Construction’s answer to the ‘Attenborough effect’

September saw the Global Climate Strike sweeping the world, an agenda unprecedently and almost single-handedly sparked by the courageous, young campaigner, Greta Thunberg. With a worldwide army, the Global Climate Strike is delivering powerful messages to leaders across the globe that much greater and immediate action against climate change is necessary, so not to inflict irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies.

As one placard strikingly read, “we are skipping our lessons to teach you one”[i]

Where did this worldwide spirituous wave of compassion towards climate change snowball from? And how does this impact the construction industry? To answer the former (more on the latter, later), it could be said that the global environmental movement that we are currently witnessing is most likely an unforeseen consequence of the ‘Attenborough effect’.


The Attenborough effect

Documentaries featuring Sir David Attenborough have historically received high ratings and are known to spark an interest in the natural world from a variety of audience types, but no one could have anticipated the global response to plastic pollution as a result of Blue Planet II. Who would have envisaged a seemingly unassuming television programme about the adverse effect of plastic use on marine ecosystems, would generate such interest and evoke such concern for plastic consumption? As a result, a report by GlobalWebIndex shows that 53% of people surveyed in the US and UK reduced their single-use plastic over the last 12 months[ii]. The Attenborough effect has rapidly trickled its way not only into the subconscious of those not previously engaged, but coupled with the likes of the ‘Greta effect’, is influencing beyond simply plastic consumption and into wider sustainability concerns, facilitating the growth of associated sub-initiatives.


How has Sir David Attenborough and his media platform triggered such a powerful movement? A significant driver is that he is a hugely respected and trusted public figure, using facts and emotive footage of real-life scenes to tell compelling stories that tap into peoples’ emotions. Underpinning this emotional messaging is education. Educating the masses in this fashion is supporting the transformation of public knowledge, understanding and behaviours towards sustainability.

So what role does the public have? There are many drivers for sustainable development in the construction industry, such as legislation, building regulations, investor and client demand, adoption of practices such as demonstrating against ESG, UN SDG’s etc., but often the power of the public as drivers of sustainability is overlooked. There is still much scope for transforming attitudes towards sustainability of construction industry stakeholders, however we have the opportunity now to also leverage the growing consumer concern, so that consumers are demanding and seeking out sustainable places to work, live, learn, thrive in general.

What is the construction industry’s answer?

Environmentalism through the lens of the media and high-profile activists are the emerging drivers that we, sustainability leaders in the construction industry, have been longing for. It is a much-welcomed movement that is inherently going to support our own industry sustainability agenda. However, time is of the essence; we are just over a decade away from the Sustainable Development Goals deadline[iii], and just over 30 years away from the timeframe for net-zero emissions[iv]. With the improving public awareness, we are now in a stronger position to look deeper into the impacts of our buildings, infrastructure and communities and to use our role in society to bring others on this sustainability trajectory.

When thinking about the climate crisis, water scarcity, waste management or just sustainability in general, the built environment is not necessarily what first springs to mind for those outside of the construction industry.

Whilst innovative building design and sustainable technologies might spark the interest of some, it’s fair to say it won’t be a conversation topic of choice for all. For the general public to become drivers for a sustainable built environment, we need to ignite that understanding and interest in the minds of the masses.

Images of the natural world are known to appeal to most people on an instinctive level, but the built environment may not have the same appeal. So how do we go about encouraging people to understand the impacts of, and want to positively engage with, the built environment around them? How do we create the construction industry’s answer to the ‘Attenborough effect’?

Following Sir David’s lead, the answer could lie within a combination of emotion and education.



Thankfully we already have our own set of public spokespeople and ‘educators’ including the likes of Charlie Luxton[v], architect, TV presenter and all-round advocate of environmental design and renewable energy. Then we have George Clarke[vi], another TV presenter, known for his love of innovation and building for future living. But possibly the most recognised and applauded figure is Kevin McCloud, who uses his television programme, Grand Designs, to showcase the design and construction of innovative homes, often using sustainable methods and materials of construction. His programmes are concluded with a tour of the finished and lived in homes, often filled with big smiles, relief and connotations of aspirational and wonderous living. This insight gives the viewer an opportunity to imagine themselves experiencing the same journey and giving them a vision of what their life could be enjoying a sustainable home.

