Greener working practices make good business sense, the chairman of contractor focus group M&E Sustainability tells BSD

A truly sustainable built environment must make business sense too, says Jim O’Neil, chairman of M&E Sustainability, the special interest group set up by the Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA) and the Heating and Ventilating Contractors’ Association (HVCA).

O’Neil, who took up the post in spring 2008, has made it his mission to green the m&e contracting sector by highlighting the financial gains to be had. But the 51-year-old former building services consultant is no sandal-wearing environmentalist. As technical services director at design, installation and maintenance contractor Shepherd Engineering Services, his outlook is grounded in commercial reality: to survive, m&e firms have to adapt to growing demand from clients for sustainable building projects.

His contention that contractors’ need to make money should not conflict with the need for environmental performance fits well with M&E Sustainability’s origins. The group was founded in 2007 by the two trade associations to provide training and advice after it became apparent that overseas contractors were winning work in the UK on projects with a high renewable energy element because their local counterparts lacked the skills to compete.

But having a workforce capable of installing such technologies is only part of the challenge: the task now is to make money using this trained workforce. At first many ECA and HVCA member firms struggled to understand what sustainable design really meant to them and their customers. “It was hard, in the early days, to see exactly how our members were going to profit,” O’Neil explains.

Under his chairmanship the group has become more focused. “If you try to do everything, you can end up achieving nothing. So, we’ve focused on a small number of key areas that are central to delivering the low carbon targets the government keeps telling us it wants to achieve, but that will also help m&e firms find new business at an extremely tough time,” says O’Neil.

He uses the example of construction waste as a “perfect example” to illustrate how a sustainable approach can help increase a contractor’s bottom line.

“Not sending construction waste to landfill is, obviously, a worthwhile ecological activity, but it also makes sound business sense, because winning an extra £5000 of business at 5% profit margin will only deliver a benefit to your bottom line of just £250. And finding that new business in the current economic environment is not going to be easy, whereas shaving £250 from your costs by targeting material waste is a realistic aim.” Accordingly, the group has produced guidance on waste management strategies.

Energy provides another opportunity. O’Neil says the government should put far more effort into reducing energy consumption as a first step before committing to building vast amounts of expensive renewable energy sources.

Building owners are actively seeking expert advice and support on energy efficiency and our sector must be in a position to deliver

Jim O'Neil

“The government still seems to put far too much faith in massive amounts of wind power – at huge expense to the taxpayer and future generations of electricity consumers,” he says. Rather than championing wind farms, M&E Sustainability is promoting wider uptake of microgeneration technologies such as CHP, which its members are capable of installing, and working with contractors to ensure that such technologies are deployed appropriately.

“By increasing our use of microgeneration to produce electricity close to the point of use to recycle the waste heat for use in our buildings, we can make a huge difference to reducing energy,” O’Neil says.

M&E Sustainability is delivering specific guidance on energy efficiency, renewable and microgeneration technologies and is supporting training courses designed to help contractors add the new skills that will be needed as demand for these technologies increases.

Legislation is another area where the two associations are able to provide useful guidance and support to their members via M&E Sustainability. For example, 5000 organisations are expected to be included in the CRC mandatory carbon trading scheme when it starts in April. All of these are potential clients of m&e firms as they seek to reduce their carbon emissions, primarily through energy efficiency and the use of renewables, to reclaim money they will be forced to spend on carbon credits.

pole position

This initiative marks a big step change because it captures medium-size energy users such as supermarkets, hotels, schools and public bodies. It places a direct financial incentive and penalty on carbon emissions. “Currently confusion reigns, with some clients being unaware of the implications and of their potential actions, but there is an opportunity now for m&e contractors to inform their clients and put themselves in pole position to provide expertise,” says O’Neil.

Energy performance and display energy certificates (EPCs and DECs) could also provide a potential new work stream for contractors. About 80,000 EPCs have been issued for commercial buildings and about 3000 are being produced every week for homes. The key element for M&E Sustainability is that the certificates are accompanied by a report outlining energy efficiency measures the building owner could make to improve the rating. “Building owners are actively seeking expert advice and support and our sector must be in a position to deliver,” says O’Neil.

The mechanical and electrical contracting landscape is changing fast, and in the next decade the skills contractors will have to deploy will probably be unrecognisable from the ones they use today. There are huge opportunities for those skilled in the design, installation and maintenance of sustainable technologies. If O’Neil is right, going green will make sound business sense.