Sustainable Construction: Building Momentum, Brick by Brick

Sustainable Construction: Building Momentum, Brick by Brick

Several decades of huffing and puffing by environmentalists is now forcing builders to think green. By Oliver Balch

The aggregates trade is swapping rock for "recycled demolition waste." Companies want to know that the sand-based concrete for their new headquarters has not come from a pristine beach in Southeast Asia.

The uptake is well founded. Keeping buildings warm and well lit is reckoned to consume between 25% and 40% of total world energy use.

The built environment is responsible for as much as 40% of all solid waste and global greenhouse gas emissions.

On the flip side, studies show that environmentally friendly construction leads not only to cheaper utility bills, but to happier, healthier occupants.

"Building isn't a far-out concept any more," enthuses Taryn Holowka of the Washington-based U.S. Green Building Council. “The more buildings that become certified and serve as showcases, the more people realize that green building is something everyone can do.”

Barriers to Progress

But for green construction to expand, it has a number of hurdles to cross. First is the problem of standardization. What exactly constitutes a “green” building?

Construction projects in the U.S., the U.K. and France operate under separate, albeit not so different, assessment standards (known as Leed, Breeam and HQE respectively). Whereas countries on the cusp of sustainable building booms, such as China, India and Australia, operate without any generally recognized standard at all.

The second brick missing from the wall is incentives. Increased market demand has certainly helped reduce the cost of sustainable building materials in recent years. But the price differential between the latest in solar panel roof shingles and traditional clay tiling is still substantial, at least in the immediate term. Other financial carrots, such as tax breaks or reduced insurance premiums, are also in short supply.

“The only way you are going to get the majority of stakeholders in the building sector to think more actively on green building is to adjust the financial signals,” says Niclas Svenningsen, industry program officer for the United National Environment Program (UNEP).

Experts in sustainable building also fret about “life cycle.” Few buildings, even those constructed under the most stringent environmental controls, finish up with a positive green balance sheet. Why? Because tend to overlook the longer-term environmental costs. Given that 80% of a building energy use occurs after the initial construction phase, it is an important oversight.

The decision by the UNEP to step into the fray is therefore a timely one.

The multilateral group has used its convening power to launch a worldwide scheme aimed at plugging the gaps in the sustainable building edifice.

Lafarge, Skanska and Arcelor are among the dozen construction giants that have put their names to the Sustainable Building and Construction Initiative.

Ambitious Goals

The initiative's founding goals are appropriately big for an industry that represents an estimated 110 million direct jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars in annual turnover.

First off, it aims to help resolve the multiple standards problem by establishing “globally recognised baselines” for green building.

Next, it aims to develop tools and strategies to help companies meet those conditions.

Finally, it is planning a number of pilot projects to promote sustainable construction to government agencies, property developers and other key stakeholders.

The first two objectives are ambitious, but achievable. UNEP is looking for a common denominator among existing standards, not the more difficult aim of a universal accreditation scheme. That, it says, can be left to the International Organization for Standardization.

As for tools and strategies, the field of sustainable construction is not devoid of management experience. Companies such as Skanska have been working for a number of years to eliminate environmentally hazardous materials from the construction process. UNEP’s initiative offers the opportunity to pull such learning together.

The harder task will be promoting sustainable construction further afield. Economic short-termism still remains the defining motif of the global construction industry. Other parallel initiatives will no doubt help.

The influential Swiss-based World Business Council for Sustainable Development, for example, has just launched its own three-year project on sustainability in the building sector.

Governments are also responding. Finland, for example, is leading a new taskforce into sustainable construction under the banner of the United Nations. Meanwhile, several U.S. states are following California’s lead in requiring all state building to be environmentally certified.

Momentum is certainly growing. Two high-profile constructions in New York -- the new “7 World Trade Center” building and the “Reflecting Absence” memorial -- are designed to meet top environmental specifications.

This article has been reprinted courtesy of Ethical Corporation. It was first published on June 20, 2006.