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A heated debate

27 Mar 08

Global warming and talk of how to combat it was already affecting the construction industry, even before Alistair Darling's budget. Richard Goslan looks at some of the controversial issues that the Chancellor has raised

by Richard Goslan

Obstacle or opportunity? An unwelcome hike in costs – or the potential for longer-term savings? A genuine commitment to tackling climate change – or an exercise in PR which can be filed away under the label of “greenwash”?

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on the move towards cutting carbon emissions by making the construction industry embrace more environmentally friendly technology and working practices.

Chancellor Alistair Darling used his Budget to announce “an ambition” for all new non-domestic buildings to be zero carbon from 2019. Property companies are already under pressure to produce entirely green homes by 2016.

But where does the rhetoric end and the regulation begin?

The starting point for the debate seems to be that currently, the energy used to heat, light and run the UK’s 21 million homes accounts for 27 per cent of all of its carbon emissions.

At least 14 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions are from commercial and public sector buildings.

But along with a growing awareness of the need for sustainable construction and lower carbon buildings, there has been a parallel growth in the number of public and private organisations offering advice to companies and builders.

“The problem is that there are so many different bodies involved here, but they are not integrated and there is a lack of consistency,” says Kevin Taylor, head of construction special projects at Shepherd & Wedderburn.

Indeed, anyone trying to get their head around the latest directives from both the UK and the EU should be prepared to wade through a mountain of paperwork, and be aware of differences in legislation between Scotland and England and Wales.

The custodian of the UK’s environmental standard for buildings, recognised by industry and government, is the Building Research Establishment (BRE). It assigns an environmental assessment method rating – or BREEAM – to describe a building’s environmental performance. But undertaking a BREEAM is not a legislative requirement.

As sustainable construction manager with Miller Construction, Duncan Livingstone has worked on benchmark projects such as the City of Edinburgh Council Chambers. But he says the driving force is coming from the clients, not from the need to hit carbon-cutting targets.

“It’s more of an ethical decision, or organisations are looking at the long-term benefits,” says Livingstone. “At this stage, it can be more of an element of public relations, using sustainable construction to get the building to stand out.”

“In England and Wales, the Code for Sustainable

Homes is enshrined in public procurement policies, as a mandatory requirement from 1 May,” says Rufus Logan, director of BRE Scotland.

“So to get approval for new builds, you’ll have to meet the required code levels. The aspiration is that all new built homes must achieve Code 6 by 2016.

“In Scotland, the Sullivan Report A Low-Carbon Buildings Strategy for Scotland, suggests a route map to achieving zero-carbon buildings, but Building Regulations, Section 6 is the main driver in legislation.

“This is still quite a new concept, but it’s going to be happening over the next two to three years, so people need to be ahead of the game,” says Logan.

Being ahead of the game seems to be a recurring theme in the field of sustainable construction, even if the legislative timetable is hazy.

The Stewart Milne Group, for example, developed a near-zero carbon building for BRE’s modern methods of construction event last year, which achieved Code 5 on the Code for Sustainable Homes – just one away from the highest standard.

Glenn Allison, managing director of Stewart Milne Group (and incoming ICAS President), says: “Our Sigma project was designed to take a look at how to make the move towards zero carbon homes both cost-effective and user-friendly – these homes need to be both commercially viable and also meet the needs of the customers.

“I don’t believe there are enough incentives for builders at the moment, though – there are regulations, and a necessity to deliver, but no incentives for delivering above the rules and regulations.”

John Stocks from the Carbon Trust, a government body set up to accelerate the move towards a low carbon economy, says: “There needs to be both a will and legislation in place. Building regulations can only go at a certain pace.

“Pulling out a figure about reducing carbon emissions is easy, but now measures need to be put in place. Our role is to raise awareness, to encourage and cajole, and make sure we have early adopters.”

Rab Bennetts is an architect and co-founder of Bennetts Associates, which promotes environmental design. He says it is time private companies looked beyond the balance sheet when it comes to environmentally-friendly buildings.

“Smarter companies are realising there are commercial advantages to lower-carbon buildings,” says Bennetts. “The push for sustainable construction is presenting opportunities for forward-thinking builders and companies.

“If you don’t know about sustainability, you’re going to get caught out, regardless of your profession.”

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