Tackling the Problem at Source

Article on Responsible Sourcing for UK-GBC supplement ‘Building for the Future’, published in The Times, 6 September, 2010

Contracts a-changing: £7M iCon building in Daventry is the first completed using new sustainability guidance introduced by the Joint Contracts Tribunal (JCT).

As well as being complicit in acts contributing to global warming and water poverty, plus exploitation and waste of natural resources, could you also be guilty of environmental discrimination and exporting pollution, plus human rights abuses including benefiting from child labour? Are you personally and professionally responsible?

Failure to ensure responsible sourcing of products, goods, services and materials for specification and procurement on the part of a decision maker in the construction industry could leave that person answerable on all counts. Some wrongdoings are more likely to result in accusations of engendering economic greed, environmental harm and anti-social behaviour, than actual charges on legal, ethical or moral grounds, but all are effectively crimes against sustainability. All are bad for business. Most are, however, commonplace. So, what is Construction doing to clean up its act?

Well, to manage it, first you have to measure it. Sadly, this is not as straightforward as it sounds, even for resource use and efficiency.

London 2012 set out to be “the most sustainable Games ever”, with targets and objectives that are unprecedented for major construction projects, driving forward innovation. Do the Games showcase the industry’s thorough understanding of its resource impacts? Unfortunately they do not, as Shaun McCarthy, Chair of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, frankly explains: “The discovery that 67 per cent of the 3.4Mt carbon footprint for the Games is embodied in construction was a shock and a revelation. I was also surprised to see that the Aquatic Centre has three times the embodied energy of the Velodrome. The construction industry does not know how to manage embodied impacts and the UK sustainable construction strategy is silent on the subject.”

In response to the industry’s obvious frustrations with traditional evaluation tools, a new methodology called Carbon Profiling has been developed by Sturgis Associates, combining both operational and embodied carbon emissions. On Ropemaker Place, a recent case-study project in London, profiling showed that over half of the building’s CO2e impacts are attributable to embodied carbon.

So, does quantifying embodied energy and embedded carbon hold the key to unlocking the secrets of energy-responsible construction? No, it does not, according to Dr Miles Watkins, Director of Sustainable Construction, at Aggregate Industries Europe, who argues for an altogether more joined-up assessment: “Embedded carbon in isolation is not really that helpful. Performance of materials in use has to be taken into account. It is simply not sustainable to build a building with the lowest embedded carbon possible and then have to add crazy levels of renewable bling to make it work properly.”

Standards and Labels

Whilst the industry grapples with assessment methods and  measures for energy and carbon, other formal standards and sector-wide initiatives abound.

Construction contracts themselves are changing: The £7M iCon building in Daventry is the first project completed using the sustainability guidance newly introduced by the Joint Contracts Tribunal (JCT). British Standards are also multiplying: In addition to the existing BS 8902 for Responsible Sourcing, this autumn will see the launch of a brand new standard for Sustainable Procurement, BS 8903.

On the materials front, representative bodies are addressing issues of responsible sourcing. The concrete sector, as well as working to ambitious 2012 waste targets, has warmly embraced the requirements of the BRE standard BES 6001 for Responsible Sourcing of Construction Products. The Steel Construction Sustainability Charter, as advocated by the British Constructional Steelwork Association (BCSA), operates to objectives of economic viability, social progress and environmental responsibility. Plus, for timber, long-touted as the only truly carbon-neutral (or better) building material, advanced certification systems have been developed, involving chain-of-custody standards, plus product labelling, lead by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). These have helped distinguish the sustainable from the merely legal, with the prospect of further EU legislation on due diligence set to raise the bar still higher.

In addition, mainstreaming of natural and renewable building materials, featuring use of such as hemp, straw and lime to provide low-impact construction methods, is rapidly expanding the range and application of responsible solutions.

Ethics and Social Responsibility

Less responsible sourcing of products and materials from parts of the world where emissions targets may be more lenient (creating so-called ‘carbon leakage’), pollution more poorly policed and resource depletion more tolerated, often causes harm and creates risk indirectly, as a seemingly faceless crime. Sourcing that carries a direct cost to human life and wellbeing is different.

Ethical supply chain management is not, however, easy. In 2007, hard landscaping company Marshalls was the first in its sector to become a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), but says initially, the company had met with a lot of resistance and cynicism about the serious issues facing the stone industry in India. Group Marketing Director, Chris Harrop says: “So many disputed the fact that child labour was still in existence. It was only by being in India we saw it for ourselves, and decided to do something about it.”

Responsibility as Opportunity

Whilst details may be complex and sometimes conflicting, the business case for responsible sourcing is nevertheless clear. Or, at least it is to clients, as Diane Booth, Head of Environmental Policy at Network Rail, explains: “Once baselines and the cost/benefit are well understood, it is relatively easy to design specifications and contractual incentives to drive improvement. However, gaining detailed understanding of the opportunity can only be done in conjunction with contractors and suppliers, some of whom seem reluctant to engage. They are not seeing this as a differentiating factor, when clients do.”

In short, for Construction, the future is lean, green and responsible, as Paul Toyne, Head of Sustainability at Bovis Lend Lease, concludes: “The age of austerity could become the age of sustainability as both are about efficient resource use, which if we get it right allows the industry to offer affordable solutions, here in the UK and abroad. Companies need to position themselves ready for the upturn in the market.”