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Low carbon appetite is here to stay so supply chains must gear up

EC Harris head of sustainability Nick Hayes

Following close on the heels of the Government Construction Strategy, a Low Carbon Construction action plan was launched earlier this summer which provided a framework on how the government intends to work with industry over the coming years in its efforts to decarbonise the built environment.

A common thread in both reports was the need for sustainable practices to be embedded within new-build construction programmes from the very outset, to ensure that the next generation of built assets are not only resource efficient but also have the lowest possible environmental impact throughout their full lifecycle from design right through until their demolition.

As tools like 3D building information modelling become more mainstream and a key differentiator on major projects, contractors will have greater scope to demonstrate to clients that they know how to use sophisticated technology to improve their carbon performance management and ultimately the financial return they can see from their assets.

With many clients now expressing a preference for energy-efficient buildings as a way to help mitigate against the risk of energy price spikes, this appetite for low-carbon construction is here to stay and the supply chain needs to respond to this market demand.

Whilst it may be more straight-forward to apply a low-carbon approach to new-build schemes, growing concerns around a potential double-dip recession is likely to limit the capital that is available for large-scale CAPEX programmes.

Instead, the supply chain will be increasingly tasked with driving environmental and financial improvements from existing assets for the reality is that the UK will not achieve an 80 per cent reduction in its overall carbon emission levels unless it focuses on improving the performance of this existing stock as well.

According to some analysts 70 per cent of the buildings currently in the UK will still be in use by the time 2050 arrives so from a purely mathematical perspective they offer greater scope room for improvement rather than the new-build property that emerge over the next forty years.

Consequently, many clients today are turning to their core contractors for advice and guidance on how to retro-fit their buildings, especially those clients who inherit a shell of a building where they then set up their operation.

There are a series of practical solutions that contractors can adopt to help minimize a buildings environmental footprint and reduce any unnecessary cost outlays.

Often marginal increases in costs are incurred when using more efficient equipment with the majority of commercial retrofit technologies providing a payback in less than 5 years.

When considered against the lifecycle of a standard asset that may well be in existence for a further thirty years, the long-term payback is not insignificant and can help generate capital which can then be invested elsewhere in the business.

So where should contractors focus their efforts as they seek to impress clients with their ability to implement changes that can deliver 10-25 per cent energy efficiency improvements that will ultimately have an impact on their overall bottom line? 

Any action that helps to reduce the level of electricity consumed is an obvious place to start.

Given that heating a building is often one of the biggest contributors to an asset’s overall operational expenditure, a more intelligent approach around insulation is one area that will also pay dividends.

This may seem like a simple step yet a study by McKinsey last year revealed that carbon emissions in large cities could be cut by 50 per cent if every building was insulated properly.

Similarly, in more temperate locations, any interventions that reduce the need for mechanical cooling is equally worthy of focus.

Finally, in the refurbishment process re-using existing materials or using locally sourced materials can make a real difference when it comes to helping an organisation to become greener.

In 2010 the Better Buildings Partnerhsip (BBP) found that by adopting practical retrofit measures across their asset portfolio, they were able to cut their overall energy use by 10 per cent ultimately saving over 32,000 tonnes of CO2 in the process.

Their analysis showed that if this approach was replicated across London’s commercial and public built environment, it could reduce the capitals emissions by two million tonnes of CO2.

And the benefits of low-carbon construction extend beyond the immediate inefficiency savings – recent research within the property sector and by academic bodies is starting to show that those buildings that comply with BREEAM guidelines or which are LEED certified are fetching more when these assets ultimately go to the market.

With all new residential properties expected to be carbon neutral by 2016 and non-residential assets liable to be facing similar demands by 2019 it raises an interesting question - how much could a low-carbon construction approach ultimately add to the value of the UK’s property sector?

Readers' comments (1)

  • I hear what is being said in the article, but until energy prices increase, many of the technologies will not pay for themselves in the 5-8 year timeframe that is required. Government subsidies are seen as a very much here today and not sure about tomorrow theme and investors will not put money into that kind of uncertainty - Companies whose long term business plan is based upon governement subsidy are not sustainable. Therefore, we have to question what we are gearing up for.

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