Greener buildings: Bringing low-carbon construction into the mainstream

How far has sustainable construction come in the past decade? With exemplar buildings like the WWF's Living Planet Centre taking centre-stage in the current sustainable construction hall of fame, how well are eco-innovations trickling down to more 'everyday' developments? Mauro Montello investigates.

When focusing on reducing the UK’s impact on global warming, sustainable construction is high on the hit list – buildings accounted for 45% of all UK carbon emissions last year. As the construction industry strives to deliver on its share of legally-binding carbon emissions reduction, certain lessons are emerging. 

Firstly, there’s a need for a consensus on the definition of ‘sustainable’ construction. For some it means long-life, for others a low environmental impact. In truth, it is both of these – the longevity of the structure itself and its impact on the planet during construction, when in use and after its functional lifetime.

Next comes practicability. It may sound obvious, but often design features that aim to reduce the carbon footprint of a building can result in creating an undesirable place. Not only does this reduce the potential for the developer to earn a return on their investment, it also brings the added risk of damaging the perception of ‘sustainable construction’ in the minds of the general public.

Cost-effectiveness is still a factor in green buildings, although the extra-over costs for sustainability attributes has reduced significantly over the past five years. However, the perception is that the upfront costs are prohibitive and developers are wary of introducing costly features that customers are either unwilling or unable to pay for.

One way around this that has been successfully trialled is the leasing of equipment to meet certain objectives. For example, a hospital might pay for a 10 or 20-year energy performance service as opposed to a piece of kit. This shifts the onus onto the manufacturers to ensure their equipment is robust, well-maintained and able to be retrofitted or replaced as and when required.

Perfect harmony

As buildings typically last much longer than the systems they are originally fitted out with, it makes sense to install equipment that can be easily replaced. This comes in at the design stage, which takes us to the next critical point: teamwork.

The number of experts it takes to build a quality development means that the likelihood of everyone singing from the same hymn sheet from start to finish is remotely slim. Architects, contractors and engineers all have a hand in either meeting the expectations of the client or justifying compromises. We all make concessions from time-to-time – maybe the ambitious design is simply unworkable, or perhaps unexpected costs at one stage of the project have knock-on effects further downstream. Whatever the reasons for it, it is incredibly easy for sustainable aspirations to be diluted, almost to the point where there is significant extra cost and very little reduced environmental impact to show for it.

Building a sustainable construction takes understanding and buy-in from all the relevant stakeholders throughout the design, construction and life of the building.

Once the hard hats have been packed away and the blueprints rolled up for archive, the structure is left in the hands of its occupants. Even with the best will in the world, this introduces a risk that can make or break the sustainability of a building. Human behaviour is critical in ensuring that a property is managed as well as possible. Now more than ever, it is crucial that the occupants understand how to monitor and manage eco-features.

This is a far cry from the occupancy behaviour of days gone by, where the water, heating and ventilation systems were fitted once and not to be interfered with. With a sustainable building, there are a multitude of systems and, critically, 20% of energy savings now rely on proper management.

Driving change

Fortunately, there is cause to have faith. People are often willing to engage with energy-efficient measures provided the systems are simple and ‘unbreakable’. By limiting the scope for change within a system, it is possible to build something that people are part of, where they have an active role in the environmental performance of their property and therefore a vested interest. A spot of healthy competition between neighbours has also been shown to reap rewards (the ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ effect).

Has the Green Deal and ECO tapped into this psychological side of sustainability? It seems there is a long way to go. Industry stakeholders have concerns that Green Deal loans to landlords will result in properties becoming more difficult to let, as they will carry an additional financial burden that is unlikely to be attractive to the vast majority of the renting populace.

Perhaps it’s time for the Government to take a long hard look at the incentives, drivers and priorities that exist in today’s world. Is BREEAM fit for purpose, or has it become a box-ticking exercise that can be manipulated by scrupulous professionals? Should there be a binding obligation for the performance of a building to be benchmarked against its design? Are greater financial incentives required?

We clearly still have a long way to go until low-carbon construction is mainstreamed. Some impressive strides have been made and we are all learning along the way. Only by keeping this level of communication going, and exploring the real challenges and opportunities facing the sector will our achievements become progressively more on target, and zero-carbon buildings become more than a dream.

Mauro Montello is the marketing director of Climaveneta

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie