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.

Saint Gobain Debate Final

This is it. The final arguments are up on the Saint Gobain Debate Site, along with guest comments from Jon Bootland. The voting is still neck and neck so please make up your own mind.

I believe this debate has been really helpful in flushing out issues that we in construction must address. The debated question is somewhat ambiguous and the arguments deliberately provocative. We’ve received terrific contributions, which have extended the argument beyond what the debaters could have managed. The voting has been neck and neck throughout, which suggests that opinion really is divided.

Re-reading the arguments and contributions, there is one thing that stands out for me: the confusion over what sustainability actually means. We have debated various sub-sets of meaning but still have reached no useful definition of what a sustainable building is.

We’ve discussed rating systems which focus on impacts of constructing and/or operating a building. But these don’t address whether a building will be a benefit or a burden to society. Whether it will be loved and endure, or be hated and demolished. Whether it promotes wellbeing amongst its occupants and users. Local plans address some social and economic issues, but do not address indicators such as ONS’s national wellbeing or BRE’s societal cost of poor housing.

It is hard to evaluate these intangible, checklist unfriendly, issues. But we must confront these truths if we are to make the transition to a sustainable construction industry.

Most certainly we need to improve our understanding of building performance and the prediction models so that they better reflect actual outcomes. We must improve the education and skills of construction professionals and equip ourselves to tackle these issues. Then we must improve our communications in order to present truthful information about building performance in a useful way.

These however, are simply the business improvement actions required of a progressive 21st Century industry. Merely doing what is necessary will not transform us into a sustainable construction industry.

We should not delude ourselves that the transition to genuinely sustainable construction will be easy or cheap. It will require conviction and commitment.

Would a simple definition of a sustainable building be useful anyway? I think not.

Sustainability does not arise from a label applied to buildings. Sustainable is not something you do, sustainable is something that you are. Sustainability is an ethos, a thought process. Sustainability informs everything you do.

Creating ‘sustainable’ labels incentivises us to strive towards that particular goal, often at the expense of other significant issues. As long as we persist in labeling buildings using checklists, we will promote cherry-picking from a limited range of issues, glorifying a few good features to conceal the bad.

Delft University compared environmental rating systems and discovered that it was toughest to get a high score under BREEAM. This should be a mark of excellence. Instead it means that LEED has become the system of choice as it is simpler to gain the highest rating. The effort that should go into sustainable design has been diverted into effort to find the lowest hurdle.

To become a sustainable industry, we need to apply our professionalism and our imagination to eliminating all which is damaging or degrading.

We need to identify all possible harms that could arise from construction, operation and inhabitation of buildings and work to eliminate them.

We need to strive for Zero Harm. Zero Harm to the biosphere that makes life possible on this planet. Zero Harm to our fellow humans, including those as yet unborn. Of course my dream of truly Zero Harm construction is practically unachievable. But surely it is our duty as 21st Century professionals to get as close as we can.

Construction is good at managing risk. Why can’t we apply the same processes to managing harm?

Rather than using sustainability checklists that only address the common features of buildings, we would create harm mitigation plans bespoke to each building project. The development team could clearly demonstrate their understanding of the true range of possible impacts and the measures that they have taken to mitigate them. Such an approach also provides the essential flexibility required for design compromise, which is lacking in some of the checklist ratings.

If Sherlock Holmes were alive today, I am certain that he would concur: “When we have eliminated all possible harm, that which remains must be sustainable”. Isn’t that worth striving for?

Saint Gobain Debate Day 1

For those who are not following on Twitter or have otherwise missed it for some reason, this week I am battling it out online in the inaugural Saint Gobain Debate. I am proposing the motion that: ‘There is no useful definition of what a sustainable building is’, which is being opposed by Jon Chadwick of Associated Architects.

You can follow the debate, contribute and vote here.

Otherwise here is a copy of my opening argument:

There is no useful definition of what a sustainable building is.

In order to have a definition of what a ‘sustainable building’ is we must first have a definition for ‘sustainable’. A widely recognised definition is that of ‘sustainable development’ taken from the Brundtland Commission report Our Common Future:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In this context however, ‘development’ is human development, not the bricks and mortar development of real estate. The Brundtland Definition is big picture stuff and cannot so easily be applied to individual buildings. Nevertheless, we should respect the principle. All human activity has impacts, construction and operation of buildings particularly so. We must certainly work hard to deliver functional and cost effective buildings at the lowest possible impact.

We have at our disposal numerous means of assessing impacts. BREEAM, the BRE Environmental Assessment Method, is probably the most comprehensive. BREEAM has been refined over many years to assess a building’s impacts in: energy and water use, health and wellbeing, pollution, transport, materials, waste, ecology and management. However, even this comprehensive checklist of impacts does not make BREEAM a measure of how sustainable the finished building might be.

Whilst BREEAM is one of the better checklists, we often see sustainable credentials claimed on much more flimsy grounds, such as the Passivhaus Standard or even Building Regulations SBEM. Referring to these limited issue assessments as making a building sustainable misleads the public and potential purchasers. It creates belief that buildings can magically become sustainable through the addition technology fixes to address headline issues like carbon emission.

That road leads to Eco-Bling. It is now common to see specious claims to sustainability made on the grounds of urban wind power or city centre biomass heating.

Focusing on any limited range of issues, without considering the entire system within which buildings exist, can lead to perversely un-sustainable outcomes. The principal competitor to BREEAM is LEED, ‘Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design’. Despite its arresting name, recent research by Professor John Schofield in the USA reveals that a high LEED score has no statistically significant impact on primary fuel consumption, nor carbon emissions associated with a building.

If an internationally recognised ‘sustainability’ rating system has no discernible impact on its eponymous objectives, there can be no justification for any claim on lesser grounds.

