Firing up the sustainability agenda again
The green agenda, which once had such huge momentum, has become so enshrined in regulations and standards it's in danger of stalling. In a round table discussion, Elaine Knutt asked six sustainability practitioners for ideas to get things moving again. Photographs by Oliver Knight.
Left to right: Kirsten Hansen, Gemma Bourne, Brian Handcock, Andrew Kinsey, Amie Suttleworth, Thomas Beney (seated)
“A challenge I have in my mind is where do we go next with the whole sustainability agenda?” says Morgan Sindall’s Brian Handcock, neatly summing up the purpose and the subject matter of CM’s round-table debate. The industry often sees itself as being on a “journey” – towards BIM, towards 15-20% efficiency savings, towards better outcomes for communities, clients and end-users. But if there’s a sustainability journey, the satnav signal has got a bit scrambled.
Over the past five years, sustainability has been embedded in the industry’s processes and practices. Part L is part of life, resource efficiency and recycling are second nature, operational energy use an ever-shrinking target. But precisely because sustainability has reached that level of “maturity”, it’s paradoxically become less visible. Currently eclipsed by BIM, and previously sidelined to a bit part in the “more for less” crusade, sustainability commands the moral high ground and fills corporate business plans – but just isn’t engaging hearts and minds.
"I could name a building that has won countless sustainability awards, and it doesn't work. The passive ventilation system just doesn't work."
At the same time, sustainability has fallen down the political agenda. As the “greenest government ever” is also a regulatory refusenik, we’re still working to targets set under the previous administration, foregoing the opportunity of a new rallying cry. And as for the overall destination – putting a brake on global climate change and securing the future of the next generation – the concepts are so huge and hazy that they’re not very effective at propelling us forward.
So addressing Handcock’s question was the underlying task of CM’s round-table, hosted by Lend Lease at its own highly sustainable HQ in Regent’s Place, London (where resource efficiency extends to the catering team picking herbs from the roof terrace shown in our photos). CM invited six new voices in the field to look at the issues holding sustainability back, and propose new ideas to move it forward.
A recurring point was that sustainability had evolved – or devolved – into an approved methodology with tried-and-tested checklists. “The people on site who’re the most important often feel disengaged from a lot of this stuff,” says Mace’s Andrew Kinsey. “It’s like safety – it’s do this, do that, tick here to say you’ve understood – it doesn’t actually engage people”. But the group had several ideas on how the sustainability “message” could be re-edited for different audiences.
In a similar vein, the panel considered whether we are over-focused on the Building Regs and BREEAM, and therefore underachieving on innovation and excitement. Capita Symonds’ Thomas Beney argued that construction was dominated by engineers “who do things they know has worked before”, and that it should take inspiration from online loan company Wonga. “Whatever you think about their lending practices, they’ve changed the status quo.”
And are we measuring the right things, the metrics that allow evidence-based decision making? Indeed, are we even measuring the same things, a prerequisite to meaningful comparisons? And just how useful is the concept of an all-encompassing carbon footprint? Views were split, but then that could be because the product manufacturers are still struggling to provide consistent data.
But there was general agreement that converting every initiative into “tonnes of carbon saved” was pretty damn confusing. “Carbon gave everything a commonality, but the problem is no one can visualise the carbon that we translate everything into!” says Gemma Bourne of Lend Lease.
"Really we want a process that does the same thing whether you're working for client X or Y... we don't want to measure a whole bunch of things that ultimately don't add any value."
What other strategies can take us forward? Energy performance contracts? “No one’s doing it,” says Kinsey. “We’re all too risk averse.” But no one has challenged the industry to do so. “Why does the government not make a clear statement that, as a minimum, every contract must meet X, Y and Z?” asks Kirsten Henson.
There was also a suggestion that the Living Buildings Challenge, an aspirational über-green standard newly arrived from the US that calls for self-sufficiency in energy and water supply, should be adopted more widely in the UK, or at least held up as an inspiration.
But perhaps more important than the ideas themselves was the recognition that sustainability, which once had such a compelling “story” to tell, had gained a central role in construction, but at the same time lost its outsider’s edge. To answer Handcock’s question, the industry will need imagination, engagement with the sustainability agenda beyond construction, and the input of free-thinking practitioners like our panel.
