From the darkness of recession and a world polluted by buildings and manufacturing, CM has a vision of a green utopia. Elaine Knutt embarks on a voyage of discovery to find out if it can become reality.
Once upon a time, the leaders of 192 nations met in copenhagen to discuss the financial, technical and moral burden of slashing worldwide carbon emissions. There were shipping emissions, aviation emissions, manufacturing emissions and building-related emissions, a huge, dark carbon-filled cloud blotting out china and smaller ones hanging over Brazil and India. Because these developing economies needed room to grow, it fell on the Western nations to cut CO2 harder, faster and with more impact on their populations. meanwhile, a big, bad recession lurked in the background.
But one industry anticipated the challenge and came up with solutions. in an era of limited resources, it showed that, pound for pound, it was highly efficient at turning investment into carbon cuts. it changed its traditional outlook to take a lifetime view of new buildings, returning to monitor and modify projects post-completion. So public funding streams – linked to tough eco-standards – began to flow. Low-carbon public sector frameworks rewarded the best contractors, and challenged the rest.
Partially state-owned banks followed suit, linking property deals to carbon targets. Eco-homes became status symbols, jobs and growth were created, and everyone lived happily ever after.
A fairytale? Sadly, at the moment, it is. But with roughly 45% of emissions linked to the built environment, population growth in the coming decades possibly driving an expansion in demand and public sector spending constraints likely to be a feature of the next decade, construction needs to make the fairy story a reality.
“The building sector not only has the largest potential for significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but this potential is relatively independent of the cost per tonne of CO2 equivalent [saved],” says a pre-Copenhagen report from the UN Environment Programme, adding that energy savings of 30-50% can be achieved without increasing costs.
“We have the evidence, the technology and the know-how, and the investment is cheap compared to pumping money into the power infrastructure or carbon storage,” echoes Paul toyne, head of sustainability at Bovis Lend Lease.
But as in all the best fairytales, there’s a forbidding forest of obstacles. The targets that should drive change are split between legislative and voluntary, and neither is consistently enforced nor monitored. in the recession, clients that could be setting the agenda are instead focused on procuring at the lowest price.
Low-carbon design is best achieved through collaboration, not the current system of competitive tendering and value engineering.
And as technology improves, the gap between new and built stock will widen further with no contractual or financial mechanism to close it. in short, there’s too many disconnections and too many gaps for good ideas to fall through.
“We can’t reach zero carbon using the current procurement processes,” asserts George Martin, head of sustainability at Willmott Dixon. “We need construction contracts to be aligned with [hitting targets set under] planning permission, with developers obligations, supply chain obligations, and enforcement at every step,” agrees Bovis’s Toyne.
So what would a carbon-busting construction sector fit for the coming decade actually look like? On the eve of the Copenhagen summit, and with new policies for 2010 bringing the low carbon economy ever nearer, leading-edge contractors and consultants are looking at what needs to change before the industry can ride to the rescue of national – and international – CO2 policy.
Companies would first need to set their own house in order, shrinking carbon emissions from their own operations, sites and transport fleets. the overall target – as set by the government’s committee on climate change – is a 15% cut in construction-related emissions by 2020. On site waste, the target of “halving waste to landfill by 2012” is enshrined in the Strategic Forum’s construction commitments.
BAM Construct is well on its way: carbon intensivity – emissions expressed against turnover – fell 7% between 2007 and 2008. But as BAM’s climate change manager Jesse Putzel points out, there is no common reporting standard.
Constructing Excellence has KPis for energy used and vehicle emissions in the construction phase, but there is no overall methodology to calculate total emissions on and offsite, or normalising them against turnover, staff or size of premises.
“Most companies are not currently measuring and reporting in the same way,” says Putzel. “it’s never possible to compare one company to another accurately, but a common approach will help to level the playing field and make it easier to identify reduction measures.”
The next challenge is that low-carbon contractors would have to win new work at a sustainable price. but in the current climate, contractors and designers often find that clients’ commitment to the green agenda doesn’t last beyond the tender stage. Terry Keech of building surveyor Calford Seaden regularly advises housing associations and other social housing clients. “On a recent scheme, the bidder’s language was ‘what’s the cheapest way of looking green?’ not ‘what’s the best way of achieving long-term aims?’ We can talk about best practice in our professional institutions, but day to day we’re working with employers who want the most cost-effective solution.”
