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Forticrete roundtable: full transcript

AJ/Forticrete roundtable
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The full transcript of the AJ/Forticrete roundtable on specifying green design

The panel

  • Andy Batterham, design and innovation manager, Ibstock Brick Limited
  • Rory Bergin, partner sustainable futures, HTA Design LLP
  • Fran Bradshaw, partner, Anne Thorne Architects
  • John Fifield, technical advisor, CRH Group
  • Chris Halligan, director, Stephen George & Partners
  • Sarah Lewis, associate architect, Barron and Smith Architects, NPS Group
  • Paul Martin, senior technical architect, Levitt Bernstein Associates
  • Sandy Patience, editor, GreenSpec
  • Guy Thompson, head of architecture, housing and sustainability, The Concrete Centre

Hattie Hartman: This is a subject close to my heart, and I’m delighted that all of you have been able to join us today because this topic gets a lot of airtime but doesn’t often get a lot of depth. I hope today we can go a little deeper and pull out any trends or innovations you see happening in the industry. Let’s start by going around the room with introductions and please put forward any particular angle on green specification that you would like to mention to get us started. I will save some time at the end to go around the table again so that each of you can put forward your top tips for architects on green specification - what architects should be thinking about as they specify. 

Guy Thompson: Hi, I’m Guy Thompson and I’m head of architecture housing and sustainability at the Concrete Centre. We are a market development arm of the central marketing government arm of the concrete industry; we are architects and engineers, so we are there to provide data. Part of my role is the compilation of our annual performance reports, with sustainability metrics. I am an architect of nearly 40 years, 30 of which were in practice. Until about seven years ago I hadn’t touched a specification for a long time. The last seven years I’ve been deeply involved in very nitty gritty stuff, which I thought I never would be.

Sarah Lewis: I’m Sarah Lewis, I’m an associate architect at Barron and Smith, which is part of the NPS Group. The NPS Group is a large group, and within our office we have a multi-disciplinary team with architects, structural engineers, ME consultants. Prior to joining Baron and Smith, I was in a much smaller practice, Bere Architects, which was looking exclusively at Passivhaus buildings. So I’ve gone from a small practice into a much larger practice and I’m getting to engage with a multi-disciplinary team, which is a whole different way of working which is really interesting. 

Paul Martin: I work for Levitt Bernstein Architects. The bulk of what we do is housing, social housing, much of it design and build. I am what the office call the technical, or the building group. I sit in the corner nerdily devouring regulations. I write a lot of the specifications that we produce. We may not be quite the greenest of all practices, but we do try very hard to do our bit. 

Sandy Patience: I am an architect by background, and I run GreenSpec. GreenSpec is an online support tool for green specification which anybody can access. We provide general advice about green technologies and materials. We have a compendium of products that we think are okay; they get into GreenSpec over quite a low bar without very much evidence. Evidence is something we need to talk about. I am no expert at anything at all, but I know a little bit about a lot of things. 

Chris Halligan: I’m a director of Stephen George and Partners. We are a medium-sized AJ100 practice, with several offices in the UK and a couple abroad. We do largely commercial buildings with a smattering of housing. I chair our design and technology group, which used to be called a sustainability technology group, but we decided about a year ago that sustainability shouldn’t be separate from design and technology. In 2009 we designed a college, which for a short time had the highest ever BREEAM rating. As an offshoot of that project, we did a lot of research into materials, which we then collated into a design guide, which went on to win the RIBA president’s award for outstanding practise-based research. Hence, probably the invite today.

HH: Are you able to keep that up to date?

CH: Not as much as I’d like. It is on version 2 and I’ve had 2.3 on the to do list for about a year now. It does need a bit of work but it is still valid and relevant.

John Fifield: I’m technical advisor on concrete products for the CRH Group which is the parent company of Forticrete. I spent the first part of my life in the cement industry as a chemist, and then as a user of cement. Initially my job was to tune up all the mix designs and make them more efficient. That then migrated into trying to get all our products to have the lowest possible carbon footprint, so that is what we are trying to do at the minute.

Fran Bradshaw: I’m a partner at Anne Thorne Architects, a small practice where we have been doing the green approach to architecture for as long as I can remember. I’m also deputy chair of the AECB, which is the Association for Environment Conscious Building. It’s an organisation of the most knowledgeable people about green building in the country, with a very good network where people can exchange ideas and information. So all that technical knowledge that you don’t know about but you need a little bit more information about, there is usually someone who you can go and ask. 

