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The great green build?

Atkins | 10 Dec 2007 | Comments

There has been a gradual move towards a more environmentally aware approach to building for years, but wholesale commitment from the industry has yet to emerge. Will there ever be a paradigm shift in the way we build?

Richard Smith, Technical Director, Atkins in Dubai:

A green building is, to some extent, a relative thing in time. For example, look at Building Environmental Assessment Methods (BEAMs) – BREEAM, LEED, Greenstar, Hong Kong BEAM – which assess the design of a building by apportioning points and adding them up to give a rating. The judgement criteria used change frequently, as BEAMs strive to remain ahead of the background legislation. If you achieve a reasonable score, the BEAM will categorise the building from, say, “pass” to “excellent” or “bronze” to “platinum”. This is a measure of how green the project is and, in the case of the higher grades, can be as much as a decade ahead of local legislative requirements.

Here in Dubai, however, we don’t have BEAMs that are specific to a desert climate. As a consequence, Atkins has worked with the Green Building Council and many other consultants to produce LEED – Emirates, which is in pilot now.

There are other issues in Dubai, of course, such as the materials used. We’re in a disadvantaged situation, in that almost everything is imported, with some of it coming from questionable sources in terms of sustainability – we are addressing this but with hundreds of thousands of product sources, this is a complex issue.

This is a particular problem for sustainability assessments. These recommend that materials should be manufactured locally, but there is not much product manufacturing in the Middle East. There’s more manufacturing of basic materials coming in – steel production is developing as an industry, we have huge aluminium smelters here and we have glass and glass coating suppliers, and all the concrete is made in country. It’s improving, but this can make it difficult when trying to achieve accreditation on a building. Nonetheless, I think the shift to sustainability will happen faster in Dubai than in Europe. For example, some master developers are establishing policies whereby all their thousands of buildings have to achieve a specific BEAM standard.

We are rapidly moving to a situation where decisions to provide sustainable solutions are not being made on the grounds of investment alone, they’re being made for social, ecological and environmental reasons today as well. This is helping us develop solutions that are the right solutions and not compromised solutions. That’s great for our industry and will attract better people in future. It’s allowing us to do a lot of research and investigation that we would not normally be able to do, because people are willing to pay for it now.

As technical director with Atkins in Dubai, Richard Smith has worked across a number of iconic builds, including the Barr Al Jissah, Burj Dubai – Lake Hotel, Coral Island and The DIFC Lighthouse.

Phil Jones, Head of the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University:

In recent years, there’s been a universal approach to design. Buildings tended to look the same wherever they were, so they didn’t necessarily respond to the climate in a positive way or to the culture or have a regional aesthetic. Today, we’re starting to design sustainable, or “green” buildings.

These take into account energy efficiency and material use, the health and comfort of the user, the efficient use of resources, and also think about integrating renewable energy into the individual design or the larger development. This has been largely down to growing awareness about climate change, security of fuel supply, highly populated cities and associated health concerns, such as SARS. People, organisations and government are becoming increasingly aware and are starting to do something about it. As a consequence, I think we’ll see a growing, bottom-up demand for green buildings by individuals and organisations as well as a tightening of regulations and planning guidance from the various levels of government.

If the trend continues, it could reach a tipping point where green buildings are in demand and those that are not are perceived as an investment risk or a liability. Companies with many properties know that, at some point in the future, they will be rated and inspected. The value of their properties will, therefore, be affected by their green credentials.

For the construction industry, there are many business opportunities associated with these changes. In future, the environment is likely to be a major economic driver – although at the moment, this isn’t costed appropriately, either in building design or operation. We need to move to an economy that is based more on the environment and in which development is decoupled from environmental harm.

People are now looking for a step-change, but that’s going to be difficult in the construction industry. The government is setting targets for zero carbon for new houses in England by 2016 – in Wales, the deadline is 2011 for all new buildings. I think we have to think about how building will change, but it will be difficult to get there in one big step. It will more likely be a stepped process and we will have to learn quickly from experience.

Having said that, it cannot be a long-term process because we simply don’t have the time. We need to mitigate against further environmental harm, and increasingly we have to adapt to the harm already created. The challenge is how we get to this greener future quickly, because the construction industry is traditionally slow to change. Really green buildings should be the norm – we shouldn’t have to call them green. They should be green by the very fact that they are designed correctly.

Ultimately, we need less talk and more action. We’ll never know how to make the changes necessary until we start to try. Then it will become clearer what a truly holistic green building really is.

Professor Phil Jones worked with Atkins and the British University in Dubai (BUiD) to develop a Master’s degree course in the Built Environment, within the university’s Institute of the Built Environment (IoBE). The Institute provides professional expertise on sustainable design issues.

Dr Gisela Loehlein, Formerly principal sustainable research fellow, Institute of the Built Environment, The British University in Dubai (BUiD):

Ideally, there would be an underlying focus in the industry on making buildings more sustainable – at the moment it is more like a trend, which may later be replaced with something else, such as a focus on designing buildings that are more flexible.

Sustainability depends on the local climate and environment. These, as well as the social context, are very different in the Middle East – employing Western ideology may do more harm than good when used there.

If it’s supported enough, the approach taken here in Dubai – a philosophy that takes into account interaction with nature – could have a very positive impact in the West. It could help to avoid buildings or projects being locked into a “sustainability framework”. The danger is that much of this regional approach will be lost. By looking only for the latest designs, etc, we may not realise that what is there already is much better and more appropriate.

