When it comes to crises (the proper reference for more than one crisis I now know), COVID-19 is securely in the top league.  

This week's Build It digital conference has, however, reinforced the message that COVID-19 is certainly not the only one we are facing, and, indeed, may pale in significance compared to the climate crisis. 

Slightly ironic, then, that this year's conference  on "the role of technology and digitalisation in securing a sustainable future for construction" not only had to take place as a virtual event, but also around the time when COP26 was originally planned to be hosted in Glasgow.

It was also somewhat ironic that amongst all of the excellent presentations ranging from the use in the construction sector of data; automation; AI; blockchain; the circular economy; the retrofit imperative; energy transition and renewables, one common thread emerged. Human behaviour.  

Yes, the pandemic got a mention but, more often than not, from the positive impact in accelerating the adoption (or the need for adoption) of behaviours seen as key to delivering on the net zero targets set by the Scottish and UK governments.

Speaker Christina Gaiger (president of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland) captured, for me, a harsh reality:  the Scottish Government net zero target by 2045 is "only two or three builds away". Gulp. 

And then consider that the greenest buildings are those that already exist.

That's where the retrofit imperative comes in. And whether there are, in fact, no such things as sustainable materials (ask speaker Erini Atmatzidou, design officer at Architecture and Design Scotland who can refer you to the ADS library of sustainable building materials).

We heard from David Ross, director at Keppie Design on the lessons learned from the production of the NHS Louisa Jordan Hospital, a step down facility for patients recovering from COVID-19. A fully operational 1000+ bed hospital conceived and delivered within the existing SEC buildings in 23 days (the previous comparable facility took 10 years), and a clear example of innovation in process, achievable as a result of a clear vision, collaboration and a truly "can do" approach. Whatever the debate on costs, level of use and decommissioning, if a project like that  can be delivered in midst of an urgent crisis...

Gordon McIntosh, a director of Aberdeen Renewable Energy Group highlighted how some of the fundamental materials used in construction (cement and concrete) may be produced using renewables in the future, drawing on his experience as deputy minister of natural resources in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada (check out Muskrat Falls in your browser). Gordon threw down the gauntlet to the construction sector in the north east of Scotland to start engaging at a higher level on renewables, and to break down some of the historic/perceived barriers delineating the energy sector from the construction sector.

But, for me, the most striking examples came not from a construction professional or contractor, but from a marine research scientist:  Dr Fiona McIntyre. Fiona is the founder and managing director of Greyhope Bay, a charitable organisation that exists to connect and engage communities with our marine world. This is the organisation that has captured the imagination of many Aberdonians in seeking to breathe new life into the Torry Battery through the delivery of a dolphin viewing centre, cafe and community space, within what is a historic monument. 

Some might argue creating a new community facility is an obvious — or easy — project to feature new technologies and sustainable practice. But what was common to this and other examples shared across the four days of the conference, like the NHS Louisa Jordan, was to "build with meaning" (apologies to Fiona for re-using her title again!). 

Having a clear vision, need, collaboration and engagement were all amongst the human behaviours identified for success if the construction sector is to "adapt forward". 

Without those, new technologies and sustainable materials will become as defunct as my beloved twelve year old diesel Volvo will be, come 2030.