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The concept of sustainability is here to stay, writes Peter Maude. And, with rising energy and materials costs, it's now at the top of the property agenda

There hardly seems to be a month that goes by when somewhere in the world is spared extreme weather. The media constantly concerns itself with global warming, with experts arguing over the causes of changing weather patterns. The public has become concerned, although most of us are still confused by the word sustainability.

The definition of sustainability is: meeting our needs today without prejudicing those of future generations. Whatever your view on the environment, it is a fact that glaciers are slowly disappearing, the arctic sea ice has been thinned by half in the last 30 years, with the chemical composition of the sea turning acidic. There is an increase in extreme events with more frequent and powerful hurricanes. Nineteen of the 20 warmest years in the past 150 years have occurred since 1980.

Britain is meant to be reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by 1% a year, although emissions have risen by 5.5% since 1997. In the past 100 years, there has been a steady increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Charts show that climate change over the next 25-100 years is likely to be as dramatic as the climate change of 45 million years ago, which resulted in the death of the dinosaur.

Energy, used to heat, light, cool and ventilate buildings, accounts for almost half of the UK's carbon dioxide emissions. So, what are governments doing to counter these changes?

The role of the regional development agencies has been reinforced by the Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. One of the principle reasons for this is to create regional spatial strategies within which local development frameworks will be created, subject to sustainability appraisal. Planning policy statements will be significantly revised over the next year or two.

Parts F and L of the Building Regulations, relating to ventilation and the conservation of fuel and power respectively, were overhauled in April last year. The current measures aim to improve energy-efficiency standards by 40% in order to limit carbon dioxide emissions and provide incentives for low- and zero-carbon technologies. The Building Research Establishment (BRE) Environmental Assessment Method and the Ecohome Standards are changing and will become even more demanding as local authorities develop them as central to their planning permission approval process. As part of Planning Policy Statement 22, in order to obtain planning permission, developers will need to take into account methods of sustainable construction. And the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004 aims to improve sustainability of buildings with new enabling powers for building regulations.

The Energy Performance of Buildings directive is the EU's response to the Kyoto Protocol. There are 17 articles within this directive. These include energy performance certificates being required for properties and setting benchmarks for the energy performance of buildings. These changes in legislation will create new business drivers for developers/clients.

Environmental pressure groups are now becoming more sophisticated in promoting sustainability. This can involve political lobbying and high-profile stunts to embarrass organisations. The World Wildlife Fund recently issued a league table on the 13 leading house builders, and ranked them according to their sustainability.

Greenpeace has also exposed the use of illegally felled tropical hardwood and embarrassed contractors/designers using such materials. This is leading to media pressure which will in turn encourage companies to take sustainability seriously.

Property and construction companies will increasingly need to demonstrate their credentials to secure investment and sustainability is now on the corporate agenda.

And a recent study by BRE and Cyril Sweet concluded that upfront costs for a sustainable building do not add significantly to the initial capital outlay. And when whole-life costs are factored in, they are much cheaper.

Sustainability is here to stay. Not only will this be driven by legislation, but rising energy costs and materials costs. There is also an increasing social and institutional awareness. And the trend is for sustainability to be pushed to the forefront of clients' and developers' minds so as not to alienate the building to future users.

Peter Maude is a partner in the international property consultancy King Sturge

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