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Leading by example

UK construction's drive towards greater sustainability is spearheaded by a man of international experience who lives in a solar-heated home.

Construction has always had to adapt to its environment. But sustainability has had to reinvent itself, too. Look back ten years and it would emerge only in boardroom discussions to save money on energy, water and materials, and with a vaguer sense of giving something back to the community.

But directives like the UK Climate Change Bill, the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, and the Code for Sustainable Homes have added legislative weight to sustainable building.

Now companies also have to consider economic regeneration and social inclusiveness in their designs.

The UK construction industry has an output of Ï100 billion a year, accounts for 8 per cent of GDP, and employs 2.1 million people.

Buildings are also responsible for almost half of UK carbon emissions, half of water consumption, about one third of landfill waste, and 13 per cent of raw materials used in the UK economy.

In July, the Government set down a marker for the industry and its environmental future by producing the Draft Strategy for Sustainable Construction.

Produced as a partnership between the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Strategic Forum for Construction, the consultation document is a sustainable template for the industry.

One of the key personalities driving greener construction forward and aiming to hit the strategy's targets is Paul King, chief executive of the UK Green Building Council (UK-GBC).

Mr King took up the post in May after 12 years working for the World Wildlife Fund, where he led their One Million Sustainable Homes campaign.

He believes the construction industry has so far not had to face public demand for sustainable construction.

"Historically we have operated in a market where developers have always been able to sell what they have built," he says. "There has not been the demand to do anything different."

The UK-GBC is only seven months old but has already taken a seat at the head of the table to drive forward innovation.

The council now has 146 members following its launch earlier this year, including contractors Barratt, Laing O'Rourke and Sir Robert McAlpine and clients as diverse as the Environment Agency and the BBC.

In July, housing minister Yvette Cooper formally asked the UK-GBC to improve the energy efficiency of non-domestic buildings.

The aim is to deliver substantial reductions in carbon emissions from new buildings over the next decade.

Mr King says: "Normally the Government would hire a consultancy to do this, but this will be implemented with free input from our members."

He believes the construction industry must get a clear picture of how much energy it needs before going head first into producing sustainable technology.

"The most important task for the construction industry is reducing carbon dioxide emissions. If you don't tackle climate change, that can undo everything else," he says.

"There is no point concentrating on renewable energy if you haven't got a good idea of how much energy is needed in the first place."

As part of its work for the Government the UK-GBC will be undertaking a review of the BREEAM environmental assessment method to see whether it can be applied to non-domestic buildings.

Mr King has drawn on the success of the LEED assessment system, which has been endorsed by the United States Green Building Council.

He says: "There are 10,000 buildings a month registering to be LEED-assessed, so it's a good system.

"We want to hear from the industry on BREEAM to try and dispel some of the myths before we make a final decision.

"For example, it seems a common perception that BREEAM is strong on waste and water, not energy."

Mr King also questions the Draft Strategy for Sustainable Construction's proposed target that 20 per cent of all projects with a value more than Ï1 million should use the Design Quality Indicators and BREEAM or equivalents, and achieve an excellent rating, by the end of 2008.

He argues: "We would want to know first of all how that target was reached. But we would also be keen to push for a more aggressive target. The council would certainly want all of our members to achieve the excellent BREEAM rating by 2008."

Mr King joined the World Wildlife Fund in 1995. During his time with the charity he spent two years in Bhutan where he got his first taste of a 'sustainable community'.

"Sustainability is very much enshrined in Government thinking there because it's a Buddhist country," he says.

In January 2003 Mr King became Campaign Director for WWF's One Million Sustainable Homes campaign, with the aim of moving sustainability into the mainstream of the UK housing sector.

He says: "The campaign just seemed to strike a nerve at the time because the idea of environmentalists advocating more building was unusual.

"But it took everyone by surprise. People were worried that we were advocating concreting over the countryside."

As part of his work for the project, his project team contacted 400 organisations, giving Mr King his first taste of how sustainability might be applied to construction.

"We were not saying that we needed more houses, we were looking for a sustainable framework for building them," he says.

With his WWF work, Mr King became increasingly involved with the politics of greener construction.

Indeed it was his project leading work in the environmental role which earned him an invitation from the council to become its chief executive.

But he wasn't afraid to show his mettle when, under his direction, WWF decided to pull out of negotiations to the Code for Sustainable Homes in 2005.

He explains: "There was a reluctance on the part of the Department of Communities and Local Govern-ment to push on with the BREEAM or Ecohomes rating systems. They wanted to set up their own guidelines. They were trying to reinvent the wheel. We could only return once we felt we could back the Code."

Outside his work, Mr King has taken his environmental beliefs to his home and family life. Construction News caught up with him days before taking his family to Italy on holiday.

Naturally, Mr King had chosen the environmentally friendly option and decided to let the train take the strain to Tuscany.

He says: "I don't take short-haul flights any more. Sometimes the job doesn't always allow me to, but I cut out the flying where I can."

For the past three years he has lived with his family in The Living Villages sustainable community development in Shropshire.

Mr King says: "Our house is super-insulated, triple-glazed. It's timber frame, partly clad in reclaimed brick and uses reclaimed roof tiles.

"We have a solar thermal roof to heat the water, we use segregated bins for our waste and we each have our own allotment patch."

But Mr King admits that he doesn't get his hands dirty in the vegetable patch. He laughs: "I let my partner do all the work in the garden."

Ultimately Mr King believes green building is simply better building. "Forget the environment, it's just about making a quality product," he says.