Andy Batterham: I’m from Ibstock and you are probably all wondering why I am sitting here working for a brick maker and not a concrete maker. I am part of the CRH Group with John, and Forticrete is one of our sister companies and I’ve worked on a few of our teams involved with Part L. I have worked in architectural practice for over a decade, I’m a technologist by training, and then got into building materials and I’ve been with Ibstock for about 16 years now. I am responsible for our design and technical teams who help you guys design our material, a group of architects and technologists that work for us around the country. And hopefully I’ll be able to add something today with maybe a bit of a clay bias.

Rory Bergin: I’m a partner at HTA, responsible for sustainable futures, like Levitt Bernstein solid worthy members of the housing fraternity, we like to think. We don’t do anything that is not housing-led, but we do cover the soup to the nuts so from masterplanning to completed buildings and a bit of post-occupancy. I lead a team of sustainability specialists, our team is six people within a practice of about 130. So we work on things like SAP, the Code for Sustainable Homes, BREEAM, a little bit of LEED and CEQUAL. So all the demanding standards that other people have written and then have been applied across the industry in various ways on different types of projects.

HH: Great, thank you. I would like to throw one question out to start. When it comes to specification, to what extent is sustainability a driver? I was very involved with the Olympics, I wrote a book about the sustainable design platform of London 2012, and I saw there that targets really make a difference. In the absence of targets, or with the regulations we have now, what is your view? Is sustainability a factor or is it price and availability which drive the decision?

CH: We began research into sustainable materials around about 2009, particularly into concrete for use on a project. At that time we had immense trouble, not only sourcing low carbon concrete, but actually finding marketing departments and trade organisations which could explain what we needed, or where to get it. This gave rise to the research for the book. 

In recent years, things have improved immensely, and there have been a lot of innovations. But the recession has got in the way. Commercial survival has been far more important to the industry than anything else, especially sustainability, when it is not driven by statutory legislation. Unfortunately there have been a lot of innovations that have fallen by the wayside. I’m thinking of the likes of Novochem, which looked to offer new horizons in terms of low carbon concrete but never really got picked up. Quite a few other companies are now marketing low carbon concrete. Although it has improved, it is still suffering from the hangover of the recession where commercial survivability is very important. Despite a renewal of interest, and things are picking up immensely, and particularly with regard to high profile iconic projects, such as the Olympics, there is a lack of drive. 

The drivers are lacking particularly in the small ‘p’ political arena. Sustainable materials are incredibly important, especially in terms of lowering the carbon footprint of a building. As the operational energy in buildings drops, the embodied energy assumes a greater importance. But there is absolutely nowhere in UK statutory legislation where that is covered. There have been several situations demonstrated where the carbon savings available from the correct specifications of sustainable materials can dwarf any renewables that could be included. But it is nowhere. 

Building regulations Part L is operational energy. So what is driving this? The only one that really comes to mind is possibly BREEAM. BREEAM isn’t statutory, although it is becoming almost a de facto requirement in many specifications in the commercial field. But there is widespread cynicism unfortunately with BREEAM. It is a double-edged sword; BREEAM is great because it ensures a sustainable agenda, but it is hard to dissuade people from cynicism when you have got a system which perhaps gives a higher rating to expand the polystyrene than straw bales. And often with commercial developers, BREEAM becomes a box ticking exercise. Just an example, the highest rating of BREEAM building we ever did was a design and build project with a very simple specification which said, ‘this building will achieve BREEAM Excellent, and the contractor knew what he was doing, and it didn’t really matter about our understanding of sustainability, he knew how to get the points. 

In summary, I think it is not too difficult to create sustainable buildings. The knowledge is actually there if we look for it now. There has been a huge improvement in that particular prong of the industry. But what is missing is a political drive to recognise the carbon reduction that is available from sustainable materials. 

GT: I think most of your analysis is correct. I would say that if you look at the industry sustainability strategy, the targets are still being set and met so I don’t think the drive has come out of it, although I wouldn’t say the recession hasn’t had an effect on the ability of the industry to meet some of those quite hard targets. 

But more importantly you touched on the Green Guide. A lot of direction now is coming from Europe, when you look at CEN TC350 and Environmental Product Declarations. Embodied carbon is very difficult to legislate for when no-one has agreed how to measure it. So we are moving forward but there is going to be a lot of discussion. One thing I have learned about standards is that all they do is create ways out for different people. But at least a standard is a starting point and a level playing field. There is progress.

