Sustainable Construction - 2000 to date – are we there yet?

Lucy Pedler | The Green Register

I recently made a presentation to a room full of architects for the RIBA South West in Exeter. Having been given free reign about what to present, I chose to take a look at what progress we have, or have not, made since the turn of the century.

There is no doubt that Bill Dunster’s BedZed scheme in south London welcomed the new century in with a bang. It is one of the most holistically conceived projects we had then…and still is now. Since then, ‘being green’ has become an aspiration for many people, homeowners and construction professionals alike. Personalities such as Kevin McCloud have brought some of the more ‘sexy’ concepts to the public through the television and BREEAM have had to up their game by bringing in an ‘Outstanding’ standard as more buildings were achieving or even exceeding ‘Excellent’. Back in 2000, even a ‘Very Good’ was deemed to be, well, very good. One Angel Square, the Coop’s recently completed HQ in Manchester meets the ‘Outstanding’ target, claiming to be one of the most sustainable large buildings in Europe, heated by a biodiesel cogeneration plant using rapeseed oil and cooled by natural ventilation through its double-skin façade. (www.bdonline.co.uk/the-co-operative-group-hq-manchester-by-3dreid/5049430.article)

Rather than ask what makes a building sustainable (since it means many things to many people) I asked the audience to consider four questions in order to try and measure progress:

1. Has public opinion changed and is the public demanding more sustainable buildings?

2. Are our clients demanding more sustainable features in their buildings or are you having to persuade/cajole them into building low impact buildings?

3. How has Part L changed since 2000?

4. How have environmental building standards such as CfSH and Passivhaus changed things?

We agreed that the first two were quite difficult to measure but a show of hands illustrated that most thought the public were much more aware of climate change and other related environmental issues than in 2000 but that, paradoxically,  clients are generally not demanding more sustainable features unless they a) were obliged to (because of local planning policy, HCA funding requirements and so on) or b) they could make something out of being demonstrably ’green’ – the oxymoron ‘Corporate Sustainable Responsibility’ comes to mind. That said, there is a healthy minority of clients who do want to reduce the impact of their buildings for altruistic reasons and this is to be celebrated – a definite move in the right direction.

The revisions to Part L are also definitely moving in the right direction to the point where some feel that after the 2016 changes, there will be no need for more stringent U values; we will be trying to use Part L to address overheating not heat loss as we experience hotter temperatures moving towards mid century. The concept of airtightness, just a vague notion in 2000, has been accepted, albeit not always achieved, in many projects today. A rate of five air changes per hour is seen by many to be readily achieved and if we could just address the quality of site workmanship and the absence of site inspections by architects, we’d be onto a winner.

The introduction of carbon – rather than energy - as a unit of measurement in 2006 was a watershed moment for Part L of the Building Regulations. Not only did it highlight the importance of considering different types of fuel, it indicated that the authors were beginning to understand the subtle complexities of what it actually means to build sustainably.  On the other hand, until fairly recently, a government target was to build zero carbon homes by 2016. Now, regulation 25B states that ‘nearly zero-energy requirements for new building will not come into force until 2019 at the earliest’. So not only not zero carbon by 2016, but only ‘nearly zero’ by 2019 – no doubt as much money will be spent to trying to define ‘nearly zero’ as was with  ‘zero’ carbon.

And to the Code. For seven years, we have had a nationally recognised, holistic standard for measuring the sustainability of new buildings and in my humble opinion, abolishing the Code for Sustainable Homes (CfSH) earlier this year has been a big mistake.  Arguing that standards such as CfSH were inhibiting developers from building (forgetting to mention the real barriers such as land values and planning constraints for example), the government assured us that instead we can rely on the Building Regulations to address the issues the CfSH used to. But the CfSH credits for energy are only 3 out of 36.  The CfSH was so much more than about energy - how will issues such as wellbeing and sustainable material specification be controlled by the Building Regulations? The situation is sadly similar in the USA for the LEED building standard. (1)   

However, the progress in Passivhaus projects in the UK since 2000 is a good news story. Although no certified Passivhaus buildings had been built in the UK 14 years ago, the first one (the Y Foel dwelling) was completed in 2009 and numbers have increased swiftly since then – approximately two buildings were certified in 2010, 12 by 2011, approximately 100 by July 2012 and about 250 by the end of 2013. If the retrofit standard EnerPHit projects were to be included, the number of Passivhaus units (completed, on site, planning, in the pipeline) is about 886 (2).  Arguably, the aesthetics of Passivhaus buildings has also hugely improved from dull dark boxes to truly inspirational designs in just a few years.

So where are we now compared to 14 years ago? Are we only just at the beginning, well on the way to seeing sustainable building becoming mainstream, or even further along this road? As architect Lance Hosey asked in September of this year ‘Is this the decline of the green building movement?’ (http://d6.greenbiz.com/blog/2014/09/04/witness-decline-green-building

Hosey describes the four stages of any social movement including the green movement and says: 

‘ “Movement” implies forward motion. To remain a movement, green building must show continual progress by adapting to new knowledge about the impacts of construction on environmental and human health. Today, the movement is at a crossroads: Will it continue to adapt, improve, and extend its reach, or will it become compromised and co-opted by the very forces it set out to battle?’

So this is a call to everyone to continue all the good work that has happened since the turn of the century. But there is no resting on our laurels, as green as our laurels might be. We have a lot of work to do in the next 14 years to get anywhere close to a sustainable construction industry.

Lucy Pedler. 25th November 2014

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(1) See Lance Hosey’s article at http://d6.greenbiz.com/blog/2014/09/04/witness-decline-green-building .

(2) Thanks to Roger Southcott of the Passivhaus Trust for these figures: http://www.passivhaustrust.org.uk.  

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