Here’s how you find the best or most sustainable material or product for your building

John Tebbit

One of the questions that I and my team at the Construction Products Association get asked is, “What is the best or most sustainable material or product?” As it is as unanswerable as asking “what is the best music?” it says a lot about the questioner’s understanding of sustainability or lack of it.

One of the main points that the questioner usually fails to take into account is the lifespan of the building or construction work, which is pretty fundamental if you think about it. Very short life constructions, like a shop-fitting, should be made from either very low impact one-use products or else highly re-usable products, where the impact is spread over a much longer time period.

Equally for offices, the external skin, the structure and the fit-out all have different design lives and so demand different types of materials and products. For our own homes we can debate the exact design life that we should choose but as a nation we would certainly not benefit, for example, from duplicating the 20-30 year life cycle apparently favoured by the Japanese.

Our homes, whether they be brick, block, timber, concrete or steel are designed to last the best part of a century. On present housebuilding performance, they will need to last for a lot longer than that.

To be an environmentally conscious builder or designer, I think, you need to first be a good builder or designer

However, given good design and detailing, plus care in the building process, that should not be a problem. There are examples of multi century lifespans for all the main structural materials. There are also examples of failures in relatively short times where the materials have been used in the wrong way or poorly installed or detailed.

To be an environmentally conscious builder or designer, I think, you need to first be a good builder or designer. One who knows about and understands the materials, the basic ways that buildings work and how people behave.

The latter point is often overlooked. Assuming that inaccessible and out of sight details will be painted each year is always going to be a heroic assumption.

What does give me great joy, is walking around a building new or old where the designer and builder have taken the materials, whatever they are, and really understood them, used them and exploited their benefits. Whether it is that wonderful coolness of a masonry vault or the smell and texture of timber, the mass and feel of cast concrete, the soaring strength of steel or the magic of glass or aluminium curtain walling, there are so many ways to create delight with materials.

Don’t forget the often hidden contributions of plastics, insulation and all the services – there can be delight in the details. And that perhaps is the best present good designers and builders can give to us when they really understand and cherish what materials and products can do. A built environment that brings delight to us all.

John Tebbit is deputy chief executive of the Construction Products Association