Construction industry accused of systematic green failings

The construction industry is failing to embrace greener technologies, with cost continuing to dominate design decisions and incidents of "greenwashing" becoming more widespread.

That is the view of a panel of industry experts speaking at a roundtable event in London earlier today, who argued that while construction firms were taking environmental issues more seriously, few had fully integrated sustainability principles into their projects.

"When you are looking at a building that is going over budget, it is still the sustainable elements of the project that tend to get knocked on the head first, " observed Richard Weller of construction firm Kier Southern.

Cal Bailey, marketing and sustainability manager for NG Bailey, agreed that cost considerations continued to dominate many construction projects, often at the expense of more efficient designs and technologies that could help curb energy use and carbon emissions.

He added that the problem was exacerbated by the managerial structure of many firms, which resulted in a disconnect between those departments managing new construction projects, and those running the sites once they have been built.

"Our clients don't always talk about the full lifecycle costs of the building and that is because different departments are responsible for the building at different stages," he observed, adding that retailers offered a prime example of this disconnection. Consequently, firms will often struggle to justify investment in more expensive insulation or renewable energy systems, despite the fact that the department that manages the finished building wants to keep running costs lower and would welcome such energy saving features.

"This separation of project ownership is fundamental and very difficult to overcome," Bailey argued. "As a result the construction industry is focused on cost and is not going to principally focus on going green unless the client explicitly demands it."

The panel agreed that where building firms were adopting green technologies they tended to come in the form of highly visible wind turbines or other one off features, with integrated approaches to keeping running costs down much rarer. "There is a lot of greenwash out there," said Rajesh Sinha, technical services director at NG Bailey IT subsidiary Bailey Teswaine. "A lot of people say "buy this super efficient product", but there is a lot less focus on developing a building wide approach."

However, John Miles, chairman of the global consulting division at engineering firm Arup, insisted that there were signs that investment in greener buildings was growing, primarily as a result of the government's new energy performance certificates. "We've worked on several buildings where developers are asking for the property to qualify for an A-rating under the government's new certification scheme," he said. "There is an expectation that A rated buildings will attract higher rent, while conversely C rated buildings could become a liability and will struggle to attract tenants."

Earlier this month, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment similarly claimed that many flagship construction projects are failing to prioritise environmental sustainability. The government watchdog assessed around 350 projects and found that only a handful adhered to the highest green building standards. It also accused many projects of deploying renewable energy systems as a sop to environmental concerns, while ignoring the extent to which improved design and material choices could have a much greater impact on environmental performance.

Speaking at the time, John Alker of the Green Building Council, insisted that the building industry was "heading in the right direction".

"CABE has made some valid criticism of projects that take a box-ticking approach to installing technologies such as micro-wind turbines and do not embrace more holistic sustainability principles," he said. "But if you look at the number of sites gaining the highest level of BREEAM certification, there are more and more buildings where you can see that sustainability principles are making headway."

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