Green Futures: Setting a Higher Bar for Sustainability in Developments

It is unmistakable that we are living in a climate and biodiversity emergency. Most people agree that it is past the time for half-measures. If we are going to tackle the climate emergency, we need to go way beyond current practice for sustainable building design.

According to, the Cambridgeshire region has already warmed by 1.2°C since records began in the early 1800’s[1] . The built environment accounts for 55% of total UK carbon emissions (27% from domestic buildings and 18% from non-domestic).[2] The technology already exists to create greener buildings, with many new developments already using these practices, it needs to become the norm if we are going to tackle climate change.

Sustainable development is not just about ‘green’ building, but about having a positive overall impact on biodiversity, building users and surrounding areas.  Meanwhile, developers need to know what is coming over the horizon. Many are already working together with local authorities to create carbon negative developments and give back to the wider community. These changes could be the biggest shakeup in the construction industry in a long time, Cambridge can and should be leading the way by setting a higher bar.

It is time for something to be done.

Energy supply and generation

Carbon neutral or carbon negative energy supply is one of the most well-known elements of the sustainability solution.

Cambridgeshire is facing an electricity emergency as infrastructure investment isn’t keeping up with growing demand in the county.
Energy supply in South Cambridgeshire is already at capacity and much more supply is needed to support growth. The Local East Energy Strategy sets out the challenges to our electricity supply.

“To support the expansion plans within the Cluster over the period up to 2027 requires an additional 89 MVA (Mega Volt Amps) against 2 MVA of spare capacity available currently at the substation serving the Southern Cluster Area.” Local East Energy Strategy[3]

SmithsonHill’s plans for ARC include a decentralised energy system complete with energy generation installations and a primary electricity substation to benefit the proposed project and reinforce the supply in the surrounding area.

Read more in our Sustainable Energy Supply and Generation Blog

Design and layout of buildings

Positive changes to the built environment can have a large impact on the surrounding physical environment, and the well-being of those living and working there.

Traditional building practices and materials have proven to be a strain on our environment. In recent years there have been exciting new developments in architecture and urban design which challenge the norm. If adopted more widely, would go a long way toward achieving a carbon neutral future.
Buildings like the Bloomberg HQ in London and Bosco Verticale in Milan have pushed the boundaries of possibility in design.

Living roofs, living walls and internal gardens for air filtration, both externally and internally can be used to improve air quality and capture carbon, whilst passive and other innovative heating systems can generate heat using minimal resources.

Whilst the proposals for the ARC project don’t yet include final building designs, we’ll have requirements for the buildings to be “green” and have minimal impact on the environment, with things like energy generation designed in.


Conservation of land and soils

Recent studies have shown that changes in the way land is managed can increase productivity and carbon capture.

Globally, cultivated arable soils have lost organic matter and become less inherently productive in the last century.
The UK farming industry is now, together with other countries, leading a revolution in the development of new soil and crop management techniques which have the ability to restore soils.  Soils are the most bio-diverse habitats on earth and by improving their biological, physical and chemical status through technologies such as new cultivation techniques, cover cropping, light robotic vehicles and reduced chemical use, carbon capture and soil biome can be enhanced.
As well as positive impact in the management of SmithsonHill’s land, many of the companies in the AgriTech cluster that will be supported by ARC are working to develop new technologies to help improve soil quality at both a micro and macro level.

Our plans for ARC also include innovative water management, including the use of ponds & reed beds for flood prevention, reducing soil erosion and water cleaning, with the added benefit of providing a swimming pond for ARC users.

Read more in our Conservation of land and soils blog.


Biodiversity is often overlooked in sustainability discussions, however the recent IPBES Report has thrust it straight into the limelight.

The IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.
“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide[1]” IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson.
In order to address the issues underlying these findings, it will fall to both landowners and developers to introduce revolutionary practices to improve biodiversity in our cities, towns and farms, not just in conservation areas.


As part of the ARC project, SmithsonHill will be working to increase biodiversity across the site with a number of measures, including conserving the historic parkland, hedges and woodlands on the site.


Read more in our Biodiversity blog.


Sustainability in developments isn’t just about the physical attributes of a development, but about positive impact during and after the building process.

Sustainable developments work to curate a community feeling from the beginning, from engaging neighbours in consultation through to curating a vibrant ecosystem within the finished site.
Cambridge Science Park, as the first and most established science park in the UK, is an example of how a vibrant community can impact on the businesses based there, and the quality of life of employees on the site.  Their long-term plan to build a community has resulted in a great atmosphere for those who work there, as well as an ecosystem that supports entrepreneurs and scale ups.
For SmithsonHill, stakeholder and community engagement is at the heart of our process in developing ARC. We’ve been fully transparent throughout the process and adopted a consultation process that is embedded in our surrounding community.

The ARC project is designed to create a community, where as well as providing work-space, employees on the site will have access to a swimming pond and recreational areas, and local residents will have access to walking, running and horse-riding trails across the site.

Positive long-term benefits

In order to achieve real impact and reverse our climate emergency, a gear change is needed for the building industry and planning authorities alike. Through a collaborative approach, Cambridge could be leading the way and raising the bar for sustainability in developments. It is time for a new normal.

At SmithsonHill, we believe that proposed developments need to think beyond the fabric of buildings to the overall design of the site, land management and community engagement to craft a development which brings positive long-term impact to the surrounding area.

Our proposed ARC project will provide many benefits to South Cambridgeshire and beyond.

  • The proposed electricity sub-station will reinforce the electricity supply for the area south of the Biomedical Campus
  • The fields above the water table will be kept in agriculture use, preserving water supply for future, whilst water management on site will be designed to ensure naturally cleaned water returns to water sources and reduces flood risk in the long term
  • The transport plans include off-road cycle paths and bus interchange, aiding lower carbon transport choices for local residents & helping workers access the site in a low-carbon way
  • The conservation and renovation of the parkland, together with provision of 3km and 5km routes will allow local residents gain access to nature for walking/running/cycling/horse-riding, whilst also increasing biodiversity for the local area

Through careful design and attention to detail, we believe developments can and should be sustainable, while also helping our area continue to be one of the major economic drivers for the UK.

Find more information about our proposed ARC project here.

This is the first blog in our Green Futures series, with more blogs to come soon.





[3] Local East Energy Strategy, April 2019