Compiled by Tarren Bolton

The Virtual Pavilion for COP26 opened to the public in November 2021, showcasing pioneering building projects and tackling global sustainability themes.

 East Africa has high reforestation potential and a rapidly growing construction industry, which makes it suitable for the mass-timber market. Image credit: BuildX Studio

East Africa has high reforestation potential and a rapidly growing construction industry, which makes it suitable for the mass-timber market. Image credit: BuildX Studio

Build Better Now, a virtual reality online exhibition demonstrating the opportunities for tackling the Climate Emergency and limiting the environmental impact of the buildings and cities we inhabit, opened to the public in November last year.

Highlights included:

  • 17 exemplary sustainable projects and a centrepiece installation feature in Build Better Now – a virtual pavilion developed by AECOM.
  • Exhibition and events programme showcased the urgent role that buildings and cities can play as a solution to the climate and ecological emergency.
  • Central 3D installation by Make Architects highlighted the potential for a circular future to restore our natural world.

The built environment has a central role to play in supporting the world’s transition to a net zero carbon economy. Globally, buildings consume over a third of energy produced, and are responsible for 40% of global energy-related carbon emissions. Build Better Now acted as a global call for climate action and is supported by a coalition of over 100 partner organisations from the built environment industry.

Julie Hirigoyen, Chief Executive at the UK Green Building Council said, “With COP26, the world is ready to tackle climate change and the built environment has a crucial part to play. We know why we must accelerate climate action and Build Better Now shows how we can get there. Everyone on the planet has a stake in our buildings and cities. I invite everyone to take inspiration from Build Better Now as a global showcase of pioneering solutions to climate change and hope that it supports the industry to create more sustainable buildings, places and cities of the future.”

Alongside the exhibition, Build Better Now hosted an events series comprising a programme of tours and talks, keynotes, panel discussions and other downloadable content, to educate and inspire the built environment industry and public to act now to identify and deliver climate solutions at scale.

Following the Open Call, which was launched in June 2021, a rigorous and transparent selection process was undertaken to find projects for the exhibition. A judging panel comprising industry leaders from across the world, with insight into the complexities of built environment sustainability issues on a regional and local level, selected projects that are making an immediate positive impact on the planet and people’s lives. These projects are both scalable and replicable – giving the potential to deliver far-reaching impacts. Exploring themes such as natural resource use, climate mitigation and adaptation and nature and biodiversity, Build Better Now showcased some of the most innovative solutions from across the globe.

Pioneering projects included a cultural centre in Sweden that will be one of the world’s tallest timber buildings; the largest Certified Passivhaus building in the Southern hemisphere in Australia; a 100-hectare innovation district in Italy digitally mapped and powered by 100% renewable energy sources; and the largest new build energy-positive office building in Norway, which supplies surplus renewable energy to neighbouring buildings as well as powering electric buses.

Buildings constructed using natural local materials range from a UK university building utilising thatch and reed; a school in Indonesia built with bamboo and the first 3D-printed sustainable homes made entirely from raw clay – perfectly balancing ultra-modern construction techniques with historic, traditional materials.

Projects protecting and enhancing nature include a government-led eco-tourism initiative to restore a national park in Rwanda and a high-tech rewilding project, restoring native forest and peatlands and reintroducing locally extinct species to 100 acres of land in the Scottish Highlands, which will form a template for similar nature regeneration globally.

As well as government-funded research into retrofitting Scotland’s iconic but hard-to-heat tenement homes, the exhibition featured a favela in Brazil and affordable sustainable housing solutions in the UK, New Zealand and Pakistan. Also included was an adaptable cross laminated timber bridge concept designed for a circular economy, as well as an initiative to develop a sustainable mass timber building market building in East Africa.

