The 2016 carbon-neutral challenge set by the government is a significant one for business. But, with the public becoming increasingly aware of sustainability issues, it is also a financial opportunity for construction firms, merchants and manufacturers, writes Kevin StanleyIn late 2006, communities secretary Ruth Kelly announced government plans to ensure that all new homes in England would be carbon neutral by 2016.
Building regulations were tightened and the Code for Sustainable Homes was published as the government suggested that zero-carbon homes were critical in achieving their target to cut CO2 by at least 60% (of 1990 levels) by 2050. House-building and construction companies across the country have since been finding out just how serious the government is about lowering carbon emissions in the fight against climate change.
Steve Parr, director of supply chain at Taylor Wimpey UK, argues that the industry is "being driven by legislation in many guises such as the Code for Sustainable Homes and local authorities' independent demands". And, he adds: "These demands are creating a significant challenge for house builders, large and small."
"There is often an associated increase in build cost to construct more environmentally friendly and sustainable housing. We have to look for efficiency within the build programme and supply chain to maintain our margin as shareholders still expect profit growth.
"The targets that the government has set for the industry with regards constructing low-carbon homes over the next ten years has made sustainability their number one priority. It's simply one of many issues of business survival for our industry."
Of course, as merchants to the big house-building companies outfits such as Travis Perkins, Jewson, PTS and Wolseley have a large role to play. Jez Cutler, group environment manager at Travis Perkins, said: "All of the insulation, recycling and microgeneration technologies such as solar hot-water panels, solar PV, GSHP, biomass boilers and rainwater harvesting products that we sell, offer the end user the chance to reduce their environmental impact whether it's by reducing indirect carbon emissions, or by better waste management. These are all aspects of a sustainable lifestyle."
Alan Ball from Plumbing Trade Supplies thinks that the market for renewable energy products has expanded over the past year, and that traditional tradesman such as plumbing engineers are now moving into the renewable market.
"In the past, it was primarily self-build enthusiasts and people who could afford to contribute to the green agenda that were using these products," he says, "but more recently product availability, government grants and standard installations now make these products mainstream.
"The forecast for sales in all these areas are predicted to multiply by factors of ten over the next five years.
"Pressure is being laid on the new house build market to install solar energy and alternative heat sources. They are slowly taking up the options to fit and this is also giving visibility to the general public. Through the products we sell, we are committed to supporting and promoting the reduction of carbon emissions nationally."
But Tim Pollard, Wolseley's head of sustainability, takes a slightly different view. And he is quick to point out that, although renewable technologies have an important role to play in carbon reduction, there is a lot more to sustainability. "There is much to focus upon within raw materials actually used to construct the fabric of the building. And there are now literally hundreds of products in the market claiming to be, in some way or another, sustainable - from insulation, to timber and concrete."
But what does he think is driving the market? "The common need for improved performance is universal," he says. "Energy and water are issues for existing or newly built houses, offices, factories, schools, hospitals, shops or any other building and targets are being introduced at all levels.
"Individuals and organisations are now realising that the agenda cannot be ignored or delayed, and that those failing to address building sustainability will not only run into regulatory problems, but also suffer financially as energy prices continue to spiral.
The Merton Rule, fuel prices, material shortages and the green agenda now make sustainability a mainstream issue. House builders have a particularly clear roadmap defined by the Code for Sustainable Homes and the achievement of zero carbon homes by 2016. And the public sector has been challenged to hit a vast array of sustainability targets across the UK's largest estate.
Jewson too is doing its part, and has recently joined forces with leading figures from the construction industry to commit to developing an industry-wide sustainable procurement solution. The Green Procurement Group intends to collectively reduce the amount of packaging and waste materials throughout its own supply chain with a view to having a positive environmental impact on the market as a whole. Speaking of the materials that Jewson sells, sustainability and quality director Steve Millward says: "The entire Greenworks range exists to reduce carbon footprint through innovative designs.
"These renewable energy products complement our sustainable product solutions such as insulation materials, wall and floor construction products as well as lime mortars and renders from our core range." Jewson stocks Chain of Custody certified timber in its more than 150 branches nationwide. The company aims to source timber that has not only originated from well managed forests and is traceable from forest to the point of purchase but is certified to the approved schemes as appraised by the Central Point of Expertise on Timber.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) UK Working Group is engaging with UK businesses - from merchants in building and timber supplies to construction companies and architects - providing training and information. The FSC's Beck Woodrow said: "Companies that buy FSC timber recognise that we have the support of the major environmental organisations. And because FSC is a global system they know that it can cover many different timber needs."
One such company is constructor Bovis Lend Lease. The company has been working hard to make sure that it procures FSC timber for all of its projects. Environmental manager Sam Hall said: "Our clients are looking for new ways to demonstrate their sustainability credentials, and we believe that using FSC timber gives us a unique selling point in response to this demand. With these benefits factored in, the costs are minimal. We would encourage all contractors to procure FSC timber as it's a great way to demonstrate sustainability performance."
Then there are the manufacturers. One area that has historically been seen as unsustainable is the cement industry. Producing 1.6B tonnes of cement a year, with the typical requirement of the equivalent of 60-130kg of fuel oil and 110kWh of electricity to produce just one tonne, it's not hard to see why.
However, Lafarge, a leader in the production of cement, aggregates and concrete (and subject of last month's SB Leaders feature) is committed to combining sustained economic growth with environmental protection. The firm's PR manager, Andi Hodgson, said that, although quarrying and sustainability appear to be worlds apart, "Lafarge has proved that, with the right ambition and commitment, tremendous progress can be made towards making the supply of construction materials more sustainable".
Globally, Lafarge has reduced CO2 emissions linked with cement production by 14% since 1990, and is on target to achieve an ambitious 20% reduction by 2010. The benefits that sustainability brings are many and varied, not only to a business but to its customers and stakeholders.
Lafarge hopes its efforts will inspire and encourage other businesses and organisations to take up the challenge and work towards sustainability. "Just two of our current initiatives are moving aggregates by rail which reduces traffic congestion and pollution and the use of recycled aggregates from a variety of sources such as crushed concrete, used rail ballast, slag from steel production processes and even glass bottles," adds Hodgson.
The messages are clear: construction and the environment can work together.
Sustainable construction is possible and construction firms, merchants and manufacturers can make environmental decisions that are also financially sound.
The sustainability sector is a growth area. And, because the general public are slowly waking up to the possibilities of sustainability, it can be profitable.
Kevin Stanley is a freelance journalist