Beyond these already established public figures, what can organisations operating within the construction industry do to spread the built environment sustainability agenda? In communicating our messages and efforts in sustainability, we need to go beyond industry jargon and promoting our own good work. Instead we need to remember that the built environment is there to serve all of society, and as such our efforts need to encompass all and be communicated in a way that reaches all. When we talk about the issue of water scarcity, let’s not merely talk about the water efficient taps we have specified in our buildings, let’s talk about what water scarcity would mean in the community in which we are building. When we talk about developing net-zero cities, let’s communicate what the climate crisis means to the daily lives of those inhabiting those cities.

If we can transform our built environment messaging to go beyond the technicalities of built environment design and operation, and instead relate this information to our day to day lives, we stand a chance of reaching audiences on a personal level.

In BREEAM’s latest video on Climate Resilience, we interviewed our clients to better understand their take on the climate crisis and what the built environment needs to be doing to achieve climate resilience. To engage our interviewees and audiences, the first focus of the video is to understand why our clients, as individuals, are concerned about the climate crisis. We asked what the climate crisis means to them on a personal level and gained invaluable insight as to why they have their dedicated their working careers to developing a sustainable built environment for all. It is the hope that in bringing this to light our audiences will too consider what the climate crisis means to them in their personal lives as well as their working lives and the built environments with which they interact. You can hear what our clients had to say by watching the video here.


Educating consumers in the wave of the Attenborough effect is a great opportunity for the construction industry, and the work we are doing in BREEAM to drive sustainable development. However, we need to get the vehicle for transformation up to speed (our industry stakeholders), whilst we look to bring consumers along on the journey.

BREEAM requirements are ever evolving, to ensure that we move the goal posts and push for best practice as new knowledge and innovations in the market facilitate growth and implementation of sustainable practices, approaches and materials. Part of our role is to ensure that our customers are educated and provided with opportunities to upskill with new knowledge and tools to enable effective use and promotion of our improving schemes.

An example of how our education has helped facilitate transformation of the market, is when BREEAM released new requirements around the responsible sourcing of materials. Initially, BREEAM Assessors and design teams found compliance against this new issue too complex and too costly. However, with perseverance from all sides, and education of the importance, intention and positive impacts of the issue, it eventually became more manageable, and the norm for many.

We are currently witnessing a similar situation, where BREEAM UK New Construction 2018 requirements in the Mat 01 issue were updated to use building Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) to encourage use of products with a low environmental impact (including embodied carbon). To explain the intent behind this update; in the design, construction, and operation of buildings, much focus is placed on the impact of operational carbon, and vast improvements are being made as the grid decarbonises. However, the same progress cannot be said for embodied carbon impacts as these are often overlooked in the early design process. Globally, buildings account for 32% of energy use and 30% of energy-based GHG emissions, and so the construction industry has a pivotal part to play in reaching our net-zero goals of the Paris Climate Change Agreement[vii]. Improving embodied carbon impacts will make a considerable difference, so educating our industry on the importance of LCA, as the mechanism to do so, is a current focus for us, and so we persevere to improve understanding.

As BREEAM aims to continuously improve the impact of our schemes, we realise the influential role we have, and the potential of our learning resources in transforming the way in which the construction industry thinks, operates, improves. Together with our own improvements of learning resources along with the power of our industry advocates, and public spokespeople, such as Sir David Attenborough and Kevin McCLoud, we see education as an answer to driving positive change.

Combining this with more emotional messaging to help our clients and the wider public to understand a sustainable built environment in terms of their day to day lives, we hope to use BREEAM as a platform to engage, educate, benchmark and develop a sustainable built environment for all.