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Will the built environment ever be truly sustainable?By: Carl Dodd

Even after 30 years, since the term "sustainable development" was used in the Brundtland Report, the word sustainable is still a sure way to divide opinion.

The key tenet of conventional economic development is to consume resources from our environment and promote this as a means to achieve a better life and enjoy freedom from poverty. However, the hard science is pretty compelling. We urgently need to adopt sustainable development principles. We need to mitigate the effects of climate change and adapt our society in the coming years to a low carbon way of life. However, human nature with its selfish vested interests, irrational points of view and a tendency to focus on day-to-day issues, means that change will not be easy.

So what does this mean for the UK Construction Industry? Can the built environment be truly sustainable and what are the key policies and trends to be aware of? Also, how can we promote a greener way of doing business?

The Office for National Statistics states that construction is 13 per cent of our GDP, whilst others have concluded that the green economy is around 8 per cent of GDP and rising. Evidently, one of the largest industry sectors has a lot to gain by understanding the sustainability game.

The government has claimed to be the greenest government ever with its flagship green policies for the built environment, including the Green Deal and The ECO (Energy Company Obligation), which it believes will rejuvenate the whole building industry, putting society on a low carbon path. While there has been concern that the larger players in the construction industry will dominate the Green Deal market, the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) has launched their Strategy for the Low Carbon Building and Refurbishment Market, which is aimed at encouraging and supporting smaller companies to engage with and participate in the energy-efficiency market.

Another initiative that should encourage infrastructure and clean tech projects by providing incentives and encouraging private investment joint ventures is the UK's new Green Investment Bank. The Bank, which launched in November last year, has £3bn of government money to invest in areas such as renewable energy, carbon capture and storage and energy efficiency measures.

However, it isn’t just government investment and legislation that will bring about a lasting sustainable legacy. Intellectual capital must replace unchecked use of resources. We need to recognise one of our greatest assets – research and development. At present the UK is creating more intellectual property per capita than other European countries in the green sector, and is a world leader in sustainable design and innovation. This could be the key to future sustainable design in the UK.

The green sector can only be effective in changing the world by having a knowledge-based approach for the whole value chain. Sustainable refurbishment should be entrenched in the continuing professional development (CPD) of building professionals, especially architects. In addition, the profile of building engineers, who specialise in building technology, urgently needs to be raised so that more young people will consider it as a career.

The commercial sector must engage in rethinking the future needs of the UK building stock. Legislation driving energy efficiency and carbon reductions in buildings ranging from factories to hospitals must only be regarded as a minimum requirement. UK buildings must be more intelligent, and react to the needs of future generations aided by the roll out of a national Smart Grid, which promises to harness accurate data and change behaviour by pricing differentiation and demand side rewards.

Property companies and public sector could learn a lot by taking a lesson from organisations such as Marks & Spencer who have set out their commitment to sustainability in their ‘Plan A’, resulting in more than £50m of profit back in to the business.

It seems that we must focus on making sustainability work and creating a sense of purpose and joy. It’s not traditional hard-nosed business advice, but it could just be the way forward.

About the author

Carl Dodd, Property Revolutions

Carl Dodd is the founder and Architectural Director of  green consultancy Property Revolutions, which is part of the Green Consortium.

Features July 2013

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