I’m Lucy Sherburn, Graduate Engineer at FairHeat, and I was recently nominated by my team for CIBSE ASHRAE Graduate of the Year Award 2021. The CIBSE Young Engineers Awards recognise and reward the innovative thinking, hard work and skills of graduate engineers. I’m delighted to announce that I not only got shortlisted, but won the award!

As part of the award ceremony each candidate was asked to prepare their thoughts on what challenges we believe engineers will have to overcome to deliver sustainable and safe built environments for future generations. We had five minutes to present live and I had a clear direction of what I wanted to focus on. I started my presentation with the definition of sustainability, moving on to how I believe inertia is the biggest challenge for engineers to overcome, and finally how I believe education is a key tool overcome these challenges.


We hear this word used ever more frequently in the world around us. Whether this is in the news, conversations with friends or colleagues, or in adverts and campaigns. But what does sustainability actually mean. According to google, Sustainability is the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level. In the context of today’s question, it is essentially to prevent further damage and ensure that our actions today don’t inhibit the ability for future generations to thrive safely in the built environment.

I think it is important to define this term when asked to discuss what challenges we believe engineers will have to overcome to deliver sustainable and safe built environments for future generations.


When thinking about this question in more detail, my thoughts and opinions revolved around one key theme. So, my presentation focused on how I believe inertia presents the biggest challenges to engineers, and what engineers must do to overcome these challenges to deliver safe and sustainable built environments for future generations.

The world is significantly changing around us. We are beginning to see the effects of climate change challenge our existing built environments. The pandemic has also changed how we live our daily lives. However, there is a general tendency in society to resist transformation and remain unchanged in the systemic ways we live our lives.

Social inertia

Social inertia is inhibiting public engagement and understanding of low and zero carbon technologies. As engineers we can design systems that theoretically meet carbon targets, however, if the occupier does not know how to operate these systems correctly, the sustainability benefit cannot be realised.

Regulatory inertia

Regulatory inertia is creating an environment with a slow pace of change. Overdue updates to regulations, outdated standards and guides does not push engineers out of their comfort zone. We need legislation that forces sustainable solutions as the baseline, not just as the added bonus.

Inertia in the built environment

Inertia also exists in the built environment. 80% of our buildings in 2050 already exist. Therefore, we need to focus on retrofitting solutions that ensure that our buildings aren’t vulnerable to the effects of climate change and remain suitable for the user in years to come. Like with social inertia, design engineers can produce efficient systems, but if there is a skills gap in the installing and commissioning of these new and unfamiliar systems, that performance is not translated into reality.

The question also asks about safe solutions. I believe the inertia that is preventing sustainable solutions is also preventing safe solutions. We risk exposing ourselves to the consequences of climate change if we don’t begin to design and retrofit our built environment to withstand the extremes weather events and warming of our climate. For example, overheating in residential buildings, storm damage – all put the occupier at a risk. Therefore, ensuring sustainable solutions, also ensures our built environment will keep us safe from future impacts of climate change.


How do we overcome these challenges? I believe one of the biggest tools we have is education.
As engineers, we need to educate the public, occupiers, and residents. We need to get them engaged and on board with the low-carbon systems we are designing. We need to also take a customer centric approach to our designs, ensuring that solutions are easy, simple and non-disruptive to implement and operate.

We need to educate those creating legislation and push for pragmatic solutions to be embedded in policy, regulation, and accreditations. And on that note, we should no longer be using outdated solutions as the counterfactual, we need to ensure that sustainable solutions are the baseline.
We need to upskill our current workforce to ensure the transition to low-carbon technologies runs successfully, for example re-training heating engineers to be competent with heat pumps and HIUs, not just boilers.

Ultimately, as engineers we need to collaborate with each other and educate those in the industry around us. In my experience at FairHeat, the most successful systems are those where the whole supply chain – consultants, contractors and users – are all engaged and work together to ensure that theoretical performance is translated into reality.


I started my presentation with the definition of sustainability. I discussed how I believe inertia is the biggest challenge for engineers to overcome, and how I believe education is a key tool overcome these challenges. I want to leave you with one final thought. The COVID pandemic has highlighted that it is possible to change inertia in the face of unprecedented circumstances. We need to treat the climate emergency as an unprecedent circumstance and use this as a catalyst to overcome this inertia to ensure that engineers can deliver a safe and sustainable built environment for future generations.