Refocusing for net-zero: reflections on low-carbon construction

In August 2023, Equate Scotland, in partnership with BE-ST, offered an immersive and practical experience focusing on low carbon construction techniques. This 3-day experiential learning event was designed to provide an opportunity for women in STEM to further develop their knowledge and understanding of Retrofit, Passivhaus, Digital Construction, and sustainable methods of Construction.

The first day was hosted online while the second and third days took place at the BE-ST factory in Hamilton where participants had the chance to hear from speakers working in the industry and develop practical experience through hands-on learning at the factory.

The women who joined us for this event came from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, creating a great opportunity to learn and network. We had the chance to reflect on this experience with three of the participants: Joelle, Mel, and Yashodhara.

Why did you decide to apply to the Low Carbon event?

Joelle: I decided to apply because I studied Passivhaus last year at university and wanted to better understand how I could use it in the future. I also wanted to get some experience in construction, especially in the new method of building. So, when I saw this opportunity, I could not ignore it!

Yashodhara: I have never had any professional practical experience in Engineering, nor have I had the opportunity to get some before. My current job is giving me a lot of exposure to learn about various renewable technologies and low-carbon energy solutions, but I wanted to get hands-on experience and I felt this course would do just that.

Mel: I am not formally qualified in architecture or technical trades, but I know that I want to further my career in low-carbon construction. I have applied to the programme to acquire practical knowledge and understand where my current skillset and experience may fit into the sector. I also had been to a workshop at BE-ST earlier in the year so was curious about the joint offering with Equate and particularly excited about having 2 full days on-site at BE-ST.

What part of the programme resonated with you the most and why?

Joelle: I really enjoyed the practical part of the event, especially when we worked in a team and had to choose an insulation for a prototype wall. We touched and compared them and then made our final decision. I was also really impressed when I visited the house made in Timber using the retrofit technique. In the past, I worked on a Passivhaus project, but it makes a real impact to experience it in real life rather than just in theory.

Yashodhara: During the course, we were asked to measure a built frame, choose an insulation, and cut the insulation to fit the frame leaving no gaps for heat loss. We had to use either a saw or a cutter to cut the insulation board according to the frame measurements. Later on, we had to apply an air-tightness membrane using an industrial stapler and make relevant openings for pipes and electric cables. Another activity involved building a WikiHouse, using structural timber building blocks in the factory. Both these activities from the program resonated the most with me because I am a very enthusiastic person who likes being out and about doing manual work and doing some calculative thinking.

Mel: I was particularly drawn to the applications of Passivhaus in the Scottish context, and the questions emerging as we start retrofitting urban Scottish housing stock. Kate (Associate Impact Manager at BE-ST) gave us a whirlwind tour of all this before setting us the task of applying an airtightness membrane (with the necessary openings for pipes, etc). You have no idea of what people mean by “airtight” until you are actually grappling with the tape and wondering how on earth people manage to install all barriers and tapes correctly to Passivhaus standards. It’s so important to be able to experience this in real life to understand the level of care and skills required.

How important do you think these skills are to address the challenges we face in the construction and built environment sectors?

Joelle: It is vital that we improve the way we are building. It can help us reduce waste, produce better quality and performance, all at a lower cost. The comfort and well-being of those who will live in these buildings are paramount and therefore must be considered with great care.

Yashodhara: To achieve net zero targets, low-carbon heating solutions need to be adopted. Even though there are technologies like heat pumps which can help in reducing the carbon emissions from heating a property, improving thermal insulation and home construction strategies in retrofits, and adopting a low carbon construction methodology in new builds will provide cost-effective sustainable solutions to keep the properties warm. Learning about the five principles of Passivhaus and the ease of construction via the WikiHouse building session along with discovering the different factory machines at BE-ST, made me realise how efficiently warmer homes and buildings can be built in a short span of time. These techniques should be promoted so that more businesses in the construction and built environment sectors can adopt these skills and machines to reduce carbon emissions from these sectors.

Mel: In the context of climate breakdown, we need so many new skills (and very urgently too) to ensure a just transition to a greener future. I don’t know how we do that within planetary boundaries – considering that construction is the largest consumer of raw materials – but we must collectively re-imagine alternatives and new approaches to the built environment.

Why do you think these practical events are important for women in STEM?

