10 top tips to deliver a sustainable built environment

Continuing edie's 'green buildings month' of editorial content, John Lewis's sustainable development manager Phil Birch offers up 10 tips to successfully accelerate sustainable development within the built environment, despite an ongoing period of "political uncertainty".

Speaking to delegates at edie’s recent Responsible Retail event, Birch presented 10 ways that he and his team have been able to mobilise internal action to deploy sustainability initiatives within the company.

With 18 months’ experience as sustainable development manager, Birch has seen a green policy upheaval take place in relation to the built environment. Speaking at Responsible Retail, Birch noted that “political uncertainty coupled with price deflation and the rise of the omni-channel format has placed retailers under pressure from all angles”.

Birch alluded to the removal of zero-carbon building regulations and the cuts to subsidies available to renewables, which have made it harder for retailers to promote sustainability as a cost-effective strategy to boards. However, John Lewis has managed to build up an impressive array of green projects and initiatives, which includes operating around 50 BREEAM Excellent rated branches and four BREEAM Outstanding branches.

According to Birch, the company was “one of the first” retailers to rollout LEDs as standard across its portfolio. John Lewis also has a one million sq.ft facility in Milton Keynes specifically tailored to online shopping demand. But with around 90,000 UK staff members across 350 Waitrose branches and 47 John Lewis branches, Birch is aware that even if the regulatory landscape was enabling, his team would still have to implement sustainability on a wide scale.

With that in mind, here are Phil Birch’s top 10 tips for driving sustainability in the built environment in times of changing regulation.

1) Set your ambition

In 1928, John Lewis passed his business onto his employees, forming the John Lewis Partnership in the process. As a result, a constitution was introduced, which still governs what the company can and can’t do today.

Rule 109 of this constitution states: “the Partnership must take all reasonable steps to minimise any detrimental impacts its operations may have on the environment and to promote good environmental practice.”

For Birch and John Lewis, the constitution acts as the “backdrop for company ambition”, which not only outlines how the company should interact with the environment, but also places this interaction as part of the company mantra.

2) Provide the direction

John Lewis also uses a Responsible Development Framework (RDF) when designing and constructing a new building. According to Birch, the RDF “needs to be actioned at every single stage of design, from site selection to operation”.

The RDF covers 10 points of focus, including aspects related to energy, waste water and innovations. For Birch, the RDF captures the best aspect of BREEAM and SKA building standards and gives the retailer a path to move down once the ambition has been established.

“Ambition without direction is pointless,” Birch said. “We need to embed the environment within our building designs, that’s our direction. The starting point is that every single requirement should be met, unless we justify that a particular requirement is non-viable.”

3) Evaluate the costs, and the benefits

For Birch, any decision about giving a project a green light will come down to the “evaluation of benefits”. He noted that LEDs are usually a popular choice for retrofits because of the available payback option and energy savings.

However, there are often some hidden – or “unintended” – consequences to consider. Even an LED retrofit could lead to issues with asbestos, Birch states, which in turn introduces further disruptive costs.

“Every responsible decision that we take needs to stand up on its own across a cost-benefit point of view,” Birch said. “What I’d hasten to add, is that there are unintended consequences and sometimes we’ve rolled out new lighting that we won’t invest anywhere else because it actually makes the rest of the building look tired.”

John Lewis Partnership Property Services – Review of 2015 from Andrew Cameron on Vimeo.

4) Move from risk to resilience

During his presentation, Birch pointed to the UK’s pledge to ratify the Paris Agreement by the end of the year as proof that not only will the regulatory landscape improve, but that retailers should already be climate-proofing their portfolios for the future.

Birch suggested that the retailers need to do “a lot more” to measure the costs and risks associated with environmental impacts such as flooding and heatwaves. Not only will the ongoing rise in “hottest months” add to ventilation costs, but Birch also notes that flooding can impact sales as well as damaging buildings.

“We can price how much this costs in terms of loss of trade and repair, and then use that value to decide how much we need to invest in mitigation,” Birch said. “Interestingly, more and more insurers are asking for more evidence on what mitigation measures are in place, and recovery procedures – such as permeable paving – are starting to have a strong business case.”

5) Internal collaboration is key

Birch claimed that projects are rarely constructed in silo, but rather the people involved would spread across different management areas. For Birch, this also adds the complexity of different teams aiming for different objectives to deliver against different KPIs.

