Sustainable construction is not to be dismissed as "flavour of the month". It is the shape of things to come and, particularly in relation to energy consumption, is set to have a major impact on procurement practices.
This summer the DETR will be publishing the government's strategy for sustainable construction. This will comprise the consultation document Opportunities for Change, published last year, together with comments received and input from discussions between the industry and the DETR.

Sustainable construction is about making the most efficient use of non-renewable resources, and reducing the adverse impact on the environment from construction activity.

The property firm Jones Lang Wootton carries out annual surveys of office service charges. Not surprisingly, energy costs are the largest components. For air-conditioned buildings, energy accounts for 21% of the service charge. In fact, security, heating and air-conditioning represent more than 50% of the service charge for an office. Opportunities for Change revealed that energy use in buildings accounted for between 40% and 50% of the UK's emissions of carbon dioxide.

A review is taking place of Part L of the Building Regulations dealing with the conservation of fuel and power. The existing requirements apply to new buildings and certain types of alteration work, but they do not apply to refurbishment, and repair and maintenance. More than half the industry's output now comprises this work, rather than new-build. There is a likelihood that Part L will be extended to embrace large-scale repair and refurbishment work. Furthermore, the regulations might also be extended to include the performance of, for example, air-conditioning and ventilation systems.

There is also the prospect of planning authorities being required to insist that sustainability is addressed as part of planning applications. In fact, there is anecdotal evidence that some planning authorities have "jumped the gun" and are already requiring information on likely energy use.

Sustainable construction is very much the shape of things to come. This was recognised by Sir John Egan in Rethinking Construction.

"Too many buildings perform poorly in terms of flexibility of use, operating and maintenance costs, and sustainability. In our view, there has to be a significant re-balancing of the typical project so that all these issues are given much more prominence in the design and planning stage before anything happens on site." For "re-balancing", read "re-drawing the procurement map". Sustainability – particularly in relation to energy consumption – will become a major factor in the promulgation of procurement and contractual strategy over the next few years. Some of the pivotal players in this process will be specialist contractors, manufacturers and suppliers. Their involvement will be critical in providing clients with the range of options (in terms of systems and components) that will best address sustainability requirements.

No longer can clients afford to ignore the contribution that major specialist contractors and manufacturers can make as part of the team that will advise them on how best these matters can be addressed.

  • Sustainable construction will break down the industry’s traditional patterns of procurement
  • Clients will need to be more active in selecting their specialist contractors

These are issues for consultants, too, which will need to work closely with specialists and manufacturers. Some specialist engineering contracting companies are already working closely with manufacturers to develop new products and components that will enhance energy efficiency, in addition to promoting standardisation, thus reducing waste.

The pressures for sustainable construction are likely to result in the final breaking down of the traditional patterns of procurement. More and more, clients are engaging the services of specialist contractors directly. Latest figures indicate that 57% of work – by value – is carried out by M&E contractors under direct contracts with clients.

Clients, therefore, are having to give more active consideration to the procurement of specialist works rather than simply picking the main contractor and leaving him to select his domestic subcontractors. Procurement considerations will have to take over from purely contractual considerations.

There are many options, including:

  • direct employment of the specialist, side-by-side with the lead contractor
  • direct employment of the specialist contractor as part of a joint venture
  • direct employment of specialist trade contractors in construction management arrangements
  • the appointment of specialist contractors as main contractors.
Sustainability issues will also help to promote selection processes that have regard to both quality and price factors, rather than being based on price alone.

Clearly, tenders will have to be evaluated with regard to the degree to which they address sustainability; the bid may not constitute the lowest price but, in the longer term, it could be the most cost-effective and provide for the optimum use of scarce resources.

As luck would have it, the Construction Industry Board is now considering in some depth the implications for procurement. A working group under the chairmanship of Chris Vickers has been discussing guidance on the selection of specialist contractors by clients. The hope and expectation is that this will be available as a CIB code of procedure in the not-too-distant future. Such guidance is now sorely needed.