Next week, Sir Martin Laing will launch a Construction Confederation report that aims to break the “vicious circle of blame” that is hampering sustainable building.
“Are you a believer?” asks Sir Martin Laing. The Laing Group chairman and Construction Confederation president is talking about sustainability, the issue that has exercised him and the 12-strong Sustainable Construction Focus Group since last April.

It is the same question Sir Martin has asked dozens of investors, developers, occupiers and contractors. The Construction Confederation-sponsored group’s findings are set out in a new report, Building a Better Quality of Life: A Strategy for More Sustainable Construction, to be published during National Construction Week on 4 April, and which is previewed exclusively by Building. The report contains nothing revolutionary, but sets out practical ways to meet the challenges in the DETR’s sustainable construction strategy, which will also be published next Tuesday.

When the group was set up to pre-empt state regulation on sustainability, Sir Martin was an obvious candidate to lead it. He has championed environmental causes for the past 10 years, through his work for bodies such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Business in the Environment and the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

Sir Martin himself takes a holistic view of sustainability, starting with population control. “That’s why we’ve only got two children, a boy and a girl,” he jokes. But his point is serious. He believes that everyone, including all the parties involved in the development process, should take personal responsibility for using less of the world’s resources. “Our industry can do an awful lot to stop environmental degradation, and the beginning of a new millennium is the perfect opportunity to start doing it,” he says.

This month, the government pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 21.5% below 1990 levels by 2010, 9% more than the 12.5% target set at the 1997 Kyoto Summit. With buildings responsible for 50% of the UK’s CO2 emissions, the pressure to reduce the energy used in them has never been greater. Sir Martin’s report says a large part of this responsibility lies with the government – after all, it is the client for 40% of all construction projects. The focus group has therefore challenged the DETR to produce sustainable procurement guidelines that would be adopted by all government departments.

However, Sir Martin emphasises that reducing embodied and operational energy is just the first step to building sustainably. “What we are trying to do with this whole exercise is to make sustainability – social, environmental and economic – fundamental to the brief for all those involved in the development process from day one. With ‘Are we going to be able to sell it? Are we going to make it efficiently?’ we should ask, ‘What is going to happen to it during its life-cycle? Is it well-located for transport links? Will it improve the productivity of the people working in the building? How are we going to dispose of it?’”

The report identifies a “vicious circle of blame” that has hampered the take-up of sustainable construction. Says Sir Martin: “Occupiers say there aren’t enough green buildings to choose from. Contractors say developers don’t ask for them. Developers say investors won’t pay for them and investors say there’s no demand for them. We’ve got to stop passing the buck and prove we are capable of joined-up thinking.”

The report puts forward a demand-led strategy for breaking out of this circle. If investors, developers and occupiers are presented with a cast-iron business case showing that building sustainably will increase the value of their assets, then they will ask the construction industry to build them.

Investors and developers cling to the belief that higher up-front costs offset the benefits of lower operating costs, and that raising environmental and social standards hits profitability. “We have to work hard to sell the message that it is sound business sense,” he says. “Life-cycle costings are the way to do it. The problem is that there isn’t an awful lot of data about life-cycle costings – including factors like the cost of getting people to and from a building, the jobs it creates.”

The focus group is about to tackle the absence of data by appointing a consultant to carry out a major research project into whole-life costs. If all goes according to plan, the group hopes to complete the first stage of the business case by the end of June.

We are trying to make sustainability fundamental to the brief for all those involved in the development process, from day one

Investors’ complaints that there is insufficient demand from occupiers should be tackled by making it easier for them to shop for green buildings, says the report. The group has commissioned the Construction Industry Research and Information Association to produce a new indicator of buildings’ running costs, comparable to a car’s miles per gallon, to be made widely available to homebuyers and commercial occupiers. “In the future, more and more occupiers are going to be asking, what is the running cost of this building?” says Sir Martin.

Once investors and occupiers start demanding sustainable buildings, the supply chain will respond, says the report. At the moment, contractors have to go out of their way to find prefabricated bathrooms, air-conditioning systems and window frames that help to save energy, but soon suppliers will step up production to meet demand, which in turn will stimulate further demand. “It’s like lead-free petrol. Oil companies would not produce it because there was no demand. Now you can hardly get any other kind.”

The final piece of the jigsaw is a set of universal sustainability indicators that will help clients who want to buy green buildings to be more discerning. The report proposes a marketing campaign for these indicators, which will be developed by CIRIA, and which will measure operational energy, embodied energy, site transport, waste production, water consumption and biodiversity.

The report also proposes that the industry use these indicators to draw up a voluntary code of practice for sustainability auditing.

One major advantage of such a code is that it would dissuade the government from reaching for the big stick. As Sir Martin says, “The industry does not want another landfill tax.”

And once green design and construction techniques are practised more widely, the report argues, the performance of green buildings will improve. “A lot of buildings that have set out to be green maybe haven’t achieved their full potential, but that’s only because they were relatively new,” says Sir Martin. “The more of these buildings that happen, the more people will learn. The lessons from one will be translated to the next and the next will improve. It’s like the first time you build a new car model. By the time the next batch comes out four months later, the manufacturer has seen ways to improve the performance.”

He has strong words for those who shirk such up-front investment in process innovation. “The housing market is booming – you can’t lose at the moment. Green bits might add £800 to the cost of a house, but just by a bit of ingenuity you can find ways to save £200-300. It can’t be hard to convince an occupier that if he is spending £5 a month on electricity instead of £10, he will be better off.”

To ensure that the entire industry gets the message, the focus group, working with the Construction Industry Council, the Construction Industry Training Board and the professional bodies, proposes to draw up a joint education strategy by the end of 2000. The group will also hold regional seminars to disseminate its findings during the autumn.

The sustainable strategy at a glance

The focus group report lists several practical measures that can be taken to achieve sustainable construction:
  • Re-use and improve the performance of existing buildings
  • Locate new build in appropriate locations
  • Design for minimum waste
  • Aim for lean construction
  • Minimise non-renewable energy in construction
  • Use renewable energy sources
  • Preserve and enhance biodiversity
  • Conserve water resources
  • Respect people – improve training and health and safety conditions, and promote equal opportunities
  • Set targets, including occupant productivity
  • Design for life – build in flexibility of use
  • Relate land-use planning to transport infrastructure