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Beyond the carbon footprint

In the third episode of Series Three, Lee Leston-Jones, Structural Partner at Cundall, discusses how a focus on ESG at a local level leads to real impact on their projects, and how they think holistically, moving beyond Carbon Zero on projects such as Salford Crescent Masterplan to create real sustainable living environments for communities. 

Cundall is the first consultancy in the world to achieve carbon neutral certification, and a consultancy that is continuing to set benchmarks in sustainability.

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Podcast Transcript

Holly: Hello, and welcome back to the Take 10 with Colliers podcast, I'm your host Holly Brown, Head of Client Strategy here at Colliers. On Series 3 of the podcast, we are talking all things ESG.

And today's guest is a partner one of the world's trailblazers in sustainable engineering and the first consultancy in the world to achieve carbon neutral certification. I am very, very pleased to announce that today's guest is Lee Leston-Jones partner at Cundall. Lee who is formerly a director at Ramble has been with Cundall for six years and now leads the structuring engineering team in Manchester, where he's responsible for all the technical and commercial elements of the business. As well as that, he's also spearheading Cundall’s sustainability committee. Lee, welcome to the podcast.

Lee: Hi, Holly. Thanks for having me along.

Holly: Our pleasure. So I just have to start by saying congratulations on Cundall’s incredible environmental achievements, not only are you the first consultancy in the world to achieve carbon neutral certification, but Cundall have sort of being continually setting benchmarks within the industry. Because I think back in 2016, you had the first office in Europe to receive WELL certification. And I know there's going to be lots of people listening today who are, you know, at many stages in this journey, but some are I guess at a very early stage. How did Cundall’s get to where you are today ,and is there any wisdom you can share with the audience, or any real pitfalls that people need to avoid?

Lee: Yeah, it's been quite a long journey for us. It's something we embarked on probably about 20 years ago in the projects we're designing and then back in 2012, we signed up with Bioregional to become a One Planet Living company to reduce our footprint to a single planet per person. So yeah, it goes back quite a long way. Back in 2017, we did a materiality review to understand where our greatest impact is and for me, that was a really useful process. So we engaged with our staff, with our clients, and with external bodies like UK GBC, and then really refocused it, because it's hard to sometimes without taking that step back understand where your real impact is. So a lot of the elements of our original roadmap remained, but we then took a greater focus on our projects.

The big challenge then is how you embed that culturally within your business. So having had a lot of people engaged in the stakeholder process internally, within the organisation, really helped with that. We then created sustainability teams in each of the office that drive the local things and working groups that then work on the impacts and that enables opportunity for lots of people to get involved, and drive positive change through the projects they’re involved in at the practice level and from different angles.

So it's all about inclusion and hearing other people's voices and making them realise that they can contribute positive to that, and then top down commitment as well. So our sustainability committee is represented with the management board on there, report back to them on a regular basis, so they're fully behind us to make sure it's really recognised and valued when people make positive contributions.

Holly: And did you find that that local level sustainability team made the implementation a lot easier because people could sort of see it, feel it, touch it, but did you find that helped?

Lee: Yeah, I think there's two things. I think if you look at actually having gone through the materiality reviews, 97% of our impact is in the projects we deliver. So the 3% that sits locally with the team in some ways insignificant, but it's really important because people learn through their positive behaviours by thinking about things on a day-to-day basis. So I think that's really ingrained it in everybody's behavior, so they do small things day to day and then they think about the big things when they get into the projects.

Holly: That's completely right. And is there any major blockers that you find throughout the process or what one piece you know would you think someone else listening could say, okay I think I'm going to struggle with a similar thing and how to potentially overcome it?

Lee: I think one was that we felt we do a lot of consultancy work and it's easy to sit there and think we know all the answers. I think it's really important to get that external feedback from people, because you always know things, you're sometimes less critical yourselves and other people are of you. So it's really good to have external people sat around you saying, I think you could maybe do a bit more really stretch yourselves. You've got such great potential and think about what you could deliver back. So yeah, don't just rely on yourselves; get lots of people to input in the process.

Holly: Definitely. And I do think it is a really long road and there's a lot of noise and it is great that there's so much noise about this all the moment, but everyone's got to, I guess, take a step back and assess where they are, what their contribution is and how they can move forward. But obviously, as legislation changes, and hopefully groups like Cundall who are sort of leading the pack can convince a lot more people to move in through similar footsteps.