The big danger of the argument about embodied carbon becoming a greater percentage is that you then lose sight of the long life of buildings and how you then measure it over the whole life. LCA, Lifecycle Analysis, is going to become something that architects and engineers have to have a better understanding of. There is a big argument to save carbon now but there is not much point if you are then pushing it out in 50 or 60 years’ time, or you have to knock your building down to rebuild it. It is not a simple equation.

There are no incentives for the carbon side

SL: Standards like BREEAM are used on exemplar projects, but we have to roll this out on all projects, and that is going from a firm previously that focused explicitly on Passivhaus. It was very easy because the agenda came from within the office, and we had a very supportive client base. But when you try to go out to the industry at large, there aren’t the funding incentives, so it is very difficult to get clients on board because they are looking for value. And value might be lifecycle costing, but it is not necessarily carbon because there is no incentive. This is base standard incentives. There are lots of incentives that we can get funding for, for clients. But there are no incentives for the carbon side. It has to then be driven by the specifiers, and that is a difficult thing to push on the value side when you are looking at more expensive, more difficult to source materials. 

PM: That is particularly a problem where the client is going to build a building, sell the building, and then they have no interest in the building, so it varies hugely across who your client is. This sounds slightly elitist but with more educated clients or those who have a vested interest in the whole life of the building, it is a much easier struggle. As you say, the bulk of the clients frankly aren’t that fussed.

SL: It is easier to get clients on board in building performance, but carbon is just more abstract, it is a very difficult target to fulfil and then to monitor.

SP: One of the things I am constantly having a problem with is the nature of durability, the question of how long are we building buildings for? Sixty years is a number that has been kicked around a lot. I can’t remember where it came from. A lot of the argument for very durable materials like concrete and brick is that we can say, ‘Look our buildings can last for a thousand years.’ Hitler used to build bunkers out of concrete that were meant to last for a thousand years, so that is durable. Now are we building for a thousand years, sixty years, or ten years, or a hundred and twenty years? What do we expect to be building for? Are our buildings to be so good that they can be changed easily, like the classical Georgian facade, and then you can build anything you like behind it for years and years, or are we building buildings that go up and come down. I have no idea. But I think this is something that has got to be nailed on the head because this argument of durability keeps on being redeployed, as if we all accepted it. And I don’t think we all do.

JF: The 60 years came from government at some stage, because the first we came across it was when the local authorities were demanding a sixty-year lifetime, so that is where I think it came from.

CH: BREEAM does mention sixty years, and commercially we designed to a lifespan of sixty years, a lot of our commercial buildings undergo a lifecycle analysis which works on that basis. But it is interesting because how many buildings last exactly sixty years or get reused? If a building is really good then maybe it should be preserved for thousands of years, look at the Pantheon. A shed, a logistics shed, how long should that last? We have converted old warehouses into call centres, and they are going to last another few decades longer than their design life. This is incidental to materials, but trying to design buildings to last a long time in an era of climate change raises its own questions. A lot of people feel that we are creating heavily insulated air tight buildings at the moment which may give rise to problems in a hundred years, when our climate is heating up. Passivhaus comes out of central Europe which is subject to long, cold winters. We are definitely not.

HH: John, from your vantage point, you say that sustainability has been a major driver. What has been pushing that?

JF: Initially it was people trying to specify it but in the fullness of time you find that price becomes more important. When we develop a new product, it has got to offer some kind of technical advantage, and it has got to be cheaper. If it comes in more expensive, then that is unlikely to get much traction. It did for a while in the Netherlands for us, but then it rapidly stopped. 

In terms of developments in cements, there is a lot going on. The cement industry has got a very fixed agenda. By 2050, as the volume of cement goes up, the carbon has to go down so that the amount of embodied carbon in cement has got be basically halved, so there is a lot of work going on. At the moment, they are trying to use alternative filler materials. I don’t see that as a long term future because we are not going to be burning coal, so the supply isn’t going to be there. The steel industry is going to change so slag isn’t going to be there, so it has got to be something different. People are looking to polymers, although that is currently more expensive. There are also people looking at carbonation routes. If you have a product out there that has got some lime in it, you can carbonate it. People like Solidia in America are looking at a totally different kind of cement with tricalcium silicates and monocalcium silicates which has only got 30 per cent of the lime in it for decarbonation. So there is a huge amount going on. When you talked about Novachem, the problem with that is that it was an academic exercise, and it was always going to be two or three times more expensive than portland cement, so it was never going to go anywhere. They didn’t have the right gate to go through in the first place. 

