Having lost patience with government initiatives on sustainability for commercial buildings, the British Property Federation is stepping in with its own code

I make no apology for covering in this, my first guest column for Building, a subject on which much ink has already been spilt but where I hope I may be able to offer a slightly different perspective. That subject is environmental sustainability – or, to put it another way, how we can ensure that the built environment is doing its bit to reduce the impact of climate change and save the planet.

The construction industry and its professional advisers, from architects to building engineers, have, for a number of years, been promoting ways in which we can construct green buildings with low energy and water consumption, and sensible waste management strategies.

The truth is, however, the construction industry can only build what its clients ask for, and if those clients, which are quite often my commercial property company members or the investors behind them, are not prepared to demand – and, if necessary, pay for – more environmentally sustainable buildings, then the most enlightened builders in the world are not going to be able to a make a difference.

There is another aspect to this conundrum. New build accounts for only a small percentage of the commercial property environment. Although there is no excuse, from a technical point of view, for constructing anything other than a high-performing building, the same cannot be said for the existing building stock, much of which is old and perhaps not easily adapted to a sustainable footprint. And that building stock just happens to be mostly owned by the same commercial property companies I have referred to.

So what this seems to be telling us is that the one group of people who absolutely must be at the heart of the sustainable buildings debate are the commercial property owners and investors. Of course there are a number of them who are already doing good things but I believe we need a greater degree of industry coherence to ensure that we are all working towards the same goals.

The one group of people who absolutely must be at the heart of the sustainable buildings debate are the commercial property owners and investors

We had hoped that the government’s Code for Sustainable Buildings might provide that rallying point but two years on we seem to be no nearer to even a consultation draft of something that might be applied to commercial buildings. Nor, indeed, do we have any clear idea as to how the certification element of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, which could have provided another beacon for the industry, will be applied, other than that it will probably be focused primarily on an asset rating approach that does not, of course, provide any measure of actual energy consumption.

In the face of all this, we in the British Property Federation have decided we need to seize the initiative and produce our own industry “code” to act as a focus for our members and help cut through the clutter and confusion. We have put together a taskforce of leading companies and institutions that are all committed to environmental sustainability and that will help establish a benchmark for best practice. Our starting point will be the output from a project that is already well under way, thanks to funding from the Carbon Trust, aimed at measuring and then reducing energy consumption – and so carbon emissions – in existing buildings. We then hope to build on that to develop a wider code that will incorporate other aspects of sustainability and their application from cradle to grave.

This is not going to be easy since just establishing how much energy a building uses, especially when it has numerous tenants and a multitude of different uses, is a major challenge. We are also very conscious that this is a crowded landscape and there is already a plethora of organisations – somewhere between 200 and 300 – who are reckoned to be promoting sustainability and offering guidance, toolkits, frameworks and so on. With this in mind, we are keen not to create yet more confusion and hope to be able to develop our code by working with the best of these organisations and adopting policies and techniques that are already proven and working.

The prize, however, is an industry that might, for once, be able to set aside its largely undeserved reputation of excessive profits and fat cattery and instead be held up as a shining exemplar of responsible corporate behaviour. And we might just help save the planet as well.