John Hobson, until recently the man in charge of construction at the civil service, gives us his take on the future of sustainability and regulation
The sustainable buildings task group reported to the government on 17 May. Its progress has been monitored in the columns of this magazine. To my mind, the report marks a milestone in construction industry policy-making.

I was fortunate to be asked to advise the secretariat of the group. This gave me some insights into the thinking behind it, and where the agenda may go next. Here they are.

Buildings produce more than one-third of carbon emissions. They are therefore a major contributor to global warming. But unlike industry and transport, the other big contributors, there are politically acceptable ways to reduce emissions from buildings. Furthermore, buildings provide the framework of life, our relationships and our health – the whole social fabric. We need to optimise their design and performance.

So how do we make them more sustainable? The report sets out a clear, cost-effective agenda.

First, we tackle the most accessible area of supply – new housing and major adaptations – by tightening Building Regulations. Andrew Stunell MP has given us this opportunity through his private members bill, which makes sustainability part of the regulations. We can then provide thoroughly for more efficient use of energy, waste and water (provided the bill becomes an act – parliament please note).

We also need to improve enforcement – techniques such as pressure testing may well have a role here; but, with respect to Andrew Warren and others who advocated it in the 21 May issue of Building, this is a relatively small part of the overall agenda.

Second, we can tackle incremental quality improvement in a co-ordinated way through a code for sustainable buildings. Here the trick is to use the power of the public sector as procurer to encourage other clients and the supply side to adopt the standards of the Housing Corporation, English Partnerships and the Millennium Communities. The code, developed from BREEAM and EcoHomes standards, will provide a basis for future regulation.

Third, we can create demand-pull by improving customer information for occupants of existing buildings. The Home Information Pack will enable purchasers to understand the condition of their properties. They – and indeed all of us – need to understand that investment in our homes will repay itself many times over in the life of the property. And a new labelling system for building components to prove their sustainability credentials would encourage suppliers to produce innovative materials and designers to specify them. There is also scope for financial incentives, such as differential VAT and stamp duty rates.

So how and when will all this happen? That is down to government which is now studying the report. And the report offers them the process solution. Rationalise the plethora of bodies dealing with sustainability in construction. And as part of that rationalisation, designate very quickly a single body which as a public/private sector joint venture will create and regularly review the code and above all will be a focus and engine for work on sustainable buildings. Look what CABE has done for design. Can we repeat the formula?

This report brings together sustainability and construction in a way that government as presently constituted could not do. But it is to government's great credit that the task group was set up and has now reported to the deputy prime minister, the secretary of state at the DTI and the secretary of state at DEFRA. The question now is whether they and their officials can produce a similarly joined-up response. If they do, I have no doubt that the industry will respond. And perhaps Sir John Harman and Victor Benjamin – the group's very effective co-chairs – will become for the 21st century what Sir Parker Morris was for the 20th – the definers of best housing and building standards.

Trickey’s situations

We have recently come to the end of an extension programme for two fire stations on Exmoor. Although we had the usual problem of where to park a fire engine in a rural location, things went smoothly in the end. Even Mervyn our professional-snooker-playing QS was happy. Usually, he makes a deduction on the prelims if biscuits aren’t served at the monthly site meetings, but this time we were met with Marks & Spencer’s finest. The pièce de résistance of the whole job has to be the boiler controls. Consider that this building has two heating zones in a traditional oil-fired wet central heating system. Nothing fancy there, you may think. But this thing has a control panel the size of a Welsh dresser. You could run a nuclear power station with it. It took a man in a white coat with a laptop the best part of a week to program it. How the hell will we cope in his absence! Nolan is convinced that it is Deep Blue, the supercomputer that beat Gary Kasparov at chess. Predictably, Mervyn thought it could foretell football and snooker results. However, I think it is a clandestine part of Reagan’s Star Wars program recycled to shoot down sheep-seeking missiles over Exmoor. The truth is that none of us really knows the true purpose of this machine. If you have any information, or you know the identity of the man in the white coat, please contact us!

Greg Trickey works for Devon Fire and Rescue