AB: Going back to your original question on the drivers for sustainability, from our perspective on the manufacturing side, clients are quite clearly driven by cost and availability. For us sustainability has been a driver and a long term investment in new factories and processes to reduce our emissions. But where we are now, with the change in the market that we have seen over the last year or so, it is completely price and availability driven, and it seems to have gone down the agenda. We have main contractors – taking your point earlier on – that are quite happy to switch, and all they are interested in is the box ticking exercise. It is for us, at the moment, price and availability driven. Sustainability has gone down the agenda, from what we are seeing as manufacturers. 

FB: Going back to specification, one very big problem is that there is a big focus on energy, but some of the other key issues like toxicity and processing aren’t really addressed, or are very difficult to address. The whole issue that got me initially into the world of green building was timber treatment. Twenty years later, or forty years later, in this country nothing has changed, despite the fact that Canada and New Zealand have been using boron to treat their timber ever since. These are the things where specification really do make a difference, because it is very hard to re-write those kinds of treatments. The consequence for that is that it is very hard to find the facilities to do the work that needs to be done. It is really interesting that you are in some ways really far ahead at looking at very long term implications for the work that you are doing, and you can drive specification. Whereas these other areas where specification hasn’t progressed is partly to do with who benefits financially. Who is going to promote straw over a highly processed block? There is no material reason to do that. Those issues have to come from somewhere else, not the market.  And that is a very weak something else, apart from the market is a very weak driver at the moment. 

RB: I’d like to argue against that because I think that we have made great strides in the industry over the last ten years, and the bigger organisations around the table have responded by giving a lot of warranty to meet these standards. But now we’ve hit a bit of a buffer, partly because of the recession and political wrangling. I look at it from the housing perspective, and there is very little connection in the housing industry between the desires and aspirations of the end user and the product that is used. Whereas say if you look at the food industry, there has been a huge growth in local food, organic food, and Fairtrade food. There has been an enormous push largely by NGOs to say there is a better way of doing this, and the market has responded. Okay, it is not the entire market, but it is actually big chunks of the market. There has been no legislation, and we are seeing very positive results. We need to re-think our relationship with the market as an industry. We can no longer rely on our political leaders to take an interest in this, or frankly to be educated in it. With the revolving door of housing ministers, you have about a six month period in which they learn the portfolio and then forget it again. I know more about housing than any housing minister over the last 12 or 15 years and frankly, and probably so does the most junior person in Levitt Bernstein. When we don’t have any political leadership, we should look to ourselves and say we can do a better job, and frankly we can make better businesses out of our businesses by doing so. This shouldn’t be something that costs us money, it should be something that makes us money. We should be able to sell more products that are better for people to live with. People care deeply about toxicity, so we shouldn’t need legislation to back it up. Any product that goes on the market that says this is the healthier product, it is better for you, ought to be able to work.

HH: But it doesn’t happen, how do we get that shift into our sector?

CH: There is a whole raft of things there that are intertwined. A lot of it is to do with what is sustainable. Is it toxicity or is it the energy content? Also it is marketing. We encountered so much greenwash. The perfect example was concrete blocks. Some concrete blocks are marketed as environmental 25:57 blocks because they are recycled and low energy. And they are really no different to normal blocks, and we found just bog-standard normal blocks which were up to 80 per cent recycled material. That’s driven by landfill tax; you have ended up with a fairly sustainable, low energy product, incidentally almost.

That raises the issue of where does the driver for sustainable products come from? Is it at the industry level driven by high level legislation, a lot greater than say what architects are subjected to?

The analogy with the food industry is really valid and interesting. I recently visited California for the first time in 30 years, and I was amazed at the number of organic supermarkets there were in southern California; now it can be lala land California, there are a huge amount of freeways and cars. But the interest in organic food is immense, and it really took me by surprise. It is a triumph of marketing, and we are back to the blocks. The blocks might not be the lowest toxin product in the world but they are low energy, but they are not being marketed as low energy products, they are just normal. Are people truly aware that they are getting non-toxic properties, houses? I recently tried to design a school where I designed out every applied liquid product, so there would be no paint, no applied finish – this would help with off gassing, VOCs, help with maintenance hopefully – and it was the first thing cut for cost because the contractor went and said, ‘Oh, we don’t do it like that.’  And the local authority said, ‘Yeah, but we haven’t heard that is a problem, we don’t think kids suffer from breathing in the VOC fumes.’ There is a marketing and awareness thing from the consumer and the developer. And unfortunately that is always going to be up against cost.

