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Sustainability's best friends: codes, specifications and targets

A raft of industry standards are driving sustainable targets to highly ambitious levels, says Jonathon Porritt

According to the government’s Strategy for Sustainable Construction, ‘25 per cent of products used in construction projects should come from schemes recognised for responsible sourcing by 2012’.

Nobody is quite sure how progress against this particular indicator will be assessed – least of all the Sustainable Construction Task Group of the Strategic Forum, which is responsible for delivering it. But even a few years ago, such an ambitious level would have been unthinkable.

Green specification is a critical part of the sustainable construction value chain, whether for new build or retrofit. The Code for Sustainable Homes (working towards the 2016 target for all new homes to be zero carbon) has forced volume housebuilders to fundamentally rethink the materials they use.

The EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive has had the same impact for non-domestic buildings. High-profile projects, such as the Olympics, have helped raise the bar, and the work of the Olympic Delivery Authority in specifying greener construction materials has been impressive.

As a result, demand for ‘greener products’ has increased dramatically, and many suppliers are now seeing this as an extremely effective way of differentiating their products. But it means that designers and specifiers are blitzed with marketing materials and increasingly sophisticated ‘green claims’ of various kinds.

Unfortunately, relevant assessment data is not always freely available, and there is still a worrying lack of transparency. BRE’s Green Guide to Specification has been the default source of guidance and, although it comes in for a lot of stick (often from those with strong claims of their own), it’s done a good job. In 2008, BRE’s BES 6001 framework standard of responsible sourcing was issued, and sector schemes on responsible sourcing are being developed by BSI British Standards.

For a lot of specifiers, this is very unfamiliar territory. In Forum for the Future, we work with a lot of organisations struggling with different appraisal methodologies. With AkzoNobel, we recently developed the Environmental Impact Analyser as a kind of a halfway house: rigorous enough to provide reliable data, but streamlined enough to be accessible, providing data on percentage savings (on carbon, water and waste) compared to a specific base line. AkzoNobel used the Analyser to launch the EcoSure range of Dulux paints last year.

Though all these standards, measures and specifications can sound tedious, they amount to one of the most dynamic aspects of the whole sustainable construction agenda. There is an impressive amount of new thinking and innovation being brought to bear on old dilemmas – and that’s exactly what the industry needs.

Jonathon Porritt is founder director of Forum for the Future

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