So sustainability isn’t really packing a punch within the building services sector. But are we really surprised?

Heads bobbed up and down fervently as contractors and key industry figures rushed to take up the microphone, and a solitary architect received a chorus of boos for his troubles as he entered the debate.

Why aren’t sustainable buildings happening? was the provocative title of the M&E Event seminar – and it seems the answer isn’t quite as clear-cut as you may imagine.

“Faced with soaring energy costs and local governments driving renewables, the UK should be awash with sustainable buildings. But it’s not,” said HVCA chief executive Robert Higgs, opening the event as chair. “The market is sticking to its usual approach. So what is the problem?”

Bob Shelley, managing director of Oxford-based Sharp & Howse, came forward with one good reason why green buildings are not happening.

“One way we secure work is by competitive tender. If a project is over-budget, all sustainable measures go out of the window.”

Shelley stressed that contractors are not always culpable when it comes to a lack of interest in sustainable measures – it is often down to the client.

“We go into detail about different systems, but in our hearts we know they’ll go for the gas-fired boiler,” he said.

By their very natures, are contractors concerned about putting their heads above the parapet before others?

Robert Higgs

The ‘payback period’ way of thinking that is often applied to green buildings also came under fire.

“Why do we keep coming back to this?” asked Shelley with force. “We should be looking into what this is going to do for us.

“If you buy a new car, you don’t work out how long it is going to be before payback.”

Mike Malina of M&E Sustainability admitted that, when he discussed sustainable technologies offering a two to three-year payback with the finance director of one FTSE 250 company, the response had been none too encouraging.

“The director said, ‘That sounds good, but I live in the real world. My firm would need a return on investment in six months,’” said Malina.

“Whereas to me, a payback of three to five years is a good return on investment.”

A representative from the Ministry of Defence admitted that, during the tender process, it comes down to cost. “We take the cheapest quote. Sustainability is very low on the agenda during assessment.

Most regulations are enforced by energy performance officers who aren’t that well informed

David Frise

“We’re spending taxpayers’ money, and value for money is our mantra. We need more tangible evidence that fitting sustainable products is value for money.”

So if finance directors aren’t driving forward the green agenda, who will?

There is, of course, legislation to consider. But David Frise, general manager of Bailey Energy Services and former chairman of M&E Sustainability, thinks that the issue of Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) and Display Energy Certificates (DECs) is being swept under the carpet.

“At the moment, lots of evidence says they are not being enforced,” he said. “And on top of that, most regulations are enforced by energy performance officers who aren’t that well informed.”

During the debate, there were repeated calls for stakeholders, architects, contractors and clients to start working together.

Many said the involvement of the m&e industry early on in the planning stage was vital.

Kevin Talbot, head of the HVCA’s ductwork group and managing director of Cranworth Engineering, said: “The client knows what he wants to pay, architects make the decisions and at the bottom of the chain we’re not getting the opportunity to put our thoughts across early.

Contractors have to invest in training both technically and practically. Make sure there are no cowboys out there

John Miller

“There’s no money left by the time you get to the fine art of installing ductwork.”

Higgs focused strongly on the responsibility of the contractor. “Are contractors, by their very natures, concerned about putting their heads above the parapet before others?” he asked.

John Miller, managing director of Shouksmiths and a past-president of the HVCA, stressed that contracting is “the risk business” for SMEs, but he said he still viewed training in technologies such as renewables as important.

“Contractors have to invest in training both technically and practically. Make sure there are no cowboys out there. There’s plenty of technical training, but not enough practical,” said Miller.

Martin Burton, director of Sladden Commercial and HVCA vice-president, put forward the government’s eco-friendly Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative as an example of smaller contractors not being able to get involved.

“The problem is that we’re looking at massive contractors for the new schools and ignoring SMEs. Everything’s being done in big packages, with major contractors picking up four to five schools. We’re losing the expertise of our provincial contractors,” said Burton.

A warning was sounded about the ‘chicken and egg’ situation, where firms are letting apprentices go due to the economic crisis, which will result in a lack of fresh skills entering the industry, a concern that will prove harmful in the long run.

The problem is, we’re looking at massive contractors
for the new schools and ignoring the SMEs

Martin Burton

With certification, many said that it can be difficult to keep up with the technology changes and daunting to be faced with EPCs, DECs and other assessments.

The concept of ‘green wash’ was also considered. Are we getting bogged down and confused by the sheer amount of ostentatious, although perhaps not so very efficient, ‘green’ solutions that are being introduced at the moment?

Bob Blake, operations manager for SummitSkills, pointed out that greater levels of skills need to be driven forward by the sector through better training courses, both at entry level and for those who need to keep up to date.

“Competence may be a key word within this sector, but we still need to make sure we have the relevant skills for the technologies. We need higher skills levels – HNC-type courses and degrees.”

It is enlightening to witness training, integration, government responsibility and pseudo green solutions all wrestle their way to the forefront, but the key issue is clear from the start.

Why should m&e contractors put their necks on the line in a time of economic downturn, to invest in training in renewables when clients don’t seem to be backing eco projects in sufficient numbers? Fuel for the latest biomass boilers may grow on trees, but unfortunately money doesn’t.