Micro economics

How much should we spend to save a tonne of carbon emissions? That’s one question raised in this article for Building magazine, prompted by a report commissioned by the British Council for Offices (BCO), which attempts to attach some cold, hard numbers to the disparate costs and benefits of small-scale installations of technologies such as photovoltaic panels and biomass boilers. Their startling conclusion is that commercial developers are paying an average of £380 per tonne of emissions reduced and, in the most extreme cases, as much as £2,800. The authors argue that the economics of renewables is strikingly similar to any other method of power generation – and that you wouldn’t ask a developer to pay for a mini nuclear power station on the roof of an office block. But does such a narrow focus on costs give the full picture? Others argue that no other property investment is ever subjected to such close analysis, and that if green technologies don’t stack up, perhaps the problem is not the technologies themselves but the way the calculations are done. They pose a different question: given the urgency of cutting our carbon emissions and the cost of replacing our ageing power stations, can we afford not to seize every opportunity to reduce the bill?

That sinking feeling

That the climate is changing is now “unequivocal” according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, the changes caused by our past emissions will continue for centuries. That means we have no choice but to adapt, and it is the world’s coasts that will be on the frontline of that adaptation, under threat from rising sea levels and more frequent storms and flooding. Coasts are also the most densely populated places on earth – most of the world’s major cities are on floodplains and, by 2050, they will be home to 70% of an estimated population of 9bn people. In this piece for Modus magazine, I investigated how engineers worldwide are preparing to fight the tides. I found that the response very much depends on how valuable coastal land is, and that the most valuable land is not necessarily where you’d expect. In the declining cities of the developed world, a managed retreat seems to be the only option; in Jakarta, meanwhile, demand for land is so high that the authorities are planning to build a completely new city several miles into the bay.

80,000 potential buyers; just 8535 sites

In the UK, self-build has always been the preserve of a courageous minority, accounting for around 10% of homes. Now the government wants to make it a genuine option for many more people, following the example of countries such as Germany and Sweden where self-builders are responsible for more than 60% of all new homes. A year on from my article for Construction Manager on the government’s self-build housing strategy, I assessed how it’s doing for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. And given that self-builders’ two biggest concerns are still – and likely to remain – land and money, I found that surveyors are well placed to offer them advice.

“Life seems more meaningful in a tiny house”

Small may be a relative concept when it comes to homes, but there’s no question that the “micro homes” increasingly popular in crowded cities around the world are very, very small indeed. I investigated the phenomenon of shrinking spaces for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, speaking to residents of tiny houses smaller than most people’s garages, office designers condensing the footprint per employee by a third, and psychologists seeking to find out how our diminishing place in the world is changing the way we think.

However bad it gets, we still have to eat

If you think the UK has reached saturation point for supermarkets, think again. In fact, we’re still relatively under-served compared with other European countries and the US – France and Germany have nearly twice as much supermarket space per capita, and the US has triple. All the big chains and quite a few newcomers have been taking an aggressive approach to expansion over the last few years, and they’re not planning on slowing down any time soon, as I found out in this analysis of the supermarkets sector for Building magazine.

“You could say they are doomed to fail”

A journey into unknown territory … an impossible target … and an estates department determined to go down fighting … Alright, so it’s not exactly Andy McNab, but the challenge facing the Defence Infrastructure Organisation is still pretty dramatic. Over the next four years, the MoD’s new estates division must save £1.2bn from property disposals, direct estate costs, energy and water bills and staff numbers. This means it must cut an organisation with a headcount of more than 7,000 down to just 2,000 people, rationalise a property portfolio worth about £20bn, and reinvent itself from the ground up, with new business processes, IT infrastructure and operating procedures. I spoke to the heads of the DIO to find out how they’re going to do it – and the rest of the construction industry to assess their chances of success.

The Grand Designs paradox

Admit it: you would secretly love to build your own home. But even though many people will have probably considered it at some time or another, very few of us will ever take the plunge. This is the Grand Designs paradox: the ubiquity of property programmes on TV encourages us all to dream of designing the perfect home, while simultaneously presenting a hellish vision of construction nightmares and financial ruin that ensures only the bravest will ever attempt it. But that could all change if housing minister Grant Shapps achieves his ambition to make self-build a more realistic option. In this article for Construction Manager magazine, I assessed his chances of transforming the UK into a nation of housebuilders.