BIG INTERVIEW | Julie Hirigoyen, CEO of UKGBC
After eight years leading the UK Green Building Council, CEO Julie Hirigoyen will step down next summer. Speaking to PlaceTech, she looks back on pivotal years for sustainability in the built environment.
Hard as it is to ignore environmental news on most days, the day Julie Hirigoyen and I speak feels particularly poignant. The UN had just released its Emissions Gap Report, warning that existing climate policies are taking us towards a 2.8°C rise in global temperatures by 2100. Action since last year’s COP26 climate conference, which the UK hosted, has “barely impacted” temperature trajectories, the report said.
But Hirigoyen can’t let the bleak headlines get to her. “I have to remain optimistic, otherwise, I don’t think I could do the work that I do,” she says.
Having jumped into sustainable development decades before it became the thing to do, Hirigoyen has had to maintain that optimism longer than most in the sector – and through years of “banging on closed doors”.
Travelling in Central and South America in the mid-1990s, she encountered the potential for destruction that development can have. “You’ve got this wonderful natural kind of beauty, quite untouched, and then you see a mine going through it, and it really affects you,” she recalls.
Doing something about it with her background in law proved to be a disillusioning experience. Environmental law “was really about helping corporates get through loopholes”, she says. “It certainly wasn’t acting as a lever or fulcrum for progress.”
What followed was a career that proved to be ahead of the curve. She first joined environmental consultancy Upstream in 1998, staying through its acquisition by JLL in 2007 and eventually heading up the adviser’s UK sustainability business. In 2015, she joined UKGBC as CEO, where she has seen more progress in the last couple of years than in the two decades before.
The pivotal moment, Hirigoyen says, was the “global awakening” in 2019. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on climate change, protests by groups like Extinction Rebellion and the effects of extreme weather events all cut through in ways that the environmental cause had not done before.
From downside risk to existential threat
Early on in her career, Hirigoyen says the industry was “downside risk focused”: sustainability was about not getting fined for breaking the law, and not much else. “If you think you might have got a fine for contaminating a site, you’d still have built that site and incurred the fine,” she says.
The difference now is that, while there is still concern over downside risk, sustainability is increasingly a core part of business strategy. Investors, clients and customers demand strong sustainability. Organisations like the Science Based Targets Initiative are forcing companies to make realistic claims about their environmental impact. “It’s no longer sort of peripheral risk. It’s existential risk.”
That explains some of the optimism, and the UKGBC operates “right in the sweet spot” of the two forces that drive progress: government policy and industry buy-in. The government needs confidence that the industry will adopt tightening regulation, while the industry needs to demonstrate that it will go beyond minimum requirements to shore up that confidence.
“There’s a bit of a seesaw going on,” Hirigoyen says. The UKGBC’s role is to galvanise industry consensus, explaining what good practice looks like and highlighting good examples of it in practice. This is particularly important because the organisation has calculated that current government policy will only take the country 60% of the way to net zero, leaving a 40% gap to fill.
‘Cementing our role’
Hirigoyen considers the UKGBC’s track record of galvanising real estate’s response, especially in the last few years, the highlight of her tenure. The organisation developed and launched its framework definition of net zero back in 2019. “That particular aspect really created that vital clarity and consistency and guidance that the industry and policymakers needed at the time,” she says.
Then there was the Whole Life Carbon Roadmap, figuring out how much carbon the sector needs to cut, by when and how, which Hirigoyen now calls the backbone of the organisation’s policy and advocacy work. Much of that culminated with UKGBC’s participation at COP26, where its virtual pavilion showcased real estate innovation from around the world. That event “cemented our role in that sweet spot” between stakeholders, Hirigoyen says.
“It goes without saying I’m super proud of the team. In fact, I’m pretty gutted to leave this team behind,” Hirigoyen says. “I genuinely mean it when I say it’s the best team I’ve ever worked with.”
It might seem surprising that Hirigoyen has decided to head off just as the causes she has tirelessly campaigned for in the built environment are gaining momentum. But one of her reasons for leaving is precisely to maintain that momentum.
Last year, the UKGBC published its 2025 strategy, outlining where the industry needs to be by the middle of what she calls “the decade of action”.
“I need to consider at what point it would make sense for someone else to come in and plan the next five years, so if I’m not going to be necessarily here until 2030, actually it makes more sense for me to leave halfway through that period than it does to leave it right to the end,” she says.
And the industry still has lots to do. Another one of Hirigoyen’s highlights is expanding the work the UKGBC does to encompass broader impact areas, such as biodiversity, wellbeing and social value. But the challenge is translating those areas into action.
She says: “What makes me anxious is that we often push, as an industry, for a number and a metric. Particularly the social issues, you can’t reduce them to a number. Something like carbon, waste, water you probably can, which is helpful, because you measure it, you reduce it, you eliminate it, or you put it back.
“But with something like quality of life, there is no number to put to that. It’s about talking to people. It’s about feeling how people are feeling in the space.” That is harder to embed into management and delivery processes.
All this comes on top of the sector still having to figure out the basics of cutting carbon – one thing you can quantify and set targets for. While there are industry leaders, lack of government policy, particularly in areas like embodied carbon, mean that there are many who are lagging behind.
Even among those that are actually cutting their emissions, there is confusion about what being net zero carbon actually entails. The industry will need to eliminate the vast majority of its emissions – somewhere between 90-95% – without offsets, but there is no consensus on what best practice looks like.
“Yes, they may have taken the right approach to reduce, eliminate and then try to offset [carbon], but we haven’t agreed what is an acceptable residual amount for different asset types,” Hirigoyen says.
The UKGBC is working to fill those gaps, and the organisation has planned roadmaps delving into resilience and climate adaptation in the sector.
What gives Hirigoyen hope about the future – despite the challenges – is the amount of innovation that’s coming through the sector. From digital twins making it easier to monitor building operations to off-site manufacturing cutting embodied carbon emissions, solutions to real estate’s carbon problems are widely available. In general, the industry has got much better at tracking its emissions, which is a necessary first step.
“I feel really optimistic that there was this wave of creative, innovative and progressive sort of stuff coming out wherever there’s a challenge,” she says. The UKGBC has been collecting these tools in its solutions library, which developers can use to get ideas and put them into practice.
From ‘less bad to ‘good’
Hirigoyen has no concrete plans yet for the next step in her own career. What she does know is she wants to do more good in the world and not just eliminate the bad.
She says: “When you look at regenerative design, there’s a spectrum from doing less harm, to no harm, to actually restoring and regenerating. And I’m very excited and inspired by that end of the spectrum starting to grow more.”
With the UKGBC’s succession plans now underway – applications for the role closed this week – Hirigoyen has yet to decide what that might look like, or even if her next role will still be in the built environment.
But the scale of the challenge is immense and global. Whatever the sector, there will be no shortage of demand for someone with her experience and, crucially, her outlook.
When the threats to the planet and our collective livelihoods are so stark, disillusionment is easy but will not sustain the years of action the challenge requires. For that, as Hirigoyen has found, we need optimism.