Ultimately, change will be driven by economics, which is a much more efficient driver than legislation and propaganda. With regulations, people feel overwhelmed with the extra planning and costs in the name of sustainability. There needs to be an advantage in it for businesses.

The future is full of great opportunities for sustainability and a lot could be learned from the Middle East, Asia and Africa about new options for a sustainable approach. It takes time – both to develop the solutions scientifically, but also to understand the way that people live and why things need to be more adaptable. There is a real threat in the Middle East that their approach to the issue will be swamped by Western ideas, which don’t necessarily consider things in context and think about what they might destroy in the process. We should keep our eyes open, never assume we know the best way to do something and allow ourselves to see alternative ways of doing things.

Dr Gisela Loehlein is the former principal sustainable research fellow at the Institute of the Built Environment at BUiD, the chair of which is sponsored by Atkins.

Sean Lockie, Sustainability consultant and regional director, Faithful+Gould:

How close is the construction industry to a consensus on “green” building issues? In the UK, at least, the industry has moved on a long way in the last decade, in terms of “green” building issues. Recent radical changes in regulation and legislation have created an environment in which sustainability must now be considered seriously, very early on in projects.

One of the triggers includes a ramping up of targets in all sectors. In the domestic sector for example, all homes built after 2016 will have to be zero carbon. Other examples include a commitment in 2007 to a low carbon schools programme (60 per cent improvement) and planners have also been given powers to require on-site renewables in new developments. As a consequence, it’s easier to discuss things like carbon footprints, waste generation and avoidance, water consumption, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in healthy buildings, air conditioning versus natural ventilation and so on, on any project. If the regulations weren’t there as a big stick, I don’t think we’d be reacting as quickly in the UK and there would still be a fair degree of “greenwash”. It’s fair to say that the planned incremental regulatory changes that the UK has set itself to 2016 and beyond will make it one of the most advanced “sustainability” economies.

Voluntary options – such as accreditation schemes and grants – suit larger consultancies and developers, but many buildings are delivered by smaller companies, by the time the larger organisations sub out the various contracts. Regulations create a level playing field.

Of course, accreditation schemes have been really important in moving the whole green building discussion along. For example, if you read the fine print in any Government project in the UK, it will require “Very Good” BREEAM accreditation on any proposed building design or construction. Without that kind of backing, I’m not sure we’d have the same level of take up in this country.

As a consequence of these developments in regulation and legislation, as well as growing demand for accreditation schemes among customers, the industry is a lot closer to a consensus on the question of sustainability than it has ever been.

Why is this important for the industry worldwide? In terms of materials, the building sector is one of the biggest consumers. In terms of carbon, it’s one of the biggest producers with 50 per cent of UK’s greenhouse gas emissions coming from buildings. In terms of intervention, it’s cheaper to look for carbon savings in the construction sector than some other sectors such as transport. It has significant responsibility in this area. For that reason, it’s one that’s being focused on. In some ways, this could also be one of the easiest industries to change. The technology is already there, awareness is growing about sustainability and there are plenty of exemplars that are being built already, so the transformation should be pretty straightforward. at the industry needs to do better is prioritise effort in the right areas at the right time in the development cycle.

Sean Lockie heads up Faithful+Gould’s sustainability offering in London, leading on a number of commissions across the areas of whole life costing, lifecycle costing, facilities management and sustainability.

Michelle Moore, Vice-president, Policy & Public Affairs, US Green Building Council:

Every year, buildings are responsible for 39 per cent of US CO2 emissions and 70 per cent of US electricity consumption. They use 15 trillion gallons of water and consume 40 per cent of raw materials globally. Buildings are more than one-third of the challenge, and green buildings are the solution. Green buildings use an average of 36 per cent less energy than a conventional building with a corresponding reduction in CO2 emissions. And they make sense both for the environment and the bottom line.

More and more owners and developers in the US are turning to the LEED® Green Building Rating System™, which gives the marketplace a common definition for “green” and a roadmap for how to achieve it. Studies show that the first-cost increase for LEED buildings is, on average, only about 1.5 per cent more than conventional construction – and that investment is paid back in full within the first year, based on energy savings alone.

Launched in 2000 by the US Green Building Council, about 1.1 billion square feet of commercial projects were registered or certified under LEED at the beginning of 2007. As of August 2007, there were two billion square feet. You can very reasonably argue that green building is going mainstream in the US marketplace. This move is being helped by the leadership that’s coming from our mayors – Chicago’s Mayor Daley and New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg, Seattle’s Mayor Nickels and Mayor Wynn in Austin, just to name a few. Many of them have been inspired by London’s Mayor Ken Livingstone and Deputy Mayor Nicky Gavron, who have set a high bar.

And green building isn’t just confined to commercial construction. We have just launched a LEED for Homes programme in response to tremendous residential demand. Homebuilders in the US are saying that green is the way the market is going, according to 80 plus per cent of those surveyed. USGBC’s vision is that, within a generation, “green” will be the way everybody builds. And if you look at construction trends, it seems to be happening across the board.

Programmes under Michelle Moore’s stewardship include USGBC’s climate change commitments such as its membership in the Clinton Climate Initiative, the National Green Schools Campaign and the launch of USGBC’s green homes initiative.

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