Sustainable Building Needs New Language

For those who don’t subscribe to The ENDS Report, here is my opinion piece from the February 2014 edition:

The construction industry has a communication problem. We presently use completely different language from our clients when discussing the value and benefits of the property that we design and build.

The built environment is clearly responsible for significant environmental impacts. It is regularly stated that buildings account for around 50% of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions and about 80% of UK water consumption. This has made construction the focus for a raft of legislation and initiatives aimed at reducing these impacts. However, we need to be careful that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The consumption of energy and water attributed to buildings is actually due to consumption by the people inhabiting them, plus some waste from inefficient systems and operations.

Clearly, we must work hard to eliminate the waste. Waste, in any form, is an un-necessary cost and avoidable environmental burden. However, in order for construction to make significant progress we need to take into account the human element. People consume energy and water, not buildings themselves. We need to stop considering buildings in isolation and assess the complex socio-economic system that is our built environment.

Buildings deliver significant social and economic benefits. We spend most of our lives in buildings. Buildings enable children to learn and businesses to thrive. Buildings house essential services that sustain us and cultural activities that enrich our lives. We must weigh the benefits of new construction as much as the impacts that it creates. Too narrow a focus risks biasing our judgment.

It is now common to see buildings labelled ‘sustainable’ as defence against environmental antagonism, even though there is no universally accepted definition of the term. Is a sustainable building one that is built solidly and capable of enduring, or is it one that can easily be taken down and its materials re-used? Does a building have to deliver social improvement to be sustainable, or simply achieve a high score on an environmental checklist?

In the absence of common understanding, we tend to invent measures for sustainability based on issues familiar to us. Different groups cleave to issues that suit their agenda or that can be simply evaluated. Construction presently focuses on carbon emissions as a proxy for sustainability. Following standard valuation practice, both operational and embodied carbon emissions are expressed in terms of the building floor area. Yet these measures are largely meaningless to the leaders of the businesses that will occupy buildings.

Businesses have their own measures of performance and success. In commercial enterprises these involve profitability and productivity ratios. Hospitals measure their performance in terms of recovery rates and schools by the learning outcomes achieved. These business performance indicators are almost all human related, whereas construction indicators are generally asset based.

We need to bridge these disparate aspects of performance and create new indicators that are genuine measures of sustainable outcomes within the built environment.

The simple construction metrics of cost and carbon emission by floor area do not reveal any information about the benefits of a building’s design. Imagine instead measuring construction cost and carbon emission for a new office building by the number of workstations accommodated. This would provide direct measures of the efficacy of the office design in terms that are meaningful to potential occupiers. Once the benefits of the design approach are made explicit in terms of business performance, our preconceptions are often overturned.

Natural ventilation is the doyenne of sustainable office design as it requires very little energy. On the other hand air-conditioning is often eschewed due to its high energy consumption. However, natural ventilation requires low occupation density and clean outdoor air, whilst air-conditioning is suited to more polluted city centres and permits higher occupation densities, in other words more productive staff in the same space. Thus, air-conditioned buildings may actually achieve a lower carbon footprint per worker, even thought they have a higher footprint per square metre of floor area.

Design quality should also feature in sustainable property metrics. Numerous studies have shown that high quality design promotes higher productivity and less absenteeism in offices, better learning outcomes in schools and improved recovery in hospitals. Suitable metrics would allow business leaders to immediately relate beneficial business outcomes to energy and water consumption via the vector of staff. This is a compelling tool for the future of property related decision making.

It doesn’t end with commercial offices. If designers understood end user businesses a little better we could develop appropriate metrics for cost and carbon efficiency appropriate to any business sector. We would measure the efficiency of a hotel by bed spaces and a distribution warehouse by the number of pallets of goods accommodated. It will require some work to establish the full range of suitable measures, but this will lead to better business outcomes for construction, as well as for its customers.

Design-led businesses, such as Apple, have generated enormous value by focusing on their customers’ needs and innovating to fulfil them. As construction comes to better understand end users’ true needs and desires, it will naturally find the means to innovate. Developing the language to demonstrate how construction is addressing its customers’ needs will be a first step on the road to creating real value in the industry.

We are only just beginning to realise what it might mean to really be sustainable. In order to move to a genuinely sustainable construction industry we need to evaluate the social and economic benefits and impacts of buildings in addition to the environmental impacts associated with their delivery. We need to start applying the tools used by economists and sociologists to our understanding of the sustainable built environment. Post occupancy evaluation of buildings needs to capture intelligence on business and social improvement as well as figures for energy performance. Equipped with new insights into customer needs and the language to debate them, the construction industry could be set for stellar performance.