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Answering The Sustainability Riddle

Answering The Sustainability Riddle

Duncan Lochhead, commercial manager at Dulux Trade, explores the balance between environmental performance and cost, and how we can achieve truly sustainable construction.

While Government legislation on energy efficiency has become more stringent over the last few years, so too has the need for financial efficiency. Environmental performance has become a greater priority for construction projects, whether that be in response to client demands or the introduction of more robust sustainability ratings, like the Code for Sustainable Homes and BREEAM. But with only 250,000 developments achieving BREEAM ratings since 1990, is this an indicator that there isn't enough focus placed on sustainability by the industry?

This was the subject of a recent 'Leading in Specification' panel discussion, organised by Dulux Trade. The discussion brought together experts from construction group, Skanska; property and infrastructure company, Lend Lease; consultants, and Schumann Consult to debate how to prioritise sustainability in the built environment.

The cost of procurement

One of the key questions raised during the debate was how cost affects sustainable procurement in the specification of construction projects. The industry is currently at an important threshold, finally returning to robust growth after many years of recession, and it is now more important than ever to find a balance between competitiveness and a commitment to minimising the environmental impact of new developments.

To ensure new buildings are as environmentally friendly as possible, the sustainability of individual materials and the structure as a whole has to be prioritised at the design stage. However, despite the many benefits this brings for clients and building end users, it is still rarely the case that the individual performance of building materials is given enough consideration so early in the process. The economic downturn that the industry is only now recovering from has increased pressure on contractors and suppliers to deliver projects at the lowest possible cost, pushing the industry to focus more on the 'must haves', such as compliance with regulations, rather than the 'nice to haves', like improved sustainability.

Time for a culture change

But how can the industry persuade clients that the long term savings over the whole life cost of a sustainable development compared with a standard building, can outweigh the capital cost to construct it?

The priorities for new developments remain individual client requirements, then cost, then environmental performance ratings, such as BREEAM. However, this mix of targets may change during construction, often meaning cost takes precedence over other goals. While this is normally done in a way that meets clients' needs, it can affect the overall environmental impact of the finished structure.

Unless due consideration is paid to the sustainability of the development either in the design stage or during the tender process, attempts to minimise the impact of new buildings, will continue to have limited success. If we are to continue to meet environmental targets in the future, it is clear, then, that there needs to be a change in culture within the construction industry to embrace sustainability and other aims, such as community goals.

During the Leading in Specification debate, it was suggested that the answer lay in benchmarking. Currently, projects are benchmarked by the "cost-planning" cost strategy, which prioritises the cost of each proposal to finish the project over other requirements. However, social and sustainability standards are increasingly being included in the process. By introducing environmental aspects into benchmarking for tenders, the industry can help ensure developments are sustainable, as well as cost-effective.

Communication, communication, communication

One thing that all of the panellists involved in the debate agreed on was the need for the entire construction industry to have a clear idea of what sustainability means. Key to achieving this is greater collaboration between contractors, developers and architects. By working together from the design stage of new projects, all parties can help prioritise sustainability in design and specification, reducing the environmental impact of the finished building.

To help the industry achieve its environmental goals, manufacturers are constantly investing in research and development to create innovative products that provide specifiers with more sustainable solutions for their projects. So, by engaging with manufacturers early on in the project's concept stage, specifiers can learn what new materials are in development. This can enable them to specify the construction solutions of tomorrow, and help them ensure that when their buildings are complete they are truly at the cutting edge of sustainability.

Sustainability in the balance

The question of how to balance sustainability with cost and other requirements is always one that evokes spirited debate.

The UK economy is now out of recession and the construction industry is enjoying robust growth. This means that cost, while still a priority, is no longer the sole focus for clients, enabling specifiers to turn their attention to other goals, including the development's environmental impact.

To help them balance sustainability with their other construction targets, specifiers need to work with manufacturers to get the guidance they need to identify the most appropriate solutions for their project. By working closely with partners up and down the supply chain, the industry can help make new developments both sustainable and cost-effective.

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