Building sustainably is our human duty – interview with Envirobuild’s Dr Aidan Bell
UK Construction Online’s Matt Brown speaks with Dr Aidan Bell, Director of EnviroBuild on the benefits of sustainable building and the need for the construction industry to drive the sustainable agenda.
Envirobuild specialise in sustainable building materials and environmentally friendly construction solutions, with minimal harm to the environment.
How would you define sustainable building?
I think that the best definition of sustainability is given by The Living Planet Report 2016 as: “When humanity’s annual demand on nature matches what Earth can regenerate in that year.”
Of the guiding principles within this report, three are most applicable to buildings:
- Zero carbon
- Zero waste
- Sustainable materials
These guiding principles call for a focus on sustainable building, particularly on the amount of embedded energy within construction materials as well as the ongoing costs of building occupancy.
What are the benefits to companies choosing sustainable construction methods?
The primary reason for sustainability is simply that we cannot carry on as we are doing. If we wish to leave a world for later generations, then we’re reneging on a fundamental human duty.
This is sense of responsibility is increasingly being seen in the younger generation and they want their companies and institutions to make the world a better place. Therefore recruiting the best talent, especially young talent, is now reliant upon more than just money, and sustainability is the biggest driver. Sustainable construction companies will therefore expand their talent pool.
In addition, making sustainable choices as a business generates a PR opportunity and an improved reputation for CSR. The growth of the public sector divestment in fossil fuels proves how economically the tide might turn, and change industry behaviour as a result.
Is it a misconception in thinking that sustainable construction is far more expensive?
Sustainability engenders efficiency within design, which when combined with greater integration of stakeholders can improve a building’s efficiency saving both energy and money. A prime example of this is the rise in the pre-fabricated construction of buildings which increases the consistency of quality and reduces build time, and, in turn, costs. More methods of increasing profitability and sustainability will be found, and the continual sharing of best practice across the industry will help realise the greatest gains.
There are also sensible, cost-effective measures already prevalent within the heat recovery and insulation industries that reduce the ongoing costs of sustainable buildings. Models like district heating at Kings Cross or Battersea Power Station are economically and environmentally beneficial.
In addition, there are some areas where materials can be effectively replaced with sustainable options, that are either recycled or lower embedded carbon options. However while FSC wood is taken as standard now primarily because of public perception, there is no such mark for recycled plastics.
Finally, there is also the potential increased value of a building where the tenant is willing to pay more for a “sustainable” home or business space.
However, the reality is that a lot of the green measures do not increase the bottom line for either developers or contractors, and therefore sustainability is driven only by legislation.
Does sustainable construction demand constant innovation?
Yes. No industry stands still, and the pace of change needs to increase if agreements such as the Paris Accord are to be reached.
Do you feel enough is being done by the government and industry to promote sustainable building?
While individual companies are making commitments, the industry has so far lacked a revolutionary company to really drive the change in the industry – there is no ‘Tesla’ of the construction industry, so to speak.
The construction industry is driven by profit the same as every other industry, and while sustainable practice that combines profitability and efficiency is being gradually embraced, sustainability at a cost is still primarily driven by regulation.
With regard to regulation, it is clear that the Conservative party isn’t in favour. The scrapping of the CSH (Code for Sustainable Homes) in 2014 was extremely disappointing for the sustainable sector and the latest Conservative manifesto was described as a “car crash for the environment” by the Green Party. Given the Conservative minority government and the upcoming Brexit, which will loom over all departments, there is unlikely to be further regulation in the short to mid-term. Therefore the industry and consumers will have to lead the way, otherwise progress will stall.
Without regulation it is only through the end-consumer indicating their choice – by being willing to pay more – that industry will truly listen. It’s therefore the responsibility of businesses in the construction sector to give the consumer enough information to make these sustainable decisions.
Would you say the public are becoming more interested in sustainability when it comes to choosing construction materials/ service?
It has been said that consumers are less focussed on sustainability than they were five years ago because their concerns are centred on economics and security at present. While this is potentially true, the younger generations are more engaged than ever, and their attitude will filter through in time and influence the wider buying public. This trend will inevitably hit the construction market, but it requires signposting.
For example, it would be great to have a recycled plastic scheme so that the public could easily make their own choices, as is already facilitated by the FSC symbol. People can then change their purchasing behaviour with fully verified integrity.
Finally, there is still great confusion as to what sustainable really means among many consumers, and that needs to be changed. That is where our industry can make the greatest progress: educating the consumer.
Are there any restrictions in terms of design that choosing to build sustainably might bring?
If anything, making a choice to build sustainably brings opportunity. For example, high-density living is the most efficient sustainable option and making those spaces pleasant for people to operate in, rather than the concrete jungles of the 1960s and 1970s, is an exciting challenge! Examples from Singapore to Stockholm can really drive innovation and a new era of beautiful sustainability.
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