About the panel
Amie Shuttleworth, project sustainability manager, Sir Robert McAlpine A BREEAM assessor, Shuttleworth has been responsible for the sustainability credentials of a number of McAlpine office and commercial projects in London, including Quadrant 3. In the process, her work has won several awards and prizes, including being named as a Rising Star finalist.
Andrew Kinsey, sustainability director for construction, Mace Kinsey, who joined Mace last year from a senior role at Lend Lease, was recently named as winner of the UK Green Building Council and PRP Architects’ Rising Star Award, commemorating the late Mel Starrs. The judges singled out his FSC-only timber policy at the London 2012 Athletes’ Village.
Thomas Beney, senior consultant on climate change, Capita Symonds Beney’s role at Capita Symonds includes advising on construction projects, but majors on making the business and technical case for renewable energy developments. He brings a wide perspective to the role, with a degree in zoology and a masters in quantity surveying.
Brian Handcock, head of sustainability and environment, Morgan Sindall Handcock started out as an environment manager at Morrison Construction before moving to the waste management sector. On his return, he was surprised to find everyone still talking about “early contractor involvement”. He’s not a “tree-hugger” but has a nice woolly hat in his LinkedIn photo.
Kirsten Henson, KLH Sustainability Henson set up her own consultancy in 2010, moving from a role with Olympic delivery partner CLM advising the London 2012 project teams on sustainability. An engineer by training, she’s proud of applying both its methodologies and its inventiveness. Henson was also a finalist in the Rising Star Awards, among other credentials.
Gemma Bourne, environmental operations manager, Lend Lease Chemistry graduate Bourne is helping to shape Lend Lease’s sustainability strategy and ensuring it is delivered in projects such as the Elephant and Castle mixed-use development. Previously, she worked in the field of contaminated land and utility infrastructure at West Sussex council.
The performance gap
The project team has embedded efficiency into the design and construction stages, and ticked all the boxes for BREEAM Excellent. But is the new building really as sustainable as it could be, or will it fall down the fabled performance gap? The fact is, the project team will probably never know: as an industry, we’re still very poor at closing the information loop. The panel agreed that implementing the Soft Landings protocol will help, but it won’t tackle the problem of buildings where key elements don’t perform as they should.
So, as Brian Handcock posited, do we need a Centre of Excellence, to collate studies of sustainable buildings, and thoroughly analyse the lessons learned? The group was uncertain on this point: after all, every project is unique, every client has different drivers. But Beney put forward another suggestion – albeit one that implies a more thorough-going shake-up of the industry.
KH I could name a building that has won countless sustainability awards, and it doesn’t work. The passive ventilation system just doesn’t work. And for [the leading design firm] to come in and do their post-occupancy evaluation, they want a really hefty sum. But this is a case of “this is your building, and you have no idea of how it’s actually operating”. They are designing more buildings for the same client, so go in there and figure it out.
GB That brings us to performance contracting. If you’re employing consultants you expect performance out of them, so the contract should be on that basis rather than a “here’s a hefty fee”.
Elaine Knutt (CM editor) Is anyone actually signing performance-related contracts?
AK No, no one wants to take the risk, there are so many different parties involved. Our industry is very contractual, it’s “we’re going to sue you for damages” or whatever it might be. It’s a very risky business to be in, with low margins, so people won’t take risks.
TB In 1900, the architect did pretty much 50% of all consultancy, from QSing to project management, design and coordination. And some of the best buildings ever built were designed and engineered in that time. Then the industry started to move apart, and actually what you need is to start bringing it back so that there are sub-sets of the design process that take ownership, and want to take that risk, because they know they can deliver for their client, and take a proportion of the uplift.
Does all the data we collect on on-site energy usage, or transport miles, or the proportion of recycled carpet fibre, actually help to make better evidence-based decisions, or is collecting it just an end in itself and a useful way to use up server space? The panel’s general conclusion was that we often collect information without a clear purpose, or simply to put a BREEAM badge on a building.
AK There is an issue about measuring stuff, and whether we’re measuring the right stuff. There is a tendency to measure a gazillion things – I’m pretty sure it’s the same for all you guys! [round of laughter]. Really we want a process that does the same thing whether you’re working for client X or Y... we don’t want to measure a whole bunch of things that ultimately don’t add any value.
BH It’s part of the evolution of the industry – five years ago we struggled to measure recycling rates, so you go through an evolution to get decent stats. But now, are we actually measuring the right things? Does it give us value? Do we need to cross a load of things out – it’s pointless measuring them if we can’t make any effective management decisions around them.