To combat the complexity, Birch claimed that embedding sustainability within the company removes any notion that it can be seen as a “distraction or burden”, instead allowing teams to collaborate on delivering goals. He added that when trying to hit BREEAM targets, different developers could highlight different issues that could lower scores.

In one example, by collaborating with other developers, John Lewis became aware of the issues earlier, creating more time to fix them and hit the BREEAM Excellent rating. “It’s important to embed sustainability and it removes the chances of variation and uncertainty as each person involved on a project understands what their responsibilities are and how they can influence it,” Birch said.

6) … And so is external collaboration

Despite the current uncertainty shrouding built environment policies, Birch said that John Lewis is constantly working with government departments, membership bodies and trade associations in an attempt to “steer policies”.

John Lewis has already agreed a partnership with the UK Green Building Council to work with peers to target cross-sector progress and inform consultations.

Even in the competitive sphere of retail, Birch believes that external collaboration provides “no commercial risk”. He claimed that John Lewis can talk to M&S and vice versa because an industry can “collaborate to create a better result in driving sustainable change”.

7) Don’t be distracted by ‘big-ticket’ items

According to Birch, trying to deliver the “most sustainable building” is a great aim which shouldn’t be discouraged. However, he also feels that a lot the “smaller activities” that can be introduced – often costing less – can “have more of an impact on the overall sustainability of our business”.

For John Lewis, some of the smaller initiatives that will be introduced over the next five years is the “unglamorous” refurbishment and painting upgrades. Despite not being a “big flashy showcase” like a new branch, these smaller aims still impact the business.

For Birch, looking beyond bigger projects, which often get jumbled amongst objectives and planning permissions, can be a great way to improve efficiency through refurbishments.

8) Revisit and re-evaluate projects

While Birch noted that it’s good to keep rolling out new initiatives, this shouldn’t be done at the expense of ignoring the existing progress that has been made. While energy managers and engineering staff are more likely to keep tabs on the efficiency of older projects due to the availability of data, Birch believes that softer measures can often be ignored.

One such example of this occurred in January 2014, when John Lewis began discussions with the Malmesbury local wildlife trust to increase biodiversity around the area of a nearby Waitrose store. Two years on from the approval of the project, and Birch has only just been able to get valuable information on how a £500 contribution fee was being spent.

“It’s valuable because we now have first-hand experience on the positive impacts that we are having on the community, but we need to check that things are performing as we hoped regardless,” Birch said.

9) Innovation is the driver

Birch claims that technology such as lighting and refrigeration is enabling retailers to “stay ahead of the curve” in regards to enhancing efficiency. While much of the low-hanging innovations such as LEDs have been picked, Birch believes that innovation can be enhanced alongside collaboration.

As well as working with manufacturers and suppliers to test new technologies, John Lewis is also working with academia such as Cambridge University and the University of Sheffield to trial new innovations to improve the aerodynamics of fleet vehicles and the viability of low-carbon fertiliser respectively.

For Birch, collaborating with external sources as a means to innovate can act as a “positive PR story”, but it also brings in the added “practical element” of generating savings as well.

10) Communication is the catalyst

As previously mentioned, with around 90,000 members of staff – ranging from delivery drivers to chefs to accountants – many John Lewis personnel will be unaware as to why senior management is trying to change things. For Birch, communication acts as the catalyst for getting staff members to understand why new efficiency measures are being introduced.

While much has been made of the effectiveness of marketing as a communication device – listen to the work highlighted by PwC in edie’s latest podcast – John Lewis has actively encouraged its own staff to get involved in some of the decision-making processes.

Birch alluded to the refurbishment of a canteen where the chef – who had worked there for 15 years – actually designed the kitchen. The result was a “feeling on empowerment” amongst the staff, which encouraged senior management to go out to branches to “understand the sharp end of the business and learn from the occupiers” on how to improve staff understanding and interaction with efficiency measures.

edie’s green buildings month

The month of October sees edie shift the editorial spotlight from energy efficiency to green buildings. From new-builds to retrofits; construction design to building controls, this month of exclusive content will highlight the array of options available to improve the performance of buildings.

Stay tuned for green building-focused news stories, in-depth features and a special Sustainable Business Covered podcast episode which will investigate the latest techniques, the best management systems and the different steps UK businesses can take to increase the efficiency of their building stock and drive environmental performance.

Read all of our green buildings content here.

Matt Mace

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