Specifiers want to do the right thing but a lack of clear information is a barrier to change, says NBS’ Lee Jones

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Construction cannot continue to operate according to current, carbon-guzzling methods. We must step on the (green) gas now and make eco-friendly specification choices, the ‘must have’, not merely the ‘nice to have’.

True, many organisations are already on the case. The RIBA, for example, has set clear goals on carbon emission reduction within its 2030 Climate Challenge declaration, which actively encourages architects to design more sustainably. It is a good indicator of change, but does it go far enough? The fact is, we could all do more.

Here are my suggestions, focusing on three key areas: material choices, design methods and digital adoption.

The global market for green building materials was estimated to be worth £171bn in 2020, this is projected to reach £306bn by 2027.

This represents a golden opportunity for manufacturers, especially when it is backed by our research findings where 80% of specifiers say they prefer to use materials with explicit green credentials. For manufacturers, it should be a no-brainer.

Manufacturers that are not clear about their eco-friendly credentials are shooting themselves in the foot

However, progress is slow and transparent product information remains a stumbling block, with 50% of respondents finding it challenging to obtain clear proof of sustainability when selecting products.

Against a changing, more eco-aware backdrop, manufacturers that are not clear about their eco-friendly credentials are shooting themselves in the foot. Worse, those who do not innovate to adopt greener production methods are going to get left behind. 

This is not solely the responsibility of building product manufacturers or specifiers. Like the discussion around building safety, everyone involved in the construction journey needs to think more sustainably.

One example is construction waste. Manufacturers must be more committed to circular production and provide comprehensive information about recycling or repurposing at end-of-life. We need to encourage a more cradle-to-cradle approach.

For the specifier community, active collaboration between developers, designers, engineers, contractors and clients is also required to reduce waste significantly. It’s as much about the work as the materials used and sometimes this means choosing retrofit over new build.

An apparent shift among specifiers towards choosing low carbon materials and passive systems is to be welcomed, as it’s proven to reduce operational emissions in the finished build. However, it’s only part of the puzzle. We have to change attitudes towards the way we build. That’s why modern methods of construction, which is much more than just modular, offers a way to establish a greener built environment.

We urgently need champions of these new methods to foster a more sustainable perspective sector-wide, winning over hearts and minds of reluctant players by demonstrating these innovative ways of working represent real long-term value.

And finally digital adoption, often talked about from a building safety perspective but with the benefits of the golden thread also including a better knowledge of what is in a building and its operational requirements.

More detailed information leads to improved decision making, giving us a complete picture of the building’s actual carbon cost, including lifetime operation and decommissioning.

These systems should be the standard, yet, lamentably gaps in knowledge still exist. These need to be plugged in if we want to achieve our net-zero goals. With COP26 fast approaching, government rightly wants to be seen as a global leader on green issues.

Perhaps we need to have a more concerted strategy, codified and legislation-backed to compel change. With the international construction market set to grow by more than 70% by 2025, we need to act now to avoid problems down the line. 

The tools, methods and processes are there to help us achieve this. We cannot afford not to use them.

Lee Jones is head of manufacturing solutions at NBS

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