Influencing national builders merchants' definition of sustainability

Will Kirkman | EcoMerchant

Will Kirkman, co-owner and managing director of EcoMerchant, reflects on how green focused building professionals involved in high standard builds, (self, custom or private) can influence how national builders merchants define sustainability.

One of the criticisms in the government’s “Fixing our broken housing market” white paper of the way we build in this country, is that we are ‘locked into’ a way of building that resists change and stifles innovation. This means that we are less favourable to construction methods used to great effect elsewhere in the world, even if they have perfectly valid accreditations and post occupancy evaluation to prove it.

Additionally the domestic market is further contaminated by the volume house builders who have lowered customers’ expectations through their market dominance and slick marketing. The result is that genuine quality housing only exists outside volume housebuilders.

One key to changing this and unlocking the delivery of quality, durable, energy efficient homes is greater involvement of architects and building professionals in the delivery process. This also highlights the positive effect the involvement of such professionals have on delivering sustainable and green building.

A quality building should be well designed, well built with attention to detail, energy efficient and enhance the occupant’s wellbeing and lifestyle but, is this also green building? Green Register members will obviously have an understanding of what the eponymous word green means but, when engaging with customers, what is the ‘green’ that identifies a member and sets them apart from others in their field?

As a merchant EcoMerchant trades in many green building materials which I feel if used more by volume builders would go some way to enhance the quality of their builds. For example the airtightness of buildings is of importance to those delivering low energy buildings - it is tied into thermal performance, indoor air quality and reduced running costs. Airtightness requires attention to detail and quality workmanship. As airtightness requirements are lax within Building Regulations, customers buying products to achieve higher levels are indicators of the type of customers to whom a greener, more sustainable low impact build is important. This is seldom if ever a volume builder or larger developer.

The merchant view offers a window onto the potential lost opportunity for sustainable and green building construction and materials. It is lost because the market is so small by comparison to ‘traditional sales’ where the sheer weight of supplier influence and entrenched supply chain practices ‘lock out’ many alternative ways of building, thus the lost opportunity is the loss of a substitute sell. Consider a waterproof plastic bag of Ordinary Portland Cement, or polymer modified line drainage. Are these products ‘green’? They feature at Ecobuild which is confusing.

There is no doubt that for the vast majority of people engaged with commissioning, paying for, constructing and living in a building ‘green’ is a difficult to nail down term it sounds great but understanding is blurred between energy efficiency, the sustainability of the building and the sustainability of the materials used to construct it.

The national merchants, by their size and market penetration, significantly influence how sustainability is defined in the construction sector. As we all know, most of them have a dedicated sustainable or ‘green’ division but most of these tend to focus on energy production, air source heat pumps for example, or insulation, selling the ubiquitous petro-chemical or mineral derived products they were already selling before they used the term sustainability. They argue that this is a ‘green’ and sustainable position, because the products either generate renewable energy, or save more energy than they have embedded in them.

Could it be that the national merchants don’t tend to sell (or see the need to promote) green building materials, because there is not enough demand? Looking at sales of all construction materials in the UK total £55 billion (see ref’ 1) suggests this is not an issue yet the percentage of materials supplied onto green projects will be a small percentage of the total spend and can only be determined by agreeing a definition of green.

There is however an interesting feature of materials’ supply that may be an influencing factor on the uptake of natural and sustainable building materials – that is that we import most of them (see ref’ 2) with 56% of all construction materials for 2016 (see ref’ 3) being imported.

Evidence of the impact of imported materials on prices is already apparent with an average rise of 6.1% year on year (see ref’ 4).

When you compare the source countries (see figures 1&2 below) for naturally derived building materials with a graph showing the levels of self-build (private sector) it reveals that some of the highest levels of self-build [see figure 1] are recorded in countries with highly developed and long established manufacturers of sustainable, natural and performance building materials, many of which we resell through Ecomerchant [see figure 2]. The most obvious reasons are that, first, self-builders have higher standards than volume builders and second they are driven by regulation in a manner that UK housebuilders are not.

Figure 1 Number of Self-Build by Country

In the UK materials are specified onto self-build projects with a wider range of criteria than volume users. They incorporate values discounted (not required within the Building Regulations) by mass purchasers and as a result the building benefits from extra performance and durability and they do so at a lower rate as they do not have to allow for a developer margin. There is no surprise that some of the most efficient, sustainable and beautiful houses are built using a self-build model.

Not all architects and builders want to build with natural materials even if they are designing to high sustainable standards but at Ecomerchant we do find that those working in the private sector are much more receptive to different ways of building often ways that are the norm elsewhere. This is because, many of these products are proven performance materials with the additional benefits of being easier to use, higher performance, more sustainable, less toxic and in an increasing number of cases, cheaper than existing (still imported) materials.

Figure 2 Construction material source by country: see appendix for product categories

One can conclude from the above that the most receptive market for green construction will be the self and custom build market where someone directly organises the design and construction of their new home or building in particular this includes projects where the commissioning individual or body (self-/ custom builder) arranges for an architect or contractor to design and build their home for them.

As this could be a fertile ground for Green Register members, who want to help drive up quality standards and help UK housing to a level beyond Regs where sustainability, quality and performance become the norm rather than the exception, it would be interesting to find out what the members consider as their go to ‘green’ building materials so your comments would be most welcome.

Appendix

References

1) The Construction Index http://www.theconstructionindex.co.uk/news/view/product-sales-complete-f...

2) Department For Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy Monthly Statistics of Building Materials and Components March 2017, Table 4 Page 10

3) Department For Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy Monthly Statistics of Building Materials and Components March 2017, Table 4 Page 10

4) Department For Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy Monthly Statistics of Building Materials and Components March 2017, Table 4 Page 1

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