The green housing effect

Tim Pollard says the construction industry should stop navel-gazing and start taking action to appease the nation's fear of climate change

World temperatures are on course to rise by two or three degrees in 50 years. This will cause rainfall to dramatically reduce in some of the poorest countries, and rising sea levels to threaten more than 100 million homes and businesses. These problems will be “difficult or impossible to reverse” unless the world acts quickly, warns economist Sir Nicholas Stern.

The construction industry is responsible for almost half of UK CO2 emissions, and needs to wake up to its responsibilities. The way we build today will have massive repercussions for future generations. It is not just about the construction process itself but the on-going energy consumption of a building and how its occupants live.

The overarching vision is for new technologies, such as ground source heat pumps and photovoltaics, to be incorporated in all new designs, changing lifestyles and the long-term energy efficiency of homes, hospitals, schools and offices.

Radical reforms to house-building regulations have focused on enforcement and punitive measures for developments that are not sustainable, making it harder for them to be built. This is especially true for the social housing sector, which must meet Housing Corporation targets or risk losing funding.

But it would be nice to see more proactive action that enables business to change rather than binding it in red tape.

Going green is easier said than done. A lack of understanding of the sustainable techniques that are available, and how to implement them, is stifling progress. A wide portfolio of green products and materials exists in the market but the uptake has been disappointingly slow. For example, fewer than 100,000 micro-generation units were installed across the country during 2005.

The advent of new technologies and rising cost of oil is bringing down the relative cost sustainable construction. Market demand is also set to boom, with environmentally friendly products becoming one of the world’s biggest growth industries and generating around £250B of global business by 2050.

There is a need to educate the construction industry. Wolseley has unveiled plans for a £2.9M Sustainable Building Centre (SBC) to help achieve this.

This will provide an interactive environment where construction professionals can receive impartial advice about the sustainability market and solutions for individual jobs. It aims to have the widest range of products that can be incorporated in new developments and retrofitted to existing facilities.

The sustainable materials and principles will also be used in the construction of the 641m2 building itself.

Products in operation will include a ground source heat pump, solar panels, a seedum roof, a biomass boiler, a combined heat and power system, natural insulation, natural flooring and ventilation. And an audio-visual theatre will hold educational seminars, workshops and product launches.

Work to construct the SBC will get under way this year. There is plenty of evidence as climate change continues to make front-page news. But it is worrying that less than half of construction companies are taking a serious approach to promoting environmental responsibility.

The industry is starting to change, fuelled by coming government regulations and further evidence that today’s customers are concerned. But change is coming far too slowly, and a business-as-usual approach will allow emissions to double by 2050.

We need to counter the belief that sustainable construction is too difficult, too expensive or both. Initiatives such as the SBC are doing just that, showcasing the environmental and business benefits of going green.

We do not need more red tape to dictate a green future, just a willingness and understanding to move sustainable principles from a best-practice model to the norm.

Tim Pollard is general manager of Wolseley’s Sustainable Building Centre

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