GB There’s a danger to not re-evaluating what we want to be measuring. It’s about educating your client – is it really what they want, and is it going to add value?
BH I’m sure you’ve all got customers who say “give us the carbon footprint of your project”. You hand over a big thick report with lots of numbers in it, and you ask the “so what?” question. As a contractor you walk away, the customer’s got their report, but it makes absolutely no difference to anything.
Innovation versus regulation
Regulation and legislation drives up performance across the board, but also tends to narrow the focus onto specific metrics and deliverables. If sustainability is centred around the twin poles of Part L and BREEAM, and the industry’s efforts are channelled in just those directions, then we’re narrowing the definitions and excluding alternative approaches.
The panel’s gut feeling was that this was certainly a risk. The fact that one of the most interesting new technologies to emerge recently – biofuel-generating algae facades – has been taken up in Germany, France and the US, but not in this country, was seen as an indication of the UK’s relative lack of innovation.
"Engineers get very focused on delivering Part L, and they lose that flexibility in their approach. It's a tick box mentality - I need to deliver this, how do I do it, I've done it."
TB You can regulate all you like, but then you’ve got to give some flexibility to innovate. It’s the one thing that stifles construction, and other industries. Part L to a certain extent tends to lead you down certain paths.
KH I’m completely with you. I’m working with the ICE’s Low Carbon panel and we’re looking at how standards are restricting us moving to low carbon construction from an infrastructure perspective, so I’m interested in your built environment perspective.
TB It’s from working with engineers who get very focused on delivering Part L, and they lose that flexibility in their approach. In projects I’ve worked on, we just kept hitting a brick wall. It’s a tick box mentality – I need to deliver this, how do I do it, I’ve done it, bosh. BREEAM is similar, although there’s a flexible system with different credits, there are certain things you can do easily and cheaply and certain things that are really difficult, so you end up focusing on the easiest – the bike racks!
AK And with BREEAM you don’t get any credits for benefits outside the footprint of your building.
KH Have you guys come across the Living Buildings Challenge? It’s incredibly short, but it’s the most ambitious and aspirational standard I’ve ever come across, and I think it’s brilliant.
TB If I was to write something on the deliverables I expected from a developer or a technology provider, I’d make it half a page long and I’d have five bullet points – meet that standard, meet that standard, and I don’t care how you do it. There’s a lot to be said for reducing the amount of regulation.
EK Because that leaves room for the “disruptive technologies”…
TB Absolutely. It’s a well-used term at the moment, but other sectors, such as finance, are being disrupted massively at the moment.
AK Legislation is always the bare minimum, it’s the stuff we should be doing because it’s the law. So it’s never going to drive sustainability forward.
What's the story?
How do we communicate sustainability to the wider world? One largely unhelpful concept, the group agreed, is the “carbonisation” of the sustainability agenda. Around five years ago, there was a drive to reduce the complexity of green issues – from operational energy to transport miles, water usage to recycling – into a single issue. So carbon was tracked along the supply chain, driven out of specifications, squeezed out of operational emissions.
"We need a re-edited, revamped story. The story that is around was right for five years ago, it got everyone to act and rally round, but things have changed."
But because tonnes of carbon is an abstract concept to most of us, translating an abstract concept into another abstract concept largely backfired. So what’s the way forward?
AK We should stop using the word sustainability for a start! Because it’s such an all-encompassing thing, it’s too hard for people to get their heads round!
KH No, I’m okay with trying to re-educate what sustainability is about. It’s more than energy efficiency and PV panels. When people ask me, what do you do? I say we’re trying to get young people into jobs. Or we’re trying to understand where all our materials come from. It’s about tailoring the message to the audience.
AK One of the things we did on the Olympic Village was to talk about “problems”, so you’re talking about issues that are very real to them, whether it’s waste or inefficiency. So tackling those issues is “doing” sustainability. We focus on the Al Gore stuff, all the doom and gloom. It’s a great message, but it makes you want to go home and hang yourself!
AS So we need a clear story, a really good story, but it depends on who you’re talking to.
GB We need a re-edited, revamped story. The story that is around was right for five years ago, it got everyone to act and rally round, but things have changed.
AK Talking to a chief executive recently we didn’t talk about saving tonnes of carbon. We said, “we’re going to save you a quarter of a million quid”. It was the easiest sell ever!
