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Sustainability: better building for the environment and the employee

Over the past 20 years, green construction has gone from a niche innovation to a primary factor in building design and development.

Sustainability better building for the environment and the employee1

As employers, landlords and commercial property developers look to become more focussed and vocal in their corporate social responsibility, so too will their commitment increase in providing environments which take into careful consideration the health and wellbeing of those within their buildings.

UK Construction Online’s Matt Brown speaks with James Willcox, Principal Sustainable Development Lead at national contractor Willmott Dixon, on the benefits to businesses while dispelling some of the myths associated with building sustainably.


How would you define sustainable building?

Sustainability means something different to each individual, based on company goals and what matters most for that business. To cover most bases, I would revert to the most generally accepted definition: a building designed and built to high environmental standards, thereby decreasing energy and resource requirements, while reducing building impacts on human health and wellbeing throughout the building’s lifecycle.

What are the benefits to companies choosing sustainable construction methods?

As the premise of sustainable building has developed, so have the potential benefits to clients. We don’t believe a ‘one-fits-all’ approach works as clearly every client is different, so a technique which may work for one project may be the completely wrong choice for another. It all depends on factors such as budget, build location and the intended use of the building.

A major consideration for us during the initial design stage is simply asking what the intended use of the building is – be it for commercial space, public sector, higher education and further education and so on – and negotiating how to best leverage sustainable building methods to generate the greatest return on investment.

For example, a Passivhaus build such as the recently completed Centre for Medicine at the University of Leicester, could result in economic benefits in the form of reduced running costs in the long-term, as well as offering reputational benefits for reduced environmental impact. Similarly, sustainably built commercial mixed-use schemes tend to be more attractive to potential tenants as a result, often commanding higher rental prices with the promise of reduced running costs.

We support our clients to explore the route most relevant to them and their business goals within the triangle of social, environmental and economic benefits and find the most suitable middle ground for them between those three factors.

Is it a misconception in thinking that sustainable construction is far more expensive?

I think the easiest answer and the one most people would give would be yes, but I personally don’t think it is necessarily the case for every build. It goes without saying that if a client and contractor are actively looking to go above and beyond building regulations then naturally works will come with additional fees, but that being said, it is rather short-sighted to suggest the premium of a sustainable build automatically means increased costs – particularly when evaluating the whole lifecycle of the building.

Short-term capital investment, which is arguably where the misconception of high build costs often comes, can easily be offset later in the cycle when taking into consideration reduced maintenance costs, increased market value, rental value, sector reputation and the health and wellbeing of those who intend to dwell in a building.

Equally, not all of the build methods available may be necessarily appropriate for that scheme, so by taking careful consideration from the outset of what is going to produce the best outcome, clients are able to reduce many of the costs throughout the construction phase.

Do sustainable buildings enjoy the same lifespan as more traditional buildings?

I think this would generally be a fair assessment from not only from a structural standpoint but also when taking into account the possible future use of the building.

For example, by using concrete and steel framing to not only stand the test of time, it can be easily stripped back and remodelled at a later stage in the lifecycle if the building needs to be repurposed. It is clearly far easier, cost-effective and environmentally sound to repurpose an existing building rather than to demolish it and rebuild from the ground up.

Similarly, by increasing the calibre of build materials it is possible to improve the lifecycle costing, so by investing more from the outset in better quality materials, renovations and upkeep will be less frequent and the associated costs can be recouped in this way.

Does sustainable construction demand constant innovation?

Sustainable building often employs some more premium construction techniques but I think it would be unfair to say that you can’t build sustainably without them. Our sector lends itself well to innovation and has certainly stimulated it, as it is as much about looking to the future as working with the best of what is available in the present. However, I believe much of this comes down to looking back at the fundamentals of building and logically working through the process and employing the best fit for each stage of a project.

Do you feel enough is being done by the government and industry to promote sustainable building?

I think the mind-set of sustainable building has always been very present in the industry. Construction is a collaborative process, we are constantly working with our supply chain partners to refine the processes of working together in the most effective and mutually beneficial way. We are often responding to the needs and requirements of our customers, so rather than saying that enough isn’t being done currently, a more fair reflection would be that we are constantly working towards improvement on our already very high standards.

Would you say the clients are becoming more interested in sustainability when it comes to specifying construction materials/ service?

Absolutely. Although traditionally construction is associated with a building designed to stand the test of time with the most limited environmental impact possible, innovation within the sector has brought this one step further to not only consider the ecosphere outside of the structure, but also within it. Buildings are now just as much evaluated on the contribution to the health and wellbeing of the people who live, work and learn inside them as they are on their traditional elements.

Social responsibility has become a huge factor in sustainable building and as businesses develop more of a social conscience, there has been an increased interest from both employers and potential employees around wellbeing and creating better work and living places for users.

Are there any restrictions in terms of design that choosing to build sustainably might bring?

Not necessarily but there are certain elements to consider such as a specific build, customer or site when picking what is most appropriate for that project – natural ventilation may be great in principle but for a build next to the motorway, it is not going to work!

I would say the only barrier to sustainable building is common sense and ensuring that you are doing right by your client and achieving the best possible results for that project, so we can say with total confidence that we have done the very best we can with the site and brief we have been given.

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