Sustainability practices have come a long way in the past few years, which means you have to do more than ever to impress our awards judges. Katie Puckett finds out what separates the best from the rest

The good news for the judges at Building’s fourth Sustainability Awards is that there are many impressive entries. The bad news is that, with sustainability becoming an integral part of doing business, it is becoming ever more difficult to single out those individuals and companies that are really taking the lead.

“It’s much harder to distinguish between those who are pushing the boundaries, because everybody is raising their game,” says awards judge Sarah Ratcliffe, European director at Jones Lang LaSalle and the leader of its sustainability business unit. “Three or four years ago, a lot of this would have been best practice or innovation, but now it’s quite difficult to distinguish between people as they’re all building to such high standards.”

When the winners are announced at the Hilton on Park Lane on 18 November, it will be the culmination of much head-scratching, agonising and polite but passionate debate. But while it may have been difficult to select individual companies and, particularly, projects for special recognition (the winners are, of course, a closely guarded secret) there’s a wider question of which of the professions is making the greatest strides towards sustainability.

Different professions, different ability

The awards have categories for housebuilders, contractors, architects, engineers, consultants and clients, as well as an innovation category for manufacturers – each with very different roles and consequently differing abilities to lead the process.

Ratcliffe’s answer to the dilemma of picking winners was to look for evidence of delivery, rather than declarations of intent. “We were looking at the extent to which those who’d submitted a particular building had evidence of its performance. That was a dealbreaker. You can get it all in place on paper, but how is it actually delivering a better performing building?”

The ability to demonstrate performance is easier for some professions than others. For example, architects’ best intentions may fall by the wayside under the pressures of cost and practicality, so it’s perhaps not surprising that their most demonstrable innovations were in their own offices, by saving energy, reducing waste and reviewing transport policies. Architects have traditionally been keen to embrace innovative or unconventional ways of working, and of course, the rack of folding bikes by the door is an essential for any self-respecting practice these days.

At the other end of the scale, the contractors and suppliers are the ones faced with mountains of waste, fleets of trucks and an extremely power-hungry job. It’s this group that judge and environmental engineer Guy Battle felt had made the greatest progress since last year in curbing its impact on the environment. “It always takes a while for the supply chain – contractors and manufacturers – to respond to the market, and I think they are beginning to come through. That’s the group I think needs applauding. Consultants can design what they like, but if suppliers aren’t providing the product, there’s nothing we can do.”

Carbon footprints

The scale of the challenge is perhaps best demonstrated by the firms that tried to measure their carbon footprints. The most common scale was tonnes of CO2 per employee per year. For Crest Nicholson, the result was 4.3 tonnes, for contractor Carillion it was 2.4 tonnes. Architect PRP on the other hand used just 0.8 tonnes and Ramboll Whitbybird, 0.2 tonnes. Of course, it’s still far from an exact science and entirely reliant on what firms choose to include. Battle suggests that a bolder but much more difficult measure might be to ask consultants to measure the firm’s overall footprint.

Though consultants’ power to effect change may be less direct than contractors, it does extend more widely. This is demonstrated by the way some firms have promoted sustainability with their clients and the wider world. Some of the greatest innovations have been in measuring environmental impacts and devising carbon calculators to make it easier to consider sustainability right at the start of a project.

Money talks

But the most power undoubtedly lies in the hands of the money men – the clients, developers and occupiers who pay the piper and get to call the tune. Here, says Trevor Butler, head of sustainability at architect Building Design Partnership and an awards judge, there is the greatest cause for optimism. “Clients have come a long way in the past year. There’s a sea change, with developers asking what sustainability is, what it looks like, how we implement it, how we cost it.”

This change has, of course, been partly driven by regulations. The housebuilders felt it first, with the Code for Sustainable Homes, but commercial buildings are now coming under the same scrutiny with the EU’s Energy Performance Certificates. But Butler doesn’t think it’s only down to government sticks and carrots.

“Legislation has done a little bit, but it’s not the main driver, it’s more about tenants getting hold of the idea and wanting developers to implement it. Some major banks and finance organisations are saying they only want to occupy greener buildings.”

Fortunately, as the Sustainability Awards will show when the winners are announced, there’s a growing body of expertise in the industry that can make that happen.

We’ve made progress

Isabel McAllister, director of sustainability at Cyril Sweett, was one of the judges of this year’s awards. Here’s her take on this year’s entries:

The last year has seen significant advances in how the property and construction sector views sustainability. Having previously been considered by many as an unnecessary and annoying hoop to jump through, much of the industry is now embracing sustainability and benefiting from adopting an active approach.

Sustainable technologies, materials and design principles have now been sufficiently tried and tested that perceived risks have been allayed and financial or other benefits are quantifiable. Contractors in particular are reaping the benefits by differentiating themselves from their competitors and securing more work from clients that want sustainabile buildings. Contractors now do not only focus on their construction activities and materials sourcing, but are also increasingly adopting comprehensive training programmes for their workforces.

Until recently, the sustainability field was dominated by engineers, with much emphasis being placed on the adoption of emerging low-carbon and low-water technologies. However, there is now a more even spread among architects, consultants and engineers. The role of “sustainability champion” is becoming more prevalent, an independent role which can challenge the team, and even the client.

Given market conditions, the housebuilder is most challenged at present to deliver sustainable products. However, after an initial period of learning and cost premiums, it is hoped that sustainability will continue to become ever more integral to UK housebuilding.

Here’s an idea …

Little gems from the vast pile of entries:

On Carillion’s RAF Valley project in Anglesey, the team enlisted schoolchildren to help plant marram grass to secure some reinstated sand dunes, made from sand excavated for the building’s foundations. It also introduced reviews for the top 50 business mileage users to discuss with their line manager how this could be reduced.

Skanska has been using real-time dust monitoring on two sites in London adjacent to hospitals. There is a live feed to the client with text message alerts when thresholds are exceeded.

The members of Wates’ Junior Board – a group of 20-30 year olds selected by senior managers for management training – conducted a survey into more than 200 of their colleagues’ attitudes towards waste reduction. Now there is a site waste management toolkit available on CD, which includes legal and policy advice and best practice guidance.

Willmott Dixon devoted its staff conference to an exercise in the style of The Apprentice TV programme, dividing staff into teams to come up with ideas for improving the business through sustainability.

When Building Design Partnership’s environmental engineers were approached by five schools for advice on sustainability, they invited them to hold some workshops. The schools got a greater understanding of the issues and, by exchanging ideas with each other, a better design for their new buildings. Faithful + Gould has developed a free online carbon calculator which allows companies to evaluate the most sustainable option at the start of the construction process. It’s being used on every Building Schools for the Future project in the country.

WSP has launched a scheme to allow employees to measure and monitor their carbon footprints. By signing up, they agree to pay for any excess over their allowance of six tonnes in the first year. The rate is currently set at 5p per kg, paid out of their taxed income, which goes into a carbon fund to buy energy-saving appliances for staff.