Germany’s technical and political approach to sustainable construction is much more advanced than the UK’s. So why don’t we steal a few ideas from them

World Cup 2010 had a depressingly familiar feel for England fans: scraping through the group stages and then getting walloped by the Germans.

In fact, coming second to the Germans has become something of a national pastime.

Whereas English fans hark back to a solitary triumph in 1966, Germany has won the World Cup three times and been runners-up another four. While our car industry has sputtered into obscurity (or foreign ownership), theirs boasts several of the world’s most successful and prestigious marques.

So it’s no great surprise that, while we are still getting to grips with the idea of sustainable construction, the Germans have been world leaders at it for a quarter of a century. This is not because they’re all tree-huggers (although it hasn’t hurt that there has been a strong environmental lobby in Germany for decades), but because they take it seriously. And because they figured out some time ago that there’s money in it.

Take roofing. Seven per cent of all new roof construction in Germany is green - that’s 14 million m2, which is more than three times the UK figure and growing at about 15% a year.

Most major German cities have planning policies that require buildings over a certain size to include a green roof element (a trend that has been picked up in other European countries and now seems to be finding its way across the Channel).

As the rest of us struggle to catch up, it’s German technology and expertise that is leading the way, at a healthy profit. Zinco, the German maker of green roof products, turned over more than €1.4bn (£1.2bn) last year.

None of this has happened by accident.

As with most things, the Germans have a disciplined approach to construction. I worked there for a while in my thirties, when I already had what, in this country, would count as considerable experience.

But I still had to put in long months before I qualified as a dachdeckermeister (master roofer) and was allowed to manage a business in Germany. That’s how you guarantee quality.

They’ve applied the same rigorous discipline to sustainable construction. There’s no greenwashing, no humbug. If a project doesn’t deliver real, measurable benefits, there’s a direct financial penalty for the building owner: they have to pay a “utility surcharge” – effectively a tax on unsustainable building practices - and this can be reduced by as much as 80% if the owner opts for a green roof.

It’s the kind of discipline and focus that allows you to lead world markets and win World Cups. The good news is that there’s no reason why we can’t learn from it and apply it ourselves. In fact, it’s difficult to see how we have any choice.

The UK is more than 10 years behind Germany in terms of sustainable roofing – and we’ve got less than 10 years to catch up. The government has made some big commitments on carbon emissions and politicians are looking to the construction industry to help them make those commitments real.

So, over the next 10 years, we can expect the UK market for sustainable roofing to grow by more than 15% a year. We can also expect to see more stringent financial incentives and penalties to encourage people to make the right choices.

Already, we are beginning to see requirements for new buildings over a certain size in this country to incorporate a green roof element.

As the Germans have proved, there’s opportunity in this, but only if we approach it in the same, disciplined way. In other words: take it seriously, don’t just go for the superficial solution and make sure the numbers add up. If we start to get that right, then maybe we can start to take on the Germans at their own game.

In the meantime, there’s always Spain.

Luke Wessely is managing director of the Eden Roof Company