26 October 2015

Sustainability, within construction at least, appears to be falling down the agenda. Recently we've seen the scrapping of the zero carbon 2016 policy, failure of the Green Deal, and our own research has shown a steady decline in the influence of environmental credentials in building material selection.

It’s unclear as to what the specific driver behind this is. It could be that the industry now takes it as a given that the whole construction supply chain has adopted sustainable practices, therefore it’s become almost a hygiene factor.

Or, maybe, the industry went “back to basics” during the recession, meaning sustainability fell down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Now that the industry is up tooling once again, we’re simply trying to keep up with satisfying demand.

While there doesn't seem to be one simple answer, a quick search for the definition of sustainability appears to show we've narrowed our perception of what it really is. We all know its environmental importance, in fact the words “environmental” and “sustainable” have been used interchangeably for decades. However the following definition provides further clarity:

“Sustainable development consists of balancing local and global efforts to meet basic human needs without destroying or degrading the natural environment.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainability 

The 2005 World Summit on Social Development identified three pillars of sustainability - economic development, social development and environmental protection.

Generally there’s lots of focus around the environmental pillar of sustainable development across the construction sector – fabric first, zero carbon, Green Guide ratings, LCAs and many more terms are common place in this industry.  Like most responsible manufacturers, Marley Eternit has invested in responsible sourcing, waste management, LCAs in the form of EPDs, and many other incentives to ensure the fabric of the building is as environmentally friendly as possible. While this investment and mission may be replicated equally across the wider the supply chain - indeed, some 246 business urged the chancellor to reconsider scrapping zero carbon housing in an open letter earlier this year - there are still some gaps that need to be addressed.

If we look at the other two pillars - social and economic development - it seems they are pulling against us and sometimes each other.

- House prices continue to rise and in some areas, particularly the South East, this is causing real issues. If ‘normal’ people cannot afford to live in a city such as London then is that really sustainable?

- Life Cycle Assessments for buildings –we all know how long the materials will last, but how long will the building serve a purpose to the surrounding community – if at all? You could build the most environmentally friendly building but it could be completely impractical, hideous to look at or just not able to stand the test of time. If it needs pulling down after 30 or 40 years, then is that really sustainable? MassMotion can help simulate crowd behaviour to make designs better - perhaps we need a similar tool to gauge public reaction and interaction with a development.

- The instability of the construction sector in recent years has led to a skills and labour shortage issue, with skilled people in the construction trade the most sought-after professionals in the country. This naturally has an impact on wages, but also the ability to meet demand.  However the “construction brand” has been damaged and this may make recruitment more difficult in the future.

That said, an increased Government focus on apprenticeships and initiatives such as the starter homes fund and Help to Buy are making real in roads in addressing some of these issues. However, we need to ensure that quality remains at the heart of all new builds and refurbishment projects.

The drive to incorporate BIM in public projects and the structuring of data can provide greater clarity of the impact of a building or its products, particularly with tools to help assess Environmental Product Declarations (EPD). Although there is still some way to go in the adoption of BIM through the supply chain and also using EPDs.

When all said and done, it is positive to see that many housebuilders, manufacturers, contractors and architects are continuing to invest to help ensure future buildings are built to deliver greater sustainability. One potential positive to come from the removal of environmental building policies in recent months is that we are seeing a reduction in red tape - meaning responsibility has been handed back to the construction professionals who are geared towards finding economically and environmentally friendly solutions to meet the needs of the inhabitants and their surrounding communities.

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