So, what is the alternative? The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘sustainable’ as “to be capable of enduring”. Thus, before labelling a building ‘sustainable’, we must consider its useful longevity. We need to have some measure of the period over which the impacts will amortise. In other words, we need to assess the quality of the design and its appeal to society. Whether it is best fitted to the occupants’ needs or is simply a money spinner for a developer. Most importantly, we need to assess whether the design is sufficiently flexible for a building to endure through numerous incarnations.

I suggest that some of the most sustainable buildings in UK cities today are Georgian terraced houses. The Georgian design ideals of proportion, space and light ensured that many buildings were valued by subsequent generations. Not only for their beauty. These buildings have proven sufficiently flexible to be reincarnated as shops, offices, multiple dwellings, museums and many other uses. Far from conforming to a modern checklist approach to sustainability, these buildings were simply designed thoughtfully with their future users in mind.

I believe that this is the key to sustainable buildings. A sustainable building is one that its occupants will want to go on occupying. A sustainable building is one that enables its occupants to be more comfortable and more productive, as well as consuming less energy and less resources. Sustainable buildings bring business enhancing performance benefits to commercial occupiers. How can any building be sustainable that does not contribute to the social development of its occupants and its neighbours?

Without assessing longevity, social contribution and business performance benefits equally with impacts and costs, we cannot make any judgements about a building’s real worth.

At least for now, there truly is no useful definition of what a sustainable building is!

Lies, Damn Lies and Thermal Images

Last week someone took a thermal camera and tried to create a scandal over energy waste by the Big Six energy companies. They did this by taking thermal images, properly known as thermographs, of energy company office buildings purporting to show them wasting heat. They then sent these images to picture agency SWNS who distributed them to the national newspapers. Many of the national dailies ran with the story. So far I’ve seen versions in the Telegraph, The Mirror and The Daily Mail along with The Plymouth Herald and a handful of online news sites.

Now the problem with putting a thermal camera in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use it is that it is an instrument of measurement, not a simple camera. The thermograph is created in false colour and in order to interpret it you need to know the temperature sensitivity and range settings used and the emissivity of the surface being imaged. Clearly the ignorant user of this particular camera just tweaked the settings until he or she got a nice bright red building against a dark blue sky intended to make us thing that the buildings were very hot.

Now I am going to reproduce the images here for purely educational purposes, to demonstrate the fallacy of thermal imagery like this, and not for any kind of commercial gain (please take note SWNS if you happen to be looking at this page).


In the image above you will notice the strident reds and oranges, intended to make you think there is a lot of heat leaking from the building. However the colour range is just a representation and can be adjusted to cover any temperature range that the thermographer chooses, simply by adjusting the upper and lower limits of the sensitivity range. Look at the photo below and then back at the thermograph. Now you should immediately notice that the surface of the carpark in front of the building is showing up as the same temperature as the first floor and that the trees to the left and right of the shot are the same temperature as the ground floor. Now either these are very hot trees or ….


Now glass itself is a tricky material for thermographers. At the near infra red glass is pretty much transparent, but becomes less so at longer wavelengths so it is pretty much opaque at environmental temperatures. Glass also has a high emissivity, which means that it is very good at absorbing and emitting radiation. Thus in windows and facades the glass is generally treated to reduce its emissivity in order to cut down on the transmission of heat. However, depending on whether the concern is heat loss from the building or heat gain from the sun, the emissivity could vary at different wavelengths. When something has low emissivity, by definition it has high reflectivity. Glass further complicates the issue by having high surface specular reflection. So without extensive checking the thermographer cannot necessarily determine what portion of the infra red detected by the camera is a result of the surface temperature of the glass and what is merely a reflection of the temperature of the surroundings.

Any reputable thermographer would ensure that the emissivity of the materials was properly accounted for and publish the temperature scale along with the image as in the one below that I produced some years ago for a well known client (you might be able to guess).


So, if you are a building owner and someone offers to undertake a thermography survey for you then please do question their credentials. If you are a newspaper reader and you see a thermograph without a reference temperature scale then do not believe your eyes.

Now I don’t have any particular love for the Big Six. But trying to create a scandal by falsifying thermal images like this is not on, and shame on agencies and newspapers who don’t even check with their science editors before publishing such rot.

Oil Price Infographic

Have you ever wondered why energy prices have It increased by 200% since 2002? I certainly have, and since I spent the afternoon crunching statistics I thought I might share my findings with you.

In the infographic below I have plotted the monthly spot prices for Brent crude oil and the UK quarterly figures for gross domestic product per capita. I have added a simple analysis tool, line of the peaks and line of the troughs, used by traders to estimate when a commodity is approaching its upper and lower price limits.

Until 2002 the oil price appears to be the product of a mature commodity trading market. The oil price is relatively stable showing a gradual increase in the peaks, but a stable floor to the price. GDP per capita in the UK grew throughout this period at a rate comfortably above the growth rate in oil price. The two exceptions to this are the 1990 recession, coinciding with a peak in price triggered by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Asian financial crisis which triggered a collapse in oil prices as supply outstripped the demand. Then there is another peak followed by the dotcom bubble. Co-incidence?

Don’t ask me what happened to change the nature of the oil market in 2002, I have no idea: I hope someone does, it looks like a completely new paradigm. Again using the lines of peaks and troughs we can identify trigger points. You can probably find other fits, but since the market appears to be starting afresh with nothing to go on it is likely to have been a volatile time. Nevertheless we can see how our economy has become increasingly sensitive to oil price. Not only that, but now oil prices are rising at a much faster rate than GDP. That must mean that we are in for trouble.

Data from the UK Office of National Statistics and US Energy Information Administration