Government, planners and even clients want construction to get greener. Barbour Index and Scott Brownrigg explain how to put sustainability at the heart of your planning application

1. Know your planning law

Sustainability statements explain how developments will meet the environmental requirements of local authority planners. A few years ago, they were a collection of platitudes but, thanks to recent changes in government planning policy, they have to be much more robust.

Two planning policy supplements in particular have pushed sustainability centre-stage for local authorities:

  • PPS1: Planning for sustainable development This states that councils should consider climate change issues when assessing designs for planning approval
  • PS22: Renewable energy This is more specific, saying councils may insist that a proportion of a development’s energy needs be derived from on-site renewable sources. To ensure that architects are addressing sustainability, planners are now insisting that architects submit sustainability statements with their planning applications.

The eagerly awaited Code for Sustainable Buildings, which will be unveiled in April 2006, is likely to result in more councils demanding sustainable measures in new developments. The code is expected to set minimum performance levels for energy and water use, waste reduction and procurement of sustainable materials. It will also probably set four levels of sustainable performance, with the highest being zero carbon emissions and the lowest being higher than the current lowest BREEAM equivalent standard.

On its introduction next April, the code will be confined to developments on publicly owned land. However, the government has already stated that councils should encourage take-up of the code by making it a condition of planning approval where possible.

2. Identify the issues

The issues that may have to be addressed in your sustainability statement include:

  • Reuse of land and buildings
  • Conservation of energy, materials, water and other resources
  • Inclusion of non-mechanical systems such as natural ventilation and sustainable drainage
  • Reduction in level of noise, pollution, and flooding
  • Security and comfort for all building users
  • Conservation and enhancement of the natural environment and attention to biodiversity
  • Sustainable waste management such as recycling.

3. Address your client’s requirements

Clients are becoming key in the drive towards more sustainable solutions and many now require that developments obtain an environmental rating based on BRE’s BREEAM or EcoHomes systems. Most clients will require an excellent or very good rating. Establish if this is required and to what standard at the outset of the project. Trying to apply such a standard once you’ve got started is complex and self-defeating.

Some affordable housing clients will be forced to improve their performance from January, when the Housing Corporation will require that homes built using its grants meet the very good EcoHomes standard, as opposed to the current good rating.

4. Identify target areas

Establish the areas of the project where sustainable measures can easily be adopted. Sustainability can be applied to almost every issue on a project depending on practicality and cost.

To assess whether other environmental measures are feasible, develop a system where all the issues are flagged up with the client and other consultants. Draw up options for each sustainability issue and identify the impact of each. The tools and checklists listed below can help.

Consider the lifetime of the materials and make sure you understand manufacturers’ data and can justify the choice. Consider what the building in use will require in terms of resources and in terms of the impact of cleaning and maintenance.

Be clear with the rest of the team. Keep everybody informed as the design progresses. Create a checklist to ensure that the design continues to move in the right direction.

5. Use the tools

Even if your client or project funder doesn’t insist on it, measuring your project against one of the published checklists or tools can help. As well as BREEAM and EcoHomes, you could use:

  • CEEQUAL Developed jointly by BRE and the Institution of Civil Engineers, this assesses the environmental quality of civil engineering projects.
  • SPeAR This is a graphical technique, developed by engineer Arup, for assessing a project’s sustainability.
  • Guide to Sustainability Appraisal Formulated by consultancy Entec, this tool is useful during the planning stages of a project.
  • Sustainability Works This Housing Corporation online tool assesses a scheme’s social and environmental impact. The corporation also offers guidance on EcoHomes and housing quality indicators.
  • CABE design quality indicators These allow a non-technical assessment to be undertaken for quality, impact and functionality and can be used for the building’s life.
  • SEEDA sustainability checklist This list from the South East England Development Agency identifies the measures that can be undertaken to enhance a project’s environmental credentials and its social and economic benefits.
  • Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations These set out the requirements for any environmental statement included with the planning application.
  • BRE’s Ecopoint system Ecopoints are a way of standardising the environmental impact of products or processes. They can be used in association with BREEAM and EcoHomes, but do not contribute directly to these systems.