Smith Mordak on tackling retrofit, shifting mentalities, and getting into uncomfortable conversations

Smith Mordak (UKGBC)

THIS week, the UK’s first ever International Retrofit Conference is taking place as part of BE-ST Fest, a two-day industry summit focused on zero carbon construction and organised by Built Environment – Smarter Transformation (BE-ST). 

BE-ST Fest is the culmination of a month-long festival for the sustainable built environment, bringing together hundreds of professionals in construction and related sectors to showcase best practice and highlight emerging opportunities. 

In this interview with BE-ST, UK Green Building Council (UKGBC)’s CEO Smith Mordak digs into some pressing questions to set the scene ahead of their keynote address. 

What is the role of individuals, industry, and government in shifting mentalities to bring about change? 

We all have a role to play. We each have valid perspectives, agency, and responsibility to use whatever skills, power, and tactics we can. We also each form the context for each other. We all contribute to the wider sense of possibility. 

Industry can demonstrate to individuals and governments that we have the capacity and appetite for more ambitious regulation. Individuals can collectively show governments that action on the climate and biodiversity emergencies is electorally popular. Governments can show leadership both with legislation and the way they steward the public estate. 

This positive feedback loop can be broken when trust is broken through fragmented or stop-start legislation, or when uncertainty and scarcity make long-term thinking difficult. As with all relationships, a commitment to ongoing, honest, and transparent communication can help repair and maintain trust between us all. We can all do our part to uphold communication and trust.

You’ve previously been critical of international forums and events like COP. But why do you think it’s important to continue to come to events like BE-ST Fest and the Retrofit Conference to speak?

Despite some controversial noises this year, COP remains a unique gathering when our two key audiences – governments and businesses – get together to make decisions and build momentum for decarbonisation. Apparently, this is from the tv show the ‘West Wing’, but I think it holds up that “Decisions are made by those that show up”. This is why we’ll be at COP28 and BE-ST Fest and other national and international events.

How do we make sure these events are focussed on progress, solutions, and acceleration, rather than barriers? 

We need to get into the uncomfortable conversations, to find the points where there isn’t yet consensus. We may broadly agree as a civilisation that climate change is real and needs tackling, but how this should be done, and how big the changes are that we need to see, are still far from agreed upon. 

We all need to show up with curiosity and willingness to approach the difficult and confronting decisions with kindness and openness, both as individuals and institutions.

What is your call to action for the audience at the International Retrofit Conference? 

At UKGBC we are launching a major campaign, Upgrading Britain’s Homes, focused on persuading political parties to step up the investment we need to fix leaky, draughty homes across the UK. With an election around the corner, we’ll be championing the opportunities of a national retrofit campaign not just to net zero but to regeneration, the housing crisis, and health and wellbeing.

I’m hoping to open a conversation about how we tackle the retrofit crisis directly, not simply through economic tools that we assume will work. In my keynote address, I’m using an analogy about how experiments attempting to detect life on earth from space have failed to demonstrate the existence of organic life, only evidence of technology. I wonder whether this is to do with the detecting equipment used and whether we’re suffering similar biases with the retrofit challenge. It will be an interesting conversation!

Smith will be exploring their perspective on the retrofit challenge further during their keynote speech at the International Retrofit Summit alongside other speakers including BE-ST’s Head of Retrofit, Caitriona Jordan, Rachel Owens, Co-Director of the National Retrofit Hub and Robert Deegan, Principal Officer for Residential Energy Efficiency, Government of Ireland, among others. 

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