Cristina Gamboa, CEO, World Green Building Council, speaking at the launch of Build Better Now said, “We are coming together for COP26 to spotlight the built environment as a solution to climate change. This is the most visible and coordinated the industry has ever been at a climate summit of this calibre. Build Better Now provides us with an opportunity to learn how sustainable building practices are having a positive impact on people’s lives. We must ensure that the world listens to the steps needed to create sustainable buildings, which means building and renovating with Whole Life Carbon principles, embracing a circular economy and creating people centric, healthy buildings that are resilient to the effects of climate change.”

The COP26 Built Environment Virtual Pavilion was designed and developed by the Visualisation and VR team at AECOM in collaboration with exhibition designers Install Archive.

Some of the projects chosen for the virtual platform:

The 5 Systems Programme: Nga Kãinga Anamata, Auckland, New Zealand: This programme aims to build homes to 2030 standards today, while incorporating the values of New Zealand’s indigenous culture. It is led by the country’s Urban Development Authority and will develop five apartment buildings in total.

These will have different structural systems: steel, concrete, light frame timber, mass/cross-laminated timber (CLT), and a light/mass timber hybrid. All will have solar panels to give tenants free electricity, and the houses will also achieve Passivhaus certification.

“We can build net zero energy healthy homes for vulnerable people, and we can do it by growing the industry,” Brian Berg MBSc, Carbon Neutral Housing Manager, Kãinga Ora, said.

“We’ve proven that the trifecta of mass timber, Passivhaus and local energy generation can benefit people and planet for years to come.”

Hope Rise, Bristol, England: The Hope Rise development was erected on stilts above a public car park and consists of 11 net-zero carbon homes for young people who risk becoming homeless. It has kept the existing parking spaces and added an electric-car charging upgrade.

The Hope Rises homes consist of housing modules that are 90% completed in a offset factory before being installed on-site within five days. They are designed to be super-insulated and feature low-energy heating systems, as well as rooftop solar panels and other renewable energy technologies.

“This ground-breaking concept of erecting zero carbon homes on steel frame stilts on brownfield sites in city centres could change the way underutilised urban land can overcome the UK social housing crisis,” the UKGBC said.

Pioneering a Mass Timber Market in East Africa, Nairobi, Kenya: This cross-laminated timber (CLT) prototype in Nairobi is part of a wider two-year mass-timber project. East Africa has high reforestation potential and a rapidly growing construction industry, which makes it suitable for the mass-timber market. But it needs to establish wood-processing infrastructure and systems to take advantage of the material possibilities.

The two-year initiative could “transform East Africa’s construction industry and support sustainable growth for generations,” the UKGBC said.
Bridges of Laminated Timber, Amsterdam, Netherlands: In many developing economies, highway agencies are trying to find sustainable ways in which to extend the lifespan of roads and bridges. Using natural materials like timber, like in Amsterdam’s Bridges of Laminated Timber project designed by Arup, can help deliver major impact, according to the UKGBC.

This means that up to 75% of the superstructure’s total weight could end up being a renewable material, reducing the environmental impact by 70% and making the entire structure carbon dioxide (CO2) neutral, UKGBC said. The concept can be used in both new construction and for renovation projects.

NCH2050 Homes, Nottingham, England: This net-zero energy project, the first of its kind in the UK, was commissioned by Nottingham City Homes and adopts the Energiesprong approach, which focuses on upgrading homes with energy-saving and energy-generating measures.

It “harnesses the speed and efficiency that prefabrication offers” to create buildings that generate the total amount of energy required for heating, hot water and electrical appliances, and includes a smart-energy system that provides real-time data.

“Making our homes energy efficient is one of the most urgent steps that we need to take to enable sustainable living and to help eliminate fuel poverty,” said Sue Riddlestone CEO & co-founder, Bioregional.

“This inspirational project shows how a complete net zero retrofit at scale can transform our old homes for the benefit of residents and the planet, and will, we hope, inspire the scale and pace of action we need to go net zero in our built environment.”


  1. v2Com
  2. UK Green Building Council