One answer would be the wider adoption of whole-life costing, which encourages clients to look beyond upfront capital costs to take a long-term view of energy emissions, and embedding this in the procurement process. in a recent position paper on the low-carbon economy, Willmott dixon chief executive John Frankiewicz calls on public and private sector clients to adopt a PFi-style approach by merging budgets for capital and operational expenditure.
To help with the haziness of calculations – for instance how exactly do you accurately factor in future energy prices and product lifespans? – the RICS will next year publish new Rules of Measurement for whole-life costing.
As for carbon emissions from the buildings themselves, the revised Part L 2010, due to come into force in April, sets the bar at a challenging 25% improvement on a notional 2006 building. The new version also promotes the use of a mix of energy supplies and renewables, and supporting users to operate the building efficiently. it also seeks to close the gap that can open up between designs and the as-built building.
But while 25% sounds like a tough target, it would be far tougher if building regulations were enforced via mandatory post-completion testing at regular intervals. “Why aren’t buildings judged like cars?” asks Bovis’s Paul Toyne. “We should give buildings mots every two years. Having a polluting car on the road isn’t acceptable, so why is it acceptable to have a polluting building?”
Peter Caplehorn, technical director of architect Scott Brownrigg, adds another suggestion: “Contracts could state that contractors have to return at one, five and ten years post-completion, and implement new technologies to tune performance as they become available.”
The price of corporate inaction
However, from next year, new policies will start to incentivise clients and project teams to think holistically about building projects, from design to handover to lifetime operations. From next April, the carbon reduction commitment will penalise the large public and private sector property owners that fail to make year-on-year emissions cuts from their buildings. Covering local authorities, NHS health trusts, government estates, property companies and even the largest contractors, the measure will start to place a high price on corporate inaction.
“It’s likely to trigger building improvement programmes, especially by large property owners that can’t pass energy costs onto tenants,” says davis Langdon partner Simon Rawlinson. “As clients ask ‘where do i spend to get the maximum benefit’, we’ll build up expertise in low-carbon refurbishment.” He points to the example of the recently-completed Queen Elizabeth Court in Winchester by architect Bennetts Associates and contractor BAM, a refurbishment of a 1960s building that cut energy consumption by 70%. “It’s a good example of spend to save,” he says.
April will also bring the introduction of feed-in tariffs (FITs), which could re-write the economic case for photovoltaic panels, wind-turbines, and combined heat and power (CHP) systems. Fits will require utility companies to pay a competitive price for electricity fed into the national supply from renewables, raising the possibility of buildings becoming energy centres. Similar policies in Germany and Spain have been highly effective, with owner-occupiers taking out mini-mortgages to spread the capital cost of the kit, farmers planting fields with solar arrays, and school playing fields hosting wind-turbines.
In converting the renewable energy into a secure income stream for building owners, Fits will help ensure that technology such as PV and cHP make it from the design stage to the built project. “In the first year of Fits, the clients will be the sort of people who would have considered PV or wind turbines anyway but just needed an extra push. Then the market will grow and we’ll see manufacturers respond with cheaper products and more products suited to the UK market,” says Simon Roberts, an associate director in Arup’s future-gazing Foresight group.
However, Fits still leave a contractual disconnect between the client that pays for the CHP plant or PV kit, the contractor that installs it and tenants that benefit financially. Without better alignment of interests – perhaps under PFi-style long-term FM contracts – the full potential of the policy will not be realised. but to truly be prepared as the low-carbon industry of the future, the industry will have to get to grips with the complexities of carbon accounting. As energy emissions are reined back, the carbon embodied in the foundations, frame and fit-out of every project will become a larger proportion of the overall footprint. the totals can be considerable. Davis Langdon has calculated that embodied carbon typically represents 15-20 years of operational energy, while re-using an existing building instead of new build typically “takes back” 10 years of operational carbon.
At the moment, there is no legislative lever tackling embodied carbon, but Davis Langdon partner Simon Rawlinson anticipates one soon. “If you look at the way carbon has to be reduced across the board, I can’t imagine there won’t be a mechanism that starts to discourage heavy manufacture,” he says.
Some clients are already looking at “carbon budgets” – the total carbon footprint of a project’s products and materials, plus transport, construction and waste emissions – to evalute the business case for projects. take that thinking a step further, and you arrive at a fixed carbon budget for a building, adding a fourth dimension to the holy trinity of cost, time and quality. contractors and clients might have to work to a whole-life carbon budget, spending more to create thermal mass up front to reap the beneﬁts of lower emissions later.
