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Supply chain must help build sustainability that lasts

Sustainability is hugely important in today’s construction industry - but is it being built to last? The supply chain can help ensure that it is.

If there is one word that has characterised the construction sector over the past decade, it’s ‘sustainable’.

And, unfortunately, as with many terms that are over-used and misrepresented, it has lost much of its meaning during that time, becoming a generic label that is often used as a catch-all alternative to ‘environmentally friendly’.

Supply chain in sustainability

The problem is that a truly sustainable project needs to go much further than using environmentally responsible building products or delivering energy efficiency benefits.

A sustainable project needs to ensure that eco-specification and the reduced carbon footprint of a scheme can be sustained over the long term - and the supply chain can play a key part in this.

While the lifespan of a building is usually a major influence in its design and specification, its ‘working life’ is usually taken to mean the period for which the building will be used for its intended purpose, with reasonable maintenance but without major repair.

“The anticipated life span of many buildings is around 20 years: in a world with a construction industry that claims to put sustainability at its heart, that’s simply not long enough”

As a result, the anticipated lifespan of many buildings is around 20 years: in a world with limited resources and a construction industry that claims to put sustainability at its heart, that’s simply not long enough.

Part of the problem is that legislation surrounding the topic of sustainability is primarily focused on a building’s services installation and thermal performance, rather than its long-term viability.

So, while specifiers must consider Part L as a mandatory element of building design, there is no such mandatory requirement to ensure that the fabric of the building will still be fit for purpose 10, 20 or 50 years down the line.

Instead, the lifespan element of a building’s sustainability is viewed much as more of a commercial consideration.

As a result, the longevity and long-term performance of construction materials are weighed against their purchase cost to determine the specification strategy instead of being prioritised as a key element of the building’s sustainability credentials.

Role of roofing

When it comes to roof refurbishments, the first indicator of whether a roofing system contributes to the sustainability of the built environment is whether or not strip out of the existing substrate will be required.

The use of certain systems, like an EPDM single ply membrane, over an existing roof surface can not only reduce the length of the programme but also prevent strip-out waste from being sent to landfill.

When opting for an overlay-based roof refurbishment, it’s important to ensure that all materials used are compatible with each other to achieve optimum service life.

In many roof-refurbishment schemes, the requirement is for insulation and waterproofing to improve both the thermal performance of the building and the integrity of the roof.

It’s essential that all materials, including any adhesives or mechanical fixings, are specified in line with manufacturer’s recommendations and best practice and that each has a proven service life that will match other components of the roof build-up.

An EPDM membrane, for example, will last up to 50 years – much longer than the design life of many buildings.

Ensuring optimum service life

Best practice is essential in the design and installation of the chosen system too.

The materials used should meet both technical standards and clients’ expectations with robust detailed design to maximise service life.

And, of course, any roofing project should be carried out by a contractor that has been trained and accredited by the manufacturer to ensure optimum service life of the system.

It should then be maintained according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

The environmental impact and embedded carbon of any construction material are important specification considerations but service life is also critical.

Too often, too much emphasis is placed on meeting criteria set out by building regulations and initiatives like BREEAM without sufficient regard for genuinely reducing waste by specifying buildings that last longer.

Surely it’s now time we started building longevity into mandatory sustainability requirements as well as forward-thinking cost strategies?

John McMullan is commercial manager for Firestone Building Products

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