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Global Alliance for sustainable building

With world leaders gathered in Johannesburg for the Earth Summit, construction industry heads are holding their own conference on sustainability. Zoë Blackler reports

The Global Alliance for Building Sustainability (GABS) - established by the RICS Foundation, the institute's charitable offshoot - is holding its inaugural meeting in Johannesburg today and Friday. The conference, recognised by the UN as one of its official parallel events, is the only meeting at the summit to focus exclusively on construction issues.

More than 50 international governmental, professional and commercial organisations will be attending, among them RIBA president Paul Hyett, London's deputy mayor Nicky Gavron, the RTPI, the RICS and the UIA - representing over a million policy makers, practitioners and businesses. The aim of this first meeting will be to kick off a dialogue between the different groups attending and to share and promote examples of best practice. But will GABS be no more than a talking shop, a preaching to the converted?

Hyett is critical of much of the discussions he attends about environmental issues but argues that GABS will have an impact in the creation of an international consensus. Through the collective voices of the various organisations attending, pressure can be brought to bear on individual governments.

Without an international agreement about standards and regulations, individual countries will be risking their own competitiveness if they demand higher levels of sustainability in building design, he argues.

And architects alone cannot bring about change. Rather, governments must beef up the regulations to which all must comply.

Hyett will also be telling the delegation that a partnership between enlightened government, informed consumers and a responsible construction industry is crucial. And he will be calling on our own government to 'raise the stakes by putting its money and weight behind developing education through schools and advertising campaigns'. 'This government must make people realise the urgency and that there is a way out!' he says. Despite an increasing awareness of environmental issues and the trailblazing of a handful of architects, buildings are become less, not more, sustainable, Hyett claims, with buildings becoming more demanding in terms of their energy requirements.

The solution is to push intelligent design - sophisticated buildings that minimise the use of energy, drawn from renewable sources such as wind and water power. In this way, Hyett believes, the CO caused by construction, currently 50 per cent of all CO 2emissions in the developed world, can be reduced to zero. Ultimately, buildings could even become net givers of energy. With new buildings this could be achieved very soon, he believes; with old buildings it will be harder and take longer.

The president of the RICS, Peter Fall, will also be present in Johannesburg, calling for international standards and guidelines for sustainable construction. But he will also challenge the professional bodies 'to show strong leadership by producing codes of practice that fast-track the area of innovation into best-practice and sometimes formal regulations'. Collectively, he adds, through GABS, such codes would carry great authority and would bolster the arguments of individual practitioners in favour of sustainable choices: 'The GABS initiative will also help, providing a broad consensus and leadership at professional body level, adding weight and moral support to the arguments of millions of individual professionals daring to raise environmental concerns.'

The RICS has developed its own 'comprehensive project appraisal' to determine whether projects achieve a sustainable balance between economic success and environmental and social benefits. 'It was developed, ' Fall says, 'to supply the missing framework, beyond existing checklists and target indicators, for optimum results across a broad spectrum of projects.'

Fall will call for greater attention to be given to whole life cycle costs during the earliest design stages, as well as upgrading the energy efficiency of the existing building stock. And he will push governments to follow the example of Denmark, which is aiming for a 50 per cent cut in energy consumption by 2030.

But perhaps most crucially, GABS offers an opportunity to combat the fragmentation of, and lack of cooperation within, the construction industry. As Fall will tell the delegates in Johannesburg: 'It is the day-today work of the millions of individual members of the Global Alliance partners that we can make and influence decisions, project by project, that will bring these policies to fruition.'

lGABS will reconvene at the 'Building Sustainability 2002 Conference' in Oslo, Norway on 24 September.


The global construction industry is estimated to be worth $3.2 trillion, employing 111 million people, with 20 per cent of all employment linked in some way to construction.

One third of all construction work is repair and refurbishment.

The construction sector is responsible for one-sixth of freshwater withdrawals and generates 30 per cent of waste in OECD countries.

About 40 per cent of total energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are directly attributable to constructing and operating buildings (50 per cent in the developed world).

Most building professionals - about 80 per cent - operate within the 'comfort zone'of building regulations. A further 10-15 per cent apply best practice that goes beyond what is required. Only the remaining 5 per cent or so are innovators, of whom probably less than 1 per cent are involved in research and development.

As much as 80 per cent of the costs of running, maintaining and repairing a building are fixed in the first 20 per cent of the design process.

Every year the UK construction industry

- Consumes 6 tonnes of material per person

- Obtains less that 20 per cent of the 240 million tonnes of aggregate used from secondary sources.

- Generates 70 million tonnes of waste.

- Absorbs 10 per cent of national energy consumption in the production and transportation of construction products and materials.

ln Copenhagen,93 per cent of waste from demolition is reused in construction, while a further 6 per cent makes substitute fuel.

(Source: RICS)

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