We tend to think that only large-scale regeneration schemes can drive positive local benefits. And spend a lot of time as an industry thinking about the “E” (Environment) in ESG.

But what about the “S” – Social?

In some ways, the environmental piece is easier to tackle: well-understood technical improvements, performance that can be calibrated and measured, and plenty of legislation to guide us.

But how do we help address social issues in our communities? Like joblessness, homelessness, food poverty, literacy, and a dizzying array of other challenges that have become even more deeply entrenched as funding for grassroots programmes has dried up.

Sure, when development is done at scale through major regeneration projects or large mixed-use schemes, there is scope for social impact to be wide-ranging and transformational. It’s easy to carve out a few hundred square feet of space for a community group to use for free, use outdoor space for the occasional event, and a small percentage of a hundreds-of-million development budget can go a long way.

But how do you ensure a single, modest building has a positive social impact, too? How to ensure that the basic operation of a typical building on a typical street creates as much positive benefit for the local community as possible? To made a difference.

That’s a question we spend a lot of time considering as it goes to the core of what we do and how we think about our role as stewards of the built environment.

It comes down to intent. And a willingness to operate the building differently.

Our approach is perhaps easiest to explain by way of example. Take our recently completed development Windmill Green, an 82,000 sq ft office in Manchester. It’s a modest sized building with no public realm to play with, and the usual pressure on costs and maximising every inch of space.

Of course we’re proud that it is the first multi-let building in Manchester to be rated BREEAM ‘Outstanding’ with a wide-ranging set of low carbon features including state-of-the-art bifacial solar panels, Manchester’s largest green wall with more than 6,000 plants, and the most cycle-friendly infrastructure in the city.

But against this backdrop, we’ve set in motion a wide range of initiatives to engage local communities and generate greater social and economic value.

Our skills and training programme during the construction phase created 16 apprenticeships and work experience positions for local young people as well as career workshops at local colleges, skills workshops with refugees, and engagement programmes with local schools.

In construction, 50% of labour on the project was local and 50% of procurement went to local firms.

Our at times quite personal commitment led us to find a local homeless man who had been sleeping rough near the building site, and we were able to help him get off the street, providing training and a job onsite. It helped turn around the man’s life as he is now in housing and employment.

Other initiatives so far have included:

  • Hosting a 6-month exhibition of Manchester street artist Stewy in the reception of Windmill Green, as part of our commitment to supporting the local arts scene. The building will rotate art exhibitions in the reception area with focused themes, for example, art produced by local school children, disadvantaged members of society, and others who do not normally have the opportunity to show their work publicly.
  • Using Impact Caterers, a corporate catering firm focused on positive environmental and social impacts, for all events hosted in the building.
  • Creating a project for local design students at Shillington College to create brand concepts and design collateral for the building, including for the construction hoardings and in the completed building itself, giving them valuable real-world experience and a key credential for their CVs.
  • Running a campaign to collect donations of 150 books to celebrate the 150th birthday of Wood Street Mission, a local charity that supports low income families.

To maximise the social value we create, we firmly believe that initiatives like the above can’t be looked at in isolation – not as solutions standalone problems – but rather as part of a whole. Linking up socially impactful programs with each other and indeed with the “E” – environment – creates much more social and economic return on investment and ultimately a richer experience for our occupiers and the community.

Take cycling, for example. Not only does Windmill Green have great cycling infrastructure like bike racks and showers, it is the first building in Manchester to have its own fleet of scooters. We put this programme in place with a local start-up business run by a husband and wife team so as to generate local economic and social value. We’re using these as tools to bring community programmes around cycling to the building, partnering with social enterprises that use cycling to improve the lives of those on the fringe of society.

While the impact of these initiatives might be different than what can be achieved at large-scale regeneration schemes, our aim is to demonstrate how any building can be much more than bricks and mortar and can work not only to lower carbon emissions but help create positive social impact within its community. Added up across every building in a city, the overall impact would be profound.

By focusing on the average building on the average street – not just special cases like large development sites, but every case – we aim to drive a change in perspective across the industry. And achieve enduring systems change and social value at scale, alongside economic value. We call this Building FOREward.

On our next major project, Tower Bridge Court in London, we are taking this a step further with nearly 4,000 sq ft of dedicated “social impact space” that we will co-curate with local social enterprises. We also have put in place tools to measure our social impact, and compare that to our “theory of change” to see if we are making the difference we thought we would. We look forward to sharing the results.

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