GB Most of the time you can extract value from something. It may not be value on the bottom line, but value to the community, or the effect on local NHS resources.
The future is BIM
BIM is in some ways the successor to sustainability: it’s pulling in audiences to seminars and conferences in the way that sustainability did, and is seen as offering the promise of future commercial advantage – or indeed future business survival – as the green agenda once did.
But is it a radical, game-changing technology, offering carbon-optioneering at the click of a mouse? Or a rolling bandwagon, fuelled largely by the novelty factor and a public sector Level 2 mandate that boils down to a few contractual clauses and five data drops? And once the bandwagon has stopped, will the BIM model just become the repository for industry’s obsession with data collecting?
TB When it comes to BIM versus sustainability as a fad, the construction industry is very good at jumping on new stuff. It gets really enthusiastic, then that peters down as it realises that it’s more complex [than people thought] and there’s less money in it.
"There is a danger of let's have a new app, it's shiny, it flashes, and it spits out more information. But you just get swamped, and it becomes analysis paralysis."
KH BIM is probably the closest construction has got to having a radical technology, a radical change. Everything else we’ve been doing is incremental.
BH I’ll say one word – data. We’ve talked about it here, with performance certificates and badges for this or that. That takes more people to analyse and understand and inform the decision-making. It will all pinnacle up to point, but then you’ve got a team of people who have to analyse it – you still need your BIM experts.
KH BIM is a database, that’s all it is. You still need the right information inputs.
BH It’s the old garbage in, garbage out. So BIM is a new tool, but there is a danger – not just in construction but in society – of let’s have a new app, it’s shiny, it flashes, and it spits out more information. But you just get swamped, and it becomes analysis paralysis. It makes decision making harder, because you’ve got not five variables, but 10 or 100 to make a decision on.
KH My first experience of BIM was pitching for a job with a contractor and I wanted to do a carbon footprint exercise, to say these are our initiatives, and this is how much it’s going to reduce it. Bam! Here’s the report. How much faster? Bam! Another report!
BH It gives you the optioneering, but then you still need to go and build it.
AS But people won’t be able to go and hide things anymore – hide quantities, hide money…
BH They’ll find a way!
The specification game
Specification and selection of materials is still a minefield. Almost every product on the market will make some kind of saving-the-planet claim, but how do you accurately assess life-cycle costs versus the debit on embodied carbon account, the tonnes of carbon saved by lightweight aggregate versus the tonnes of carbon sequestered by timber from a sustainable forest?
And as the panel discussed, specifying an arbitrary percentage of recycled content, a requirement of BREEAM Excellent, could lead to inappropriate choices. Using recycled aluminium, for instance, means locking it into a building for 30 years or more, while the food and drink industry is then forced to extract more raw aluminium to satisfy our soft drink addiction.
"Environmental Product Declarations [life-cycle assessments compiled to an ISO standard] are now a legal requirement in France."
AS I’m optimistic about Environmental Product Declarations [life-cycle assessments compiled to an ISO standard]. They’re now a legal requirement in France – it’s come in under an EU directive so it should arrive here too. If you’re making a claim about your product, you have to back it up with an EPD, so at least specifiers can make an informed decision.
KH I’m working on a zero carbon building at the moment. We’re looking at two timber frame systems, both manufactured in the same country, both with their own EPDs. But the carbon footprint of the two products are massively different.
EK So are we still struggling to get common, comparable data on products?
AK There’s a lot of information out there, but some of it is apples and pears. Although we’re all big companies, we’re not the industry, and there’s lots of other people out there too. Just take aluminium, construction is the second biggest user after the food and drink industry. So when the food industry says “jump”, they listen to them rather than us. This is what we’re trying to do in the UK Contractors’ Group – if we all agree what good looks like, let’s go and ask the same question [of manufacturers and suppliers], rather than we ask Version A, then someone asks essentially the same question but in a slightly different way. We’ve got a collective power, even though we’re in competition, to agree what good looks like. And Jane Thornback [sustainability adviser at the Construction Products Association] is very behind all this.
KH But there is progress. How many concrete or asphalt suppliers haven’t got their BS 6001?
AK That’s the utopia, when 99 or 100% of the industry have got these things. Then the guy on site doesn’t have to know that it’s got some particular credentials, it just is.
KH Yes, it’s not about people like us worrying about what materials are going to be used, it’s actually what happens on your construction site, and making that level of communication and engagement with the site.