UK Sustainable Skills Go Global

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


Success for AECOM: European Investment Bank HQ, Luxembourg, Winner of the International Prize: Project of the Year, at the sustain’ magazine Awards 2010. (Photo courtesy of Marc Wilwert.)

From Masdar in Abu Dhabi, through New Delhi in India, to Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou in China, the call of the East is strong for UK companies and practices providing sustainable solutions in property and the built environment. The West, however, is far from won, with fresh opportunities on the horizon.

At present, the outlook for China is mixed and evolving. UK eco-entrepreneurs and consultancy BioRegional has established BioRegional China as a Wholly Owned Foreign Enterprise. Weighing up the wider prospects, Pooran Desai, co-founder of BioRegional, offers a measured assessment: ‘China is hungry for ideas but on their own terms. There are opportunities to license and manufacture green technologies. Some engineering companies are doing well. Planning and sustainability consulting is much tougher. I suspect ultimately the companies that are successful in China may have some roots here but will be, in essence, Chinese.’
In general, according to the Construction Products Association, UK figures for both imports and exports of industry goods continue to hover around the 10 per cent mark, in spite of fluctuations in currency markets and volatile trading conditions. As regards project work for UK firms, whilst we are becoming accustomed to reading stories of activity in architecture and building coming out of Asia, by no means all journeys of export and expansion into international waters are headed East.
In the middle of the Atlantic, some 2,500 miles from the nearest port, the only architectural firm in the Top 60 of the Sunday Times Best Green Companies list, Purcell Miller Tritton has been developing the design for an Oberoi hotel, set to become a global exemplar of eco luxury. With a client brief to deliver the world’s greenest facility, the design intent is to ‘grow’ a hotel on the island of St Helena, using indigenous flax and lime for wall construction, plus a living roof.
Sailing still further West, routes into attractive North American markets are also opening up. In February this year, the Clean and Cool Mission – organised with assistance from the Technology Strategy Board and the support of UK Trade & Investment – took a shortlist of 19 UK businesses out to San Francisco. For one in particular, carbon-banking building-system specialist ModCell, the trip proved the catalyst for a move into California, resulting in them launching Stateside this month, as Director Craig White explains:
“It was revealing to see that European legislation on carbon reduction has driven a huge amount of innovation back home in the UK, whereas in America, most is only dated as recently as 2009, from the Obama administration. In many regards, Europe is up to 10 years ahead, although when America moves on this agenda it will do so very powerfully. Consequently, we saw a clear business opportunity.”
Whether looking East or West, it seems clear that UK companies are set fair for a shot at achieving future exporting success, in terms of knowledge, technology and even the building materials themselves that are driving sustainable development worldwide.

To view the full Supplement online, please click here.

Author: Jim McClelland

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.”

To view the full Supplement online, please click here.

Author: Jim McClelland

Portugal: The Harvest of the Cork

Nowhere on the planet is cork in more bountiful supply than Portugal, where the Alentejo Region is home to the largest proliferation of cork oak trees in the world. Ecologically, cork forests absorb carbon dioxide on a significant scale, assisting in reducing the impact of carbon emissions and other greenhouse gasses. Furthermore, the cultivation and management of these vast cork forests over hundreds of years has allowed a uniquely rich and varied eco-system to develop, preserving the habitats of a number of endangered species, some found only on the Iberian peninsular.

In combination, stewardship of the forests and harvesting of the cork serve both to maintain the cultural and farming traditions of the region and provide opportunities for local employment in rural communities – an all-round win-win for the agri-business sector in terms of both social and economic sustainability.

The harvesting of the Cork in Portugal: Hand-held axe, rare skill, brute force in searing heat – remarkable!

The actual harvesting of the cork really is something to see: Speed, strength and consummate skill combine on the part of the local labour employed to reveal the warm, honey-rich colour and natural beauty of the tree beneath the bark. The reveal is simply quite remarkable and completely renewable – each tree can be reharvested every 9 years.

The material is a thing of Nature, a product of ecology, geography and climate. The country crowned King of Cork is undoubtedly Portugal, with some 60 million trees and 54% of all global production. Accordingly, there is no wonder that a passionate life-long specialist such as Carlos Manuel, General Manager of leading cork producer Amorim Isolamentos, is as proud and protective of the provenance of his Portuguese cork, as a vintner of his vines. Which, as it happens, brings to mind another great use for cork . . .

Cork in construction

Picture this specification on the ‘Solutions Wanted’ list for a sustainable refurb scheme:-

• Insulation – must be based on a material with biodiversity benefits built in, plus zero ozone depletion / global warming potential, that is also 100 per cent natural, renewable and recyclable;

• In addition to strong environmental characteristics, it should boast positive attributes in terms of both social and economic sustainability.

Now at this point, a hardened eco-cynic might imagine that this is simply too much to ask of an insulation product or system – after all, material of that kind doesn’t exactly grow on trees. Wrong. Actually, it does. It does quite literally grow on trees, because the material in question is cork.

An organic, lightweight material with a cellular structure, cork is a natural insulator. No chemicals or additives are used in the manufacture of cork for use as an insulant and very low amounts of energy consumed by the manufacturing process. Thermally stable, fire resistant, durable and rot-proof, with relatively low embodied energy., good acoustic and airtightness properties, cork insulation is designated an A+ rating in the Green Guide to Specification, for maximum benefit in BREEAM and Code for Sustainable Homes assessments.

Footnote: Swistherm with Cork

Cork is ideally suited for use in External Wall Insulation (EWI) systems, with the typical components for such as the Alumasc Swistherm with Cork system being:-

1. Solid blockwork substrate;

2. ST1 Composite Mortar used as bedding adhesive;

3. High density Cork insulation slab;

4. ST1 Composite Mortar used as a reinforcing layer;

5. Glassfibre reinforcement mesh bedded into top third of ST1 Composite Mortar;

6. ST Render Primer to match silicone topcoat colour;

7. ST Silicone Render decorative finish in a range of colours and textures.

Swistherm with Cork can be used extensively on both new build and remodelling projects. Cork is also suitable for use with Alumasc’s Swisslab, Swisspan and Swisrail insulated render systems. For further information on Alumasc products and systems, please click here.

The Editor of sustain’, Jim McClelland, travelled to Portugal as a guest of Alumasc, whom sustain’ would very much like to thank for their warm hospitality.

All flight travel was carbon offset.

Author: Jim McClelland

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