On that note, I know Cundall are once again setting and the benchmark very, very high for their involvement in Salford Crescent Masterplan. You've been developing the sustainability framework for, I think, it's about a 240-acre regeneration program. Can you tell us a bit about that project and what part does carbon neutrality play within that framework?

Lee: I think carbon neutrality is really important to all of us in the projects we're delivering, it's a very immediate crisis we need to address. And there's been really good progress on it. I think one concern is we focus solely on the carbon footprints of the buildings and think less holistically about sustainability. So by having the broader framework, we made that pick up in other aspects biodiversity, social value, all sorts of things. So I think that drove really good design solutions. I think also that with lockdown, we've almost taken streets back and that's been really good. So I think that one of the big things on the masterplan was trying to push all the vehicle movements to the perimeter of the masterplan and green, create a lot of biodiversity, create really healthy living environments people in the centre of it. And I think that's created a really nice place which is sustainable, biodiverse, it's got blue green infrastructure and deals with climate change issues which we'll inevitably experience.

Holly: You mentioned the social value element there, and I know there's a huge emphasis on that within the masterplan generally, how is that going to be delivered on the ground, let's say? Do we think that's something that we will see in masterplans more readily going forward?

Lee: I think we'll see it in all our projects, not just master planning. And I think it's at masterplan level where you've got great potential so you can fully understand the social economic issues that exist within a neighborhood and how you can positively influence those through education, through opportunities for employment and those sorts of things.

But I also feel that as consultant teams, even on small projects, we have a role to play about what skills do we have and how can we bring those back. So it can be anything from thinking about how we can bring apprenticeships into our team, into our businesses, how we can do early career advice for people, how we can inspire people by working with schools and colleges and all those sorts of things; and little things, we go and plant trees in places and things like that. So there's lots of things that you can do that can really contribute back to communities, and also bring the project team and your own business team together as well in a really strong way.

Holly: That's such an interesting point, because we've all over the last 12 months been forced to stay local. So I think people have really started to understand the impact that either they personally or their businesses or their real estate are having on those local areas. So it's really nice that the conversation is sort of shifting, obviously, not fully away from the E, but it's now sort of focusing more on the S and I'm hoping that that's going to long continue because it's just so important and I think it's been avoided or people have overlooked it for quite some time.

Lee: Yeah, very much so. You can see how local businesses have really thrived and it's about getting the right mix of small local businesses within developments that can bring something different to the occupants of those communities.

Holly: Agreed. Okay, so we're running towards the end of the show, so you know what that means, it's the quick-fire round. And hope you're ready, and as I’ve said before just nice quick answers as fast as you can. So, would you rather plant a forest or regrow a coral reef?

Lee: I’d plant a forest.

Holly: Good choice. Build a wind farm or a solar farm in your back garden?

Lee: Living in Manchester, I think could get more wind, so I'll go for the wind farm.

Holly: Definitely true, same with Northern Ireland. And if you could choose to save one part of the world from global warming, where would you save?

Lee: It’d have to be the polar caps because they do such a big role, reflecting heat gains and also there's a big contribution from flooding that's going to come from that at the moment.

Holly: Brilliant. And final one, if you could leave the listeners with one piece of advice to reduce their impact on the climate, what it would be?

Lee: Go back to what I’m saying then start really start with the small things, and lead by example. And if you do focus on those, I think you build the behaviour so that you then scale up to the big things.

Holly: Perfect. Lee, thank you so, so much for being on the podcast. We could speak to you for hours. And hopefully, we will soon, it's been such a pleasure. And for all of those listening, thank you so much for joining us to hear more episodes of the podcast. You can find us in all of the usual places, Apple podcast, Google podcast, Spotify, and YouTube. And to find out who our next guest is, please follow us on our social channels: that's LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. Thanks very much for listening.

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Holly Brown

Head of Client Strategy

Investment Property Management

London - West End

Holly is a Director in the Investment Property Management (IPM) team and  Head of Client Strategy. She works with IPM and National Capital Markets to drive business development and client management and enhance our service offering for our key clients.  

Holly graduated from the University of Reading with First Class Honours in 2011 and qualified as a chartered surveyor in 2013 at niche hotel investment firm, Gerard Nolan and Partners. 

Holly joined CBRE's High Street Retail Investment team in 2014, and transitioned into their Client Care team in 2016 to develop the Retail & Institutional Investors Client Care programmes. 



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