In your designs, that is. An ecologically aware project can benefit both man and beast, says the UK-GBC’s biodiversity task group. Dave Wakelin explains how it works

We all enjoy being in and around nature, but do we really appreciate it or understand the value it brings? Biodiversity, ecology and green space are often overlooked. Studies that show ecosystem services contributing the equivalent of $20 trillion to the annual global economy are difficult to get into perspective. More meaningful is the sort of research that shows property values increase near green spaces, with houses close to parks averaging 8% higher prices.

How can we in the construction industry do our bit to help our local wildlife and begin to redress the negative impacts that construction has had on our ecosystems for decades? And, just as important for the bottom line, how can we benefit from what ecology gives back?

The UK Green Building Council Biodiversity Task Group, of which I was a member, was formed a year ago with representatives of consultants, developers, contractors, nature conservation bodies and professional ecologists. The aim was to understand why biodiversity is overlooked and suggest mechanisms to overcome the barriers, real and perceived, to the inclusion of ecological provisions in construction projects. We had three principal findings:

  • Construction professionals lacked a place where they could access information relevant to their disciplines without becoming bogged down in technical jargon. The task group therefore developed the UK-GBC biodiversity portal, which allows a wide range of resources to be searched by topic area and user type. The task group has also prepared sector-specific guidance for the industry, available through the portal.
  • The methodology for assessing biodiversity within the construction sustainability assessment tools, such as BREEAM and CEEQUAL, needs to be improved. The group has proposed changes that better assess the value of habitats created and give more credit to projects that aim for measurable enhancements. These should be piloted over the coming year.
  • There needs to be a standard mechanism for reporting biodiversity change. Without it, how can we make measurable progress? The Royal Town Planning Institute helped the task group to develop a simple form that works alongside the planning process and enables developers and councils quickly and easily to summarise the changes in ecological value their activities have brought about, allowing baseline data to be established and future changes to be monitored.

This isn’t just about the industry having less of a negative impact. It is about the industry having an actively positive impact. When well considered, construction can offer significant ecological benefits, which can also benefit the project in terms of asset value and lettability or wider social enhancement.

This isn’t just about the construction industry having less of a negative impact, it’s about having an actively positive impact

I have been involved in several school developments in southern England which offer examples of what can be achieved. Working closely with Gensler, we prepared designs that transformed large areas of ecologically barren, under-used football fields into a mixture of sports pitches, wildflower meadows, woodland and ponds. Features included areas of green roof and bat, bird and invertebrate boxes.

The benefits are not limited to ecology. The green roofs are expected to increase the longevity of the roof membrane. The soft landscape and ponds form part of the sustainable urban drainage system, helping to meet planning objectives. The dense, spiky boundary hedges provide security and a visual and acoustic screen for the school playing fields, while the varied habitats offer a relaxing space for pupils during breaks and an excellent outdoor classroom, particularly for biology lessons.

It is often difficult to imagine how we can enhance wildlife, particularly in urban areas. Yet plants and animals are very adaptive: peregrine falcons, once rarely seen in London, now nest in its centre. If we provide more opportunities for wildlife through good design and planning, our industry can start to redress past mistakes and make a real contribution to nature conservation and our own wellbeing.