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A show house for the best in sustainability

Whereas most organisations merely talk about sustainability one company is putting its money where its mouth is

Client Wolseley UK
Project Wolseley Sustainable Building Centre
Location Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

Over the years health and safety clampdowns as well as the introduction of high-tech equipment have seen contractors reassess long established methods of work.

The latest topic is sustainability, the all-encompassing catchphrase that seems able to send even the toughest of shovel-handed contractors running to prove just how beneficial, both to the environment and to the local area, their projects are.

For the sometimes frustratingly conservative construction industry the level of interest in all things sustainable has risen at an astonishing pace.

Merchanting giant Wolseley UK is one such company that is following the mantra of sustainable development to such an extent that it is prepared to put down £3 million of its own cash to develop a sustainable building centre at its base in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire.

It intends to use the centre as a showcase for construction products it deems meet most of the requirements for use on projects where sustainability is king.

Tim Pollard, general manager of the Sustainable Building Centre for Wolseley, claims the move will help expose the wider industry to the use of new, innovative and sustainable products.

“There is definitely an appetite out there. There is a thirst for knowledge, but those clients interested in using sustainable products have nowhere to source information on a raft of different products. This project will allow contractors, developers and designers to come down and actually see how products can work in a real-life environment,” he says.

This appetite for change is one which has steadily snowballed over the past three or four years, claims Mr Pollard - after all, there has to be a sound commercial reason for a company the size of Wolseley to gamble £3 million on a project like the SBC.

“At the end of the day Wolseley exists to make a profit, but the attitude surrounding green building has changed.

“We first noticed the emergence of a serious market for sustainable building systems about four years ago.

“Then it was largely focused on improving the efficiency of central heating systems, but now we are seeing huge interest across the whole spectrum of building products,” Mr Pollard adds.

Selecting the greenest

But with almost every manufacturer worth its salt promoting the sustainability of its own product, the task of trimming down supply lists and assessing which method to showcase in the centre has proven difficult.

Wolseley has more than 500,000 product lines available in the UK, but it thinks that just 8,000 of those are sustainable enough for the centre.

That doesn’t mean the other 420,000 products do not have their place in the industry, merely that Wolseley’s refining process has taken the definition of what is sustainable to another level.

One step at a time

Condensing boilers for example, long seen as the bastion of sustainable construction products, are off the sustainable product list as Wolseley now consider them part of the norm.

“We’d recommend anything that hits our standard definition as part of a sustainable development. You have to take an holistic view, but there are more sustainable alternatives to a product at almost every level of the build,” he says.

The key to Wolseley’s sustainable vision is that everyone needs to recognise that every step forward, however small, is worthwhile.

A product which has only slightly better sustainable credentials than a rival is still an improvement. The theory of ‘additionality’, where each small step adds up to one giant leap forward rings true.

The difficulty is that most contractors and developers want to be able to take say, a brick, and be told that if they use it their project will be sustainable. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to do that, thanks to the difficulty in pinning down exactly what the term ‘sustainable’ means.

“There are so many ways for a product to achieve that sustainability tag - how it is installed, is it greener? Is the source closer to the site? Is it more energy efficient? - that it is extremely difficult to assess. Unfortunately there is no shortcut and every project has to be assessed on its own
merits,” he says.

That includes his own scheme and the role of Wolseley.

“There is a certain amount of navel gazing. We have to understand how our role fits into the overall picture. “Its no good me picking a particular product that I think is outstanding if it cannot be delivered in the numbers my clients would expect.”

Focus on supply

That said Mr Pollard admits he has relaxed some of the company’s stringent supply standards where a product has been particularly interesting.

“The supply chain has seen massive investment all the way through it. We look at every aspect of supply - the transport fleet, packaging and delivery. We know our own carbon, energy and water footprints and have developed key performance indicators across a range of issues,” he says.

In the end the success of the venture will depend on whether it shifts extra product for Wolseley. It’s a business decision and a £3 million investment will have to be clawed back.

“Look, I’m no tree hugger,” says Mr Pollard, “I am a parent and I feel some level of -responsibility to future generations but absolute measure of the centre’s success will be its profitability.”

Energy efficiency

One of the key features of the Sustainable Building Centre will be its ability to chop and change around the energy provision systems that will be installed on the project.

A raft of renewable technologies including ground source heat pumps, solar thermal systems, biomass boilers, combined heat and power systems and photovoltaic technology will be used to help generate and save the centre’s energy.

But there is also an element of future proofing the building to account for technologies that are constantly evolving, says Mr Pollard.

“We are at the cutting edge of technology that is evolving rapidly. The building has been designed in such a way that products and technologies can be slotted in as they evolve. We have a short, medium and long-term plan to adapt the building to suit, but that said some of the selections have been based on the longevity of products.”

‘A perfect building was not the goal’

The Wolseley centre has been chosen as a demonstration project by industry think-tank Constructing Excellence in the hope that learning captured by the project will help shape future construction projects.

And in many ways the Sustainable Building Centre will force contractors and product suppliers to scrutinise the way it has been built and how products fit into its construction.

“This is the building that will never get built. No-one in their right mind would ever use the number of different methods and materials that we have used in this project on their own scheme. To have a perfectly designed building was not the goal,” says Mr Pollard.

“We wanted to showcase as many products as we could in a real environment. The main difficulty has been the number of interfaces between products or systems that would not normally be used side by side.”

This has brought its own challenges right through the build process, from design through to inception. Even the local building control officers have been extremely supportive of the project, says Mr Pollard.
“Contractors, subbies and designers have all been interested in the scheme, as it helps them stay one step ahead. Those who have really bought in to it will have the benefit of being experienced in using these products. Building control and health and safety officers have really been excited about the whole project.”