Sustainable construction—UK-GBC launches better building performance project

The UK Green Building Council (UK-GBC) recently announced its new research project to reappraise how the industry designs, constructs and operates non-domestic buildings. This post examines the context of this announcement, the group’s aims, and why this is welcomed by the sustainable construction movement.

Context

This project arises from the UK-GBC Steps to 2019 Task Group set up in April 2015 to explore measures for ensuring that the zero carbon policy for new non-domestic buildings would be deliverable by 2019. When the Chancellor scrapped the zero carbon new homes policy in his productivity plan last summer, it was widely construed by the industry to mean that zero carbon non-domestic buildings policies had also been abandoned.

However, with developments last month such as the launch of the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction at COP21, and the draft BREEAM International New Construction 2016 technical standard (which broadens its scope and makes a variety of changes to its International Refurbishment and Fit-out assessments) being opened for consultation, the UK-GBC Steps to 2019 Task Group’s change of  focus, to how building performance can aid carbon reduction targets, is timely. A report of the task group’s findings is anticipated in April 2016.

Delivering building performance: the objectives

The project’s focus will be on maximising building performance by:

  • Collaborating with UK-GBC members to investigate what is already being done to mitigate poor building performance
  • Seeking out best practice, and
  • Identifying gaps in and barriers to the efforts to achieve ‘greener’ buildings that need to be overcome throughout the industry.

Building performance will not be measured solely in energy terms but also in other aspects of performance that can impact both the building user and the wider environment.

The ‘performance gap’

In its launch statement, the UK-GBC said there is an increasing body of evidence that shows buildings ‘all too often’ fail to live up to building performance predictions, known in the industry as the "performance gap". Consequently, many commercial properties are thought to be using more energy and water than intended or promised.

The building performance research project is aimed at closing this ‘performance gap’ and bringing fully efficient, well performing buildings another step closer to reality.

The rise of Sustainable Construction

‘Sustainable Construction’ has become an increasingly significant industry movement in recent years, reflecting how clients, contractors and designers have become more environmentally aware and concerned with carbon impact. In 2008, the government and industry unveiled its joint Strategy for Sustainable Construction which included the following key elements:

  • Consideration of conserving and enhancing biodiversity within and around construction sites throughout all stages of a development
  • Reducing carbon emissions from construction processes and associated transport
  • Reducing water usage during the construction process
  • Conducting biodiversity surveys and taking necessary follow-up actions
  • Reducing construction, demolition and excavation waste sent to landfill
  • Ensuring that products used in the construction process are responsibly sourced
Other key policies were:

Government Construction Strategy (2011):

This contained the ‘implementation of existing and emerging Government policy in relation to sustainability and carbon’ as one of its objectives but was primarily focused on procurement, efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

Low Carbon Construction Action Plan (2011):

This set key government and industry action plans and recommendations to facilitate the transition to low carbon construction.

Construction 2025 partnership (2013):

This built on the key themes of the 2011 Construction Strategy, and contained a commitment to a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the built environment by 2025 as one of its four measurable long term goals.

Falling behind

It should also be borne in mind that the Climate Change Act 2008 commits the UK to reducing its emissions by at least 80% in 2050 from 1990 levels. This is incorporated into the Green Construction Board’s (GCB) Low Carbon Routemap for the Built Environment which set out actions to deliver and measure meeting this target in the built environment. Unfortunately, the GCB’s Progress Report released last year (which shows the progress up to 2012 based on available data), showed an 11% reduction in emissions in 2012 versus the 1990 baseline compared to a 17% reduction achieved by the sector in 2009. While this was attributed to increased gas use for heating, the findings overall indicate an increase in built environment emitted carbon and more worryingly, the report predicts that this gap will widen further. Sectoral action is vital to get emissions back on track to the 50% reduction by 2025 goal.

Comments

Sustainable construction has not been paid much attention under the current government agenda, with headline priorities being building new homes and major infrastructure projects. The UK-GBC’s new research project is therefore highly welcome for the sustainable construction movement, particularly in the shadow of the Green Deal scheme’s demise. It acknowledges the important role the industry has to play in finding solutions to cutting carbon emissions and the importance of whole-life thinking in sustainable construction. Improvements in energy efficiency and consumption are sorely needed to overcome the building performance gap, and it is praiseworthy that the project is ambitious in going beyond energy performance.

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