Government bodies. Initiatives. Events. Programmes. The industry is crammed with ways of discussing sustainable construction – but a recent report is claiming that hardly anybody is actually doing it. A little more action, please, says Thomas Lane.
Everybody is talking sustainability at the moment. There are countless conferences, and corporate presentations on the subject, and it is hard not to talk to people in the industry without the topic cropping up and being discussed in earnest terms.

But now a hard-hitting report prepared for construction research body CRISP says that's all the industry is doing – talking. Called A Review of Recent Work on Sustainability in Construction, it says: "The reality on the ground appears to fall far short of what might be reasonably expected of sustainability in construction today, and the image the industry likes to project. A few high-profile developments and corporate sustainability initiatives mask almost universal inaction elsewhere – in building at least."

The report slated the very people who should be helping the industry produce more sustainable buildings: the researchers. It said the government's researchers were working in areas that did not correspond with policy. Furthermore, their research ignored infrastructure projects, components and materials, refurbishment projects and repair and maintenance. The report says: "Research and innovation has had almost no effect we could detect."

A major barrier to more sustainable construction is, of course, the market. The author of the report, research consultancy David Bartholomew Associates, interviewed clients, architects, housebuilders and contractors. "What little is happening is driven overwhelmingly by business concerns," they conclude. "Market realities … are preventing designers, developers and contractors who would like to produce more sustainable buildings from doing so."

Stuart McLarty, director at architect Aukett Europe, agrees; he perceives the industry as cost-conscious and risk-averse. "In the commercial world, sustainability is not at the top of the agenda," he says. "People don't take it seriously; they focus on cost, delivery and the impact on the specification. The industry is very conservative, and hasn't got the appetite to go outside normal specification in terms of materials and procurement. Construction is a risky business and it's all about minimising this – so people go for tried-and-tested methods and materials."

The CRISP report says that the PFI has been a missed opportunity to improve sustainability. Because contractors are constructing the building and then running it for 30 years, there should be more of an incentive to make it last longer, and use less energy. However, Aukett Europe is now getting involved with healthcare PFI, and this attitude is not always adopted, in McLarty's experience. "People are looking at whole-life costs, but you can't help feeling that the most important thing is lowest cost," he says. "The equation is, you want to spend the least to get the most back, so you limit your initial capital cost."

McLarty's view is backed up by Mike Clift, who works at BRE's Centre for Whole Life Performance. Clift thinks the problem is that large contractors have different divisions responsible for a PFI building, such as the contracting side and the facilities management division, and they don't necessarily see the building as a whole. "When we are asked to review cost models for PFI contracts, there is this split between capital items and everyday maintenance. There seems to be no mathematical link between the two – the funding seems to be compartmentalised."

Any moves towards a more sustainable construction industry are mainly driven by legislation. The CRISP report says the main drivers are building regulations, health and safety laws and the landfill tax. It also claims that government-funded research and innovation has virtually no effect on sustainability take-up and suggests a fundamental refocusing of research.

Researchers are not addressing the industry's business interests. The report berates research bodies for only concentrating on projects that benefit them directly : "They design proposals to suit their expertise and to serve the aims of a research and innovation strategy only insofar as they have to in order to win contracts."

The report found that the bodies set up to promote better construction practice aren't helping to communicate these lessons. One expert consultant said, "Movement for Innovation and Construction Best Practice Programme publications are seen as marketing messages lacking the practical detail the industry needs." And the industry is crying out for this sort of information. Peter Braithwaite, a director of Arup, says, "People are nervous about using recycled materials. We need research that provides independent information on the issues involved in using recycled materials." He cites an example of a land remediation technique used in France, Germany and the US for the past 20 years. Because the UK industry is so conservative, nobody will use the method here – so Arup is doing a research project to independently verify that the technique does work and, hopefully, convince the industry.

McLarty thinks research should focus on PFI and PPP projects. "If the government is going to take the lead, this is the place to start, as you've got the private and public coming together," he says. "There are some great projects out there, but they are outside the norm. How can we move the game on and move these into the mainstream, rather than tinkering around at the edges?"

The Crisp report recommends research to help improve sustainability take-up by the industry; research that offers practical steps rather than just lengthy reports that nobody reads. It also says barriers need to be recognised to be overcome. An example of this would be making the business case for sustainability when it is not obvious.

Things may not be as bad as the report suggests. McLarty says that despite the industry's hesitance, there is a push towards more sustainable construction. "People aren't as cynical about it now," he says. "Five years ago it wasn't even in the ballpark." Braithewaite thinks the drive towards off-site manufacture is a move in the right direction as it cuts down on waste and improves quality. And the BRE's Clift reckons PFI bidders are getting more practiced at whole-life costing. But if the report makes one thing clear, it's that the industry has a long way to go.

We second that: The British Council of Offices report

The British Council of Offices drew similar conclusions to the CRISP report from a study it commissioned last October. Sustainability Starts in the Boardroom reported on interviews with 40 developers, investors and architectural practices. Among its conclusions were: “More than half of respondents felt that, without demonstrable commercial benefits, the office sector would continue to view sustainable development as a low priority.” The issue is compounded by what report author Sarah Reavley, of independent research company Remark, calls the “circle of blame”. She says: “What we found was a lot of finger-pointing in the other direction. Architects say their clients aren’t asking them for sustainable buildings. Developers say the investors aren’t funding it and tenants aren’t asking for sustainable buildings as energy costs form such a small part of their businesses.” The BCO also thinks a lack of accessible information is a barrier to more sustainable construction. “Nobody has a blueprint for what they are doing,” explains researcher Reavley. “Where do we go for information? It just doesn’t exist.” She also says respondents to the BCO survey complained that carrot-and-stick methods to improve sustainability are not working. For instance, grants for solar panels take so long to get that by the time the money comes through the building is finished.