Q&A with PLATFORM_’s Jonathan Rae

BTR News in conversation with Jonathan Rae about PLATFORM_'s new Nurturing Neighbourhoods strategy and its ESG commitments.

Jonathan Rae, Finance Director and Chair of Sustainability Steering Group, PLATFORM_ | BTR News
Jonathan Rae, Finance Director and Chair of Sustainability Steering Group, PLATFORM_.

Jonathan Rae is the Finance Director and Chair of Sustainability Steering Group at investor, developer and operator PLATFORM_. We speak to Jonathan about PLATFORM_’s recently launched Nurturing Neighbourhoods strategy, as well as the company’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) commitments which includes PLATFORM_’s mission for all its buildings to become net zero in operation by 2030.

What is the vision of PLATFORM_’s Nurturing Neighbourhoods?

At PLATFORM_, we recognise that the built environment is one of the largest contributors to climate change and as a developer of new homes and landlord for thousands of people, we have the opportunity and responsibility to create positive environmental and social outcomes for our residents. We will do this by nurturing our neighbourhoods over the long term.

We have developed a dedicated strategy that will guide the design, construction, and operation of 4,000 homes within our portfolio and pipeline, and many more to follow.  

This comprises 24 commitments across ESG aspects of our business. These include targets relating to embodied and operational carbon reduction, biodiversity net gain, support for charities and sustainability certification standards. Importantly, this will benefit both the environments we operate in and the wellbeing of our residents.

We’ve included a mission for all our operational assets to be net zero in operation by 2030 and have signed up to both the BPF Net Zero and the UN Race to Zero to formalise this commitment.

How does your strategy differentiate from competitors?

PLATFORM_ has always acted with sustainable practices in mind, and we were amongst the first Build to Rent operators to adopt the BREEAM ‘in use’ standard for residential across our portfolio.

Nurturing Neighbourhoods expands our work to date into a more holistic approach to achieving positive outcomes across the whole development and operating lifecycle. This reflects PLATFORM_’s position as an integrated investor, developer and operator, creating and managing our neighbourhoods across the whole life cycle.

How will you bring the strategy to life in the development lifecycle? Ie, in the construction phase and during the building’s lifespan.

Ensuring sustainability is baked into a project starts at the design phase. For example, we work closely with our landscape architect teams to ensure that we positively contribute to the local natural environment and biodiversity. Because of this approach, our Milton Keynes development is expected to deliver a 63% biodiversity net gain.

At our recently completed developments in Cardiff, Sheffield and Glasgow, we recycled 90% of construction waste in line with our target. We also diverted 99% of waste from landfill and are aiming to increase this to 100% on future projects, as well as targeting a maximum of five tonnes of construction waste per 100m2.

We are adopting the latest energy efficient technologies to minimise carbon emissions in operation including photovoltaic cells (PVs), air source heat pumps, and mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) in apartments to minimise heat loss and reduce energy use for heating. Developments will also now all be all-electric to benefit from the decarbonisation of the grid in the coming years.

What does the new strategy mean for residents?

We regularly survey our residents. This tells us that the cost of utilities is the number one priority when it comes to sustainability. Alongside the energy efficient technologies mentioned already, we provide smart metering and remote thermostat control to enable residents to optimise their energy use easily from their phone, wherever they are.

Our developments are all designed to reflect a modern way of life, enabling residents to live healthy active lifestyles. As well as on-site gym facilities, we have weaved dedicated cycle and walking routes into masterplans that link to nearby amenities and neighbourhoods, encouraging people to choose active travel options.

Your support to local communities is mentioned significantly in the strategy paper; what does this look like and why have you made it such a focal point?

This starts at the planning process when we consult widely with residents and other stakeholders. All our developments have brought unused buildings or vacant brownfield sites back into use, often in regeneration areas, creating value for the wider neighbourhood.

Our dedicated local partnership programme provides residents with discounts and offers at local businesses, and in return, PLATFORM_ promotes those businesses and their services to residents. To date, we have forged 65 collaborations with local businesses, which benefit from additional visibility and customers.

At PLATFORM_ in Stevenage, we have recently partnered with Mind, the mental health charity, to raise awareness of their services amongst our residents as well as raising funds to support their invaluable work. In Cardiff, we have formed an alliance with other local businesses to fund additional roles at the Huggard Centre for local homeless people and rough sleepers.

We’ll be enhancing our support for local communities further with our commitment to at least 25% of the businesses we work with being local SMEs once our buildings are operational.

Many developers have cited before that Build to Rent is uniquely positioned to deliver on ESG. Do you agree? If so, why, and what could we see more of to truly uphold commitments to greener outputs?

The advantage of Build to Rent in generating more positive ESG outputs comes from having an integrated management platform which takes the building from development through to operation, and enables implementation of a cohesive sustainability strategy across the building’s whole life cycle.

For us, this is reflected in the makeup of our Sustainability Steering Group which oversees delivery of our Nurturing Neighbourhoods approach, including representatives from every team in the business.

The benefits are amplified when smart choices in building design and operation are combined with positive resident engagement to promote the right behaviours.

How do your ESG credentials impact investor appetite?

There are many different standards and accreditations which investors benchmark against, but what is clear is that a positive, structured approach to ESG is now a pre-requisite for working with institutional investors and lenders across the sector.

The better the environmental outcomes achieved and the more ambitious the targets, the wider the pool of potential investors and lenders.

From a finance perspective, there are clear tangible benefits from qualifying for sustainable or ‘green’ loans to reduce finance costs and enhance investor returns.

How has the prioritisation of sustainability changed throughout the planning process?

In the past, we’ve observed that while sustainability-focused policies at a national level are clear and set ambitious targets, they have not always been carried through to a local level.

For example, we’ve seen some local planning authorities still using outdated energy strategy hierarchies such as championing gas fired central heating districts, as opposed to more sustainable on-site solutions. Some planning authorities also continue to be reluctant to embrace Modern Methods of Construction, such as resisting new external materials that can help energy efficiency and lower embodied carbon emissions.

However, we are now starting to see planning officers across the UK taking a more progressive, holistic view and putting more weight on sustainable solutions. Often this is aligned with ambitious net zero targets set by councils for their own cities and regions.

How will technology enhance your ESG operations and commitments?

Innovation is a core value of our business and adoption of new technologies will play a key role in defining and achieving our ESG goals.

As part of the design and operations of our developments, we continue to leverage integrated smart building technologies and IoT (Internet of Things) devices to monitor and manage energy usage in real-time. We use this data to optimise efficiency and promote renewable energy use within our developments for both resident consumption and in the common areas. This also informs future design.

What are the biggest opportunities, and similarly what are the biggest challenges, for the sector in terms of sustainability?

One key challenge is that there isn’t currently a single standard basis of determining ‘net zero’. We’re looking forward to the release of the UK Net Zero Carbon Buildings Standard – which we expect to provide a standardised basis for all building developers and operators to align with. In the meantime, we’re continuing our net zero pathway planning as the direction of travel is clear, if not the end goal just yet.

Another significant challenge is of course cost. Energy efficient technologies, lower carbon materials including concrete and higher specification insulation products all come at a higher cost, reflecting the more intensive manufacturing process and lower quantities being produced. Over time we expect these costs to come down as adoption improves.

Buildings account for 25% of all UK greenhouse gas emissions. This means that as a sector, we have a huge opportunity to really move the needle on reducing carbon emissions so we can achieve our national net zero target. At PLATFORM_, we’re doing that by reaching net zero and making other positive environmental and social changes across our portfolio, neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood.