you're in the kitchen up to that point. So I think those systems will make energy use more efficient and more effective.

And I think the other big thing is battery technology and how that will revolutionize micro renewables for housing. And sometimes that can be quite small scale, but the greater scale you have, I think, the greater opportunity there will be for battery storage and battery energy optimization. So that's really exciting too.

Alastair:
Yeah. I've been watching the battery stuff and the EV stuff as a consumer for a while. And I'm just waiting for the right moment to get involved myself. Unfortunately, I can't put any solar panels on my roof in London. But, it's something that we've got more involved with at Switchee recently - especially demand-side response. So, there's this movement towards the electrification of heat. And the understanding that, actually, if you put every property in the UK on heating via electricity, it would knacker the entire network. You know, there's not enough electricity to go around. And so there's a big plan a) obviously to increase the efficiency of the systems that are installed. But b) to do a bit of load balancing on the network. And actually, this can be done quite effectively via the heat side of things.

So if your heat is coming from electricity, heat in a well-designed property actually stays there for quite a while. And so you can predict and use energy at the right times when it's sort of cheapest and also, more efficient for the network to do that. It's quite exciting to be involved in these things. You move from burning stuff and using little bits of plastic on a wall, badly, to an integrated intelligent system that's saving the planet. It's quite fun.

And the "Golden Valley" project sounds really interesting. I've certainly noticed since we've all been stuck at home and working in different environments, but mainly in one room for a lot of the time, that actually just getting outside and being in nature, you remember what an effect that can have. And there are lots of people that Covid, or no Covid, you don't get that opportunity because of the places that they live. So, yeah, really exciting stuff from that side. Okay. So we're running out of time, unfortunately, Mitch. I think there's always one last thing, which is, as I mentioned, we're mainly focused on the housing sector here. And if you had either one piece of advice to give to our clients, or one thing to warn them about or one thing to get excited about, what would that be?

Mitch:
So, I won't say my Mantra, but the thing that I always say is to try not to over-engineer things, you know. Sometimes the simplest of solutions are best. They are the passive measures - they're not rocket science. So, I think sometimes, you know, we need collaboratively to find a solution. So it's not just an engineer's role to find a sustainable solution or an architect role to find a sustainable solution. I think it really comes down to the collaborative design team input. That's what I'd say. Word of warning, I think that if the housing industry wants to do well in the sustainability way, I think that we need to think about people more. So how those homes will be used, rather than creating spaces or creating homes. Not without thinking about the person. But there needs to be more consideration for that. And that includes the spaces between the buildings, as well as the buildings themselves.

Alastair:
That would be nice. At the moment, it's properties and assets and people. They sort of join up sometimes, only at the CEO level. But they're always trying to do the right thing. Hey, Mitch, it's been really great chatting with you. Really interesting. I've learnt a lot in the short time that we've had here. So thanks very much for coming on board.

Mitch:
You're welcome.

Alastair:
I'm glad you enjoyed it. Nice to speak to you.

Mitch:
Thanks.

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