Our sustainability targets are well within our reach. The only problem is working out which technologies will give us a leg up, and which will send us sliding back to square one
You can always tell you’ve found something worth saying when people get annoyed with you for saying it.
A month or two ago, I wrote an article for Building pointing out how far the UK lags behind Germany in terms of sustainable roofing. One indignant reader wrote in to complain that I was banging a drum for green roofs when they weren’t always the best solution.
As it happens, I think he’s half right.
Green roofs aren’t the best solution in every case (although they often are, as long as they’re intelligently planned). They’re just one of a number of solutions architects and builders ought to be considering when trying to make their building as efficient and sustainable as possible.
The inescapable fact - and the point of my article - is that the UK needs to get better at sustainable, low carbon building practices. Our government has signed up to some big commitments on reducing our carbon footprint and they expect the UK construction industry to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to delivering them.
We’re 10 years behind where we should be and we’ve got until 2020 to fix it (2016 for the residential market). The clock is ticking - and arguing about whether a green roof is the best solution is completely missing the point.
Green roofs are not an environmental silver bullet But they are an important part of an overall approach to sustainability that most of us now recognise as the only way forward
The real point is that technology is only half the battle with sustainable construction. The other half is about attitude and logistics. If your primary motivation is to tick an “environmental” box with the client or the planning authority, then the chances are that the actual benefit will be small.
In the last month, I’ve been to three different conferences on sustainability (which, in itself, is an indication of how quickly the industry is rushing to embrace this new reality).
At each conference, I found a lot of people offering products and services that were designed to cash in on the sustainability bandwagon: dull, derivative, half thought-through and, frankly, unlikely to make much difference to a building’s carbon footprint.
But I also found a reassuring number of businesses starting to develop genuinely creative solutions that will make a difference - seed mixes specially selected to create “cool spots” in urban buildings, pre-insulated modular construction systems, integrated solar panels that now make more than a token contribution to energy generation.
The point is that it’s important not to be distracted by one particular technology. Green roofs are not some kind of environmental silver bullet: they won’t fix our carbon footprint on their own. But they are an important part of an overall approach to sustainability that most of us now recognise as the only pragmatic way forward.
It’s a longer term view: invest a bit more up-front and reap the benefits over the lifetime of a more efficient building.
You have to do your research, though.
Not every green roof is as green as it should be. Not every solar panel will pay its way before you start hitting maintenance bills. And not every “green” supplier will care about how much carbon gets created in manufacturing, shipping and installing the products they’re selling you to reduce your carbon footprint. Caveat emptor.
The good news is that the government’s targets for 2016 and 2020 are entirely achievable. We have the technical know-how. We have the ingenuity. And increasingly, it seems, we have the will.
The only trick (if you’re remotely serious about sustainable construction) is knowing how to tell the good stuff from the snake-oil.
Luke Wessely is a director of the Eden Roof Company