Joelle: These events are important because women are a minority in STEM. As a result, some practical training and experience in the field always add value to your career and can lead to better job opportunities in the future. It is also much easier and so valuable to connect with people who work in construction and learn from them. Our world is always changing, and for this reason, we need to stay up-to-date and innovate constantly.

Yashodhara: During one of the introductory presentations in the training course, we were made aware of the average percentage of women who started pursuing their studies/careers in STEM but gradually dropped out due to a lack of support, encouragement, or awareness of the opportunities available in the sector. Practical training events like this one are very important for women in STEM as they offer a platform to understand the different opportunities out there, explore what resonates with our working passion and help us develop the resources we need to pursue our career in that direction. Additionally, these events open doors to networking with fellow women in STEM like us, who might be going through a similar journey, it enables us to guide each other.

Mel: Where to start! Construction is such a male-dominated industry and there is a distinct lack of programmes in Scotland that help you explore the opportunities available. There are so many stereotypes and biases that we need to address if we want these barriers for women to come down. Programmes like these are important because they show you first-hand why low-carbon and sustainable construction is for everyone. WikiHouse, for example, is a system that is changing how we design and manufacture houses by democratising construction.

Has this event changed or challenged your perception of the future of STEM or the future of Construction?

Joelle: Yes, I think so.  I am now more aware of the technical aspects used in retrofit houses and I have deepened my understanding and technical knowledge. Another thing that I have learnt is that a building will be designed differently, and this will depend on a variety of factors. A house in a hot country in Africa will be different from one in Europe with its challenges and contrasts. We cannot ignore the progress, but we also need to be realistic. It is just a question of adaptability.

Yashodhara: The construction industry has been working in a certain way for a very long time and is very comfortable with their current practices and techniques. However, climate change has drastic effects on the planet Earth and these practices seem to be outdated, consuming a lot of time and emitting a lot of carbon emissions. The Passivhaus technique and fabric-first approach alongside the different low-carbon construction machinery and robotics that we have explored throughout the course made me realise that they have the power to not only save time and money but also help us reduce carbon emissions while efficiently providing warmth in our homes and buildings.

Mel: The future of construction should be smart, efficient and beautiful. Systems like WikiHouse can be used to design and build healthy, zero-carbon, zero-waste homes and neighbourhoods, as we move away from the outdated, wasteful methods we have been using. We need to put people and the planet at the core of everything we do in construction. The challenges we face are complex and women have a major role to play in finding solutions as they bring unique perspectives, experiences and ideas to the table.

If you had to pick one word to describe this experience, what would it be and why?

Joelle: Amazing ! I really think so. The different speakers were highly relevant to the topic and very knowledgeable. Their experiences and advice helped me because I felt I could relate to them. In fact, I have learned that, sometimes, taking a risk can pay off. It is always better to try a new adventure than to have a closed mind.

Yashodhara: If I had to pick one word to describe this experience, it would be inspiring. The entire low-carbon construction upskilling programme was inspiring, insightful, and fun. It felt so inspiring being around so many women from different backgrounds and industries, who are strong, smart, independent, and are working together towards achieving a zero-carbon construction future.

Mel: Satisfying – it was incredibly satisfying for me to use my hands to touch, measure, cut and assemble the materials and try to figure out how to achieve the tasks that we were set out to do such as building a small section of a WikiHouse structure together as a team.

About the participants

  • Hi, I am Joelle Kouadio-Tiacoh! I am based in Edinburgh, and I am currently in my 2nd year studying BSc (Hons) Architectural Technology. I have a certification in Low Carbon Learning: Next Gen Fabric First Construction. My main motto in life is a colourful potpourri, so always focus on your goals and keep moving forward.
  • Hello, my name is Yashodhara Bose. I have an Undergrad degree in petroleum engineering from India and a Master’s in renewable energy development from Scotland, having learnt about both sides of the coin, I really want to help decarbonise our energy mix. I am currently working as a Graduate Energy Engineer for a renewable energy integrator and advisory company named Pure energy (REGen) Ltd.  In my free time, I like playing volleyball, football, attending dance classes, going to the gym, listening to music while walking, volunteering to provide food for the homeless and drug addicts and befriending activities.
  • Hi! I am Mel, a designer, brand, and digital strategist based in Edinburgh. I have collaborated with various teams working on social housing, sustainable transport, energy advice, renewables, and since 2021, low-carbon construction. I had been to a workshop at BE-ST earlier in the year so was very curious about the joint offering with Equate Scotland on this specific event and particularly excited about having 2 full days on-site at BE-ST.