We have to resist the temptation to think that sustainable buildings are too expensive in a downturn. Clever, low technology design and a change of mindset are called for, says Ken Gillespie

Can we afford to continue to construct sustainable public buildings? Can we afford not to? This is our dilemma. On the one hand, there is an urgent need to invest in the public sector estate with the valuable knock-on effect of stimulating the construction industry and the wider economy.  On the other, there is severely limited capital investment available. So, naturally enough, the industry is pressed to provide more for less.

This means more creative thinking, designing simpler buildings, using less area by using space more efficiently, employing innovative construction techniques and simplifying procurement thereby reducing costs. In the case of the forthcoming £2bn priority schools building programme, it also means simplifying and reducing the demands of design guidance and schools’ sustainability credentials by diluting the scope of BREEAM or removing the requirement altogether.

Sebastian James, in his review of schools capital investment, criticised BREEAM’s bureaucracy but he did not advocate building unsustainable schools

There is an apparent ambiguity here. While the government is actively trying to meet its own and global sustainability targets through initiatives such as the Green Deal, the Low Carbon Construction Action Plan and Part L, it is considering removing the only broad-ranging assessment and benchmarking method for sustainability in schools because its targets are too expensive to achieve.

Certainly, Sebastian James, in his review of schools capital investment, criticised BREEAM’s bureaucracy and prescription, but he did not advocate constructing unsustainable school buildings. He was concerned principally about the complexity of the process and its cost. 

Does BREEAM add enough value to make its additional costs worthwhile? While it would benefit from streamlining, it is also the most comprehensive assessment and benchmarking method available. The industry needs performance standards and targets as benchmarks but there are other possible forms of measurement and accreditation that could be developed further including: EPCs (energy performance certificates); EPIs (energy performance indicators); or the Carbon Trust Standard.

If the BREEAM schools standards are abandoned, will the government and industry step up to the plate and continue to provide highly sustainable school buildings and contribute to national targets in the absence of national benchmarks or a robust measurement tool?

Best practice in the industry sees sustainability to have a number of distinct features, all of which it can contribute to. First, environmental sustainability is the most visible. The building’s carbon footprint, energy consumption, CO2 emissions and operational and lifecycle costs are all influenced by good design and construction methods and by consideration of energy use and lifetime costs. Sustainable construction means responsible sourcing of materials and management of waste and employing sustainable building practices. Many projects also involve renewable energy generation.

Optimum conditions for productivity and well-being can be largely achieved through design rather than mechanical solutions and technology

Second, a commitment is made to promoting sustainable communities by providing public buildings that are well-thought out, user-friendly and that meet local needs and, by creating opportunities for local employment, apprenticeships and training, contribute to the local economy.

Third, and often unnoticed, is the encouragement of sustainable behaviours such as recycling, visible metering, green travel routes, water attenuation and grey water recycling, the local ecology and provision of environmental and habitat areas.

Can these not insubstantial contributions be sustained in leaner times? Yes. Many of these contributions are low or zero cost approaches resulting from a particular
mind-set. Others are achievable through good design, site orientation and low technology design principles. Optimum conditions for productivity and well-being can be largely achieved though design rather than mechanical solutions and technology - through focus on, for instance, natural daylight, air quality, control of solar gain
and temperature, and heating and cooling. 

Economies demand that we have to cut somewhere. Let’s retain exacting standards - whether slimmed-down BREEAM or another tool - which promote sustainable practices and do without the highly complex and expensive technology and building management systems which are included mainly to gain BREEAM points but add little overall value. We need to revert to simple, good design, manual controls and high build quality.

Ken Gillespie is group managing director of construction at Galliford Try