“We’ve calculated that 600kg of carbon per square metre is good practice. In future, contractors might have to provide data on whether they’ve complied with the embodied carbon plan,” predicts Sean Lockie, director of Atkins’ cost management subsidiary Faithful & Gould. But before all this can happen, the industry needs a common carbon metric.
Instead, it has a ﬂurry of initiatives: Faithful & Gould is working with a team at Cardiff University to produce “carbon factors” for different product types; Davis Langdon won a 2009 CIOB Innovation Award for its Carbon Caluclator; the BRE is looking at a Europe-wide system and the Carbon Trust has already introduced a standard based on assigning products a value of one to 100.
Stuart Barlow, technical director at architect 3DReid, believes that a common system needs to be handed down from the top. “The EU Energy Performance in Buildings directive led to Energy Performance Certiﬁcates and Display Energy Certiﬁcates. Maybe something similar needs to be done to establish benchmarks,” he says.
There are two possible endings to this story. In one version, the industry pre-empts the challenges, re-engineers itself as a low-carbon industry and starts to take responsibility for buildings over the long term. “There are some bright people in the industry that are ready to challenge the status quo. There is tremendous optimisim that the industry has the technology, motivation and talent to pull it off,” says Bovis’s Paul Toyne.
But in the other ending, the industry passes the buck to clients that hadn’t got the message. There is no committed leadership that helped it rally around the carbon cause. A vast but fragmented industry suffers from inertia, with targets and technologies taking so long to become embedded that the distance between common practice and zero carbon narrows too slowly. And as for consequences… well, let’s just say that we really don’t want to go there.
Experts nominate low-carbon products for 2010
1 Parans lighting
Nominated by: John O’Brien, principal consultant, BRE
The Parans light is an innovation from Sweden. Solar collectors – mounted on the roof, facade or at ground level – channel sunlight into the building via fibre optic cables. Each panel can illuminate up to four internal luminaires, that can be switched on and off with conventional light switches.
2 ICAX Interseasonal Heat Transfer
Nominated by: Peter Caplehorn, Scott Brownrigg
Technology developed by ICAX is now being marketed by asphalt company Rock. Tubes embedded in roofs or school playgrounds act as solar collectors in summer, with the heat stored in boreholes or buried arrays. A ground source heat pump transfers the stored energy for heating or cooling.
3 SolarWall Transpired Solar Collector
Nominated by: Peter Caplehorn, Scott Brownrigg
Profiled metal cladding or over-cladding, with holes drawing air into the cavity between the solar collector surface and the original elevation. Warm air rises to the top of the cavity and vented into the building. Suitable for any new build or retrofit with a space heating requirement.
4 Heritage solar slates
Nominated by: John O’Brien, principal consultant, BRE
Blending in with the rest of the roof these slates provide “invisible” solar roof panels that preserve the aesthetic integrity of the building. The product is still being tested, but kits that can produce 600W to 3kW are expected to be commercially available in 2010.
5 Nordic Solar
Nominated by: Stuart Barlow, 3D Reid
From Finland, this is a new technology that combines the heat collection of a flat-plate solar thermal system with Luvata’s range of copper cladding panels, profiles and cassettes. The patination process has been developed to maximise the amount of solar energy the facade can capture.
6 Owl energy monitor
Nominated by: Terry Keech, Calford Seaden
This device works by clipping onto the household electricity supply cable, transmitting data – expressed in kilowatts, CO2 emissions or pounds and pence – to a portable wireless monitor. It can calculate average usage per week and per month, and there’s a socket to download the data to a laptop.
7 GeoFlow ground source heat pump
Nominated by: Stuart Barlow, 3D Reid
The gas-fired heat pump combines low running costs with low-carbon operation. Several units can be installed together in a “cascade” configuration. The GeoFlo package includes the heat pump, pump station for the ground loop and optional 500-litre buffer tank.
8 Sumatec unfired clay bricks
Nominated by : Peter Walker, Bath University
Produced from a combination of brick and clay, these bricks offer high thermal mass for internal walls and an alternative to concrete blocks. A new mortar, developed in partnership with Bath University, has enabled the blocks to be laid on edge by providing improved bond strength.