HH: So then what is the role of the architect? How do you bring the client along and how do you write this into your specification, because the client is not going to be sitting there reading your specification. If these things don’t cost more are they going in anyway?

It’s best if you can you get things under the radar

PM: If they don’t cost more then yes they are going in anyway. My experience has been that it’s best if you can you get things under the radar, frankly, because sometimes it is easier to do the right thing than to raise it as a conversation because somebody might go, ‘Oh, is that going to cost me money?’ and start worrying about it. This isn’t true of every client of course. But too often it is the case, and it is so much easier to just do the best that you can, some of it is going to get taken out again. Your point that the role of the architect is to lead is wonderful and utopian, but it doesn’t happen as often as I wish it did. Probably the single biggest barrier is the disconnect between the architect and the end user of the building. In the work that we do, the people living in the flats are not the people commissioning the flats. The people who are commissioning the flats are not the people building it. It is probably a design and build job so the builder actually has final say over what we produce. We can, with the best will in the world, write what we think is a really great spec, we can’t guarantee it is going to be built. Obviously we hope it does, but there are a lot of hurdles between the designer, the specifier and the end user of the building. That is where a lot of the good intentions get lost, in one of these hurdles.

SL: Wider education is required, and not just in the industry but everybody needs to be educated. We can also specify these great materials and these wonderful low-VOC buildings, and then people move in and think this is great, this is very healthy. Then they put down a carpet and if they have specified an unsustainable carpet they have high VOC. It is a complete lack of knowledge. There isn’t marketing telling people about this.

AB: Do you think 30 per cent of people service their boilers? You put modern technology into a house and people are not going to work out how to open the windows and get it ventilated properly.

SP: And sadly the mass housing market never sees an architect in the first place, so the consumers see a house and they tick off the things that they like, nice drive, can park the 4x4 there, enough ensuite bathrooms, suitably vernacular front, ticks all those boxes. It is detached – very important. All those things are ahead in the list of somebody saying ‘there is no PVC flooring in this house, it is all linoleum’. The vast amount of the market is absent of an architect. We have to look at educating people who buy our buildings and value them, to feed their expectations. There are a lot of people who don’t have expectations of sustainability.

CH: This is where the double-edged sword of BREEAM comes in. Most of our buildings have a demand for a BREEAM rating. Now the client won’t understand what that involves. He has got in his mind that he might have a wind turbine somewhere, but there is an issue in the criteria of BREEAM of materials and lifecycle analysis and sustainability. There are huge disagreements about how that is assessed and people get really wound up about the Green Guide to Specification. We have many projects where all that matters to the client is getting that Green Guide rating and there are serious financial implications in the market and from funders of not attaining that level. It is that kind of driver that is the only thing actually working at the moment.

SP: Quite often all roads lead back to the BRE.

CH: I’m not justifying that. I have as many issues with BREEAM as anybody else, but the fact is that commercially, the BRE have been very successful, in this country at least, at marketing their standard. And we can disagree how that standard is attained.

PM: We need stick as well as carrot, in whatever form it is, whether it is just statutory regulation or whether it is BREEAM. There has got to be some sort of mandatory target, some standard that you have to achieve over and above just an architect saying ‘wouldn’t it be lovely if…’ because all too often, not every time obviously, if the only driver is money then there isn’t the incentive to do all of that. There has to be a minimum bar set, otherwise only the best 10 per cent of projects will exceed that bar easily.

JF: The Green Guide gives you a minimum doesn’t it? That’s the problem, because if we then halve the embodied carbon in a product we get no better rating for it. It’s a concrete product, it goes in the system, it is A-star rated, and it’s finished.

CH: We are back to the particulars of the Green Guide and how it is assessed. 

PM: My point really is that or any other target, it doesn’t matter, there has to be some minimum. 

CH: You mentioned earlier about clients, and we are very lucky that we have some very enlightened clients, often in surprising organisational situations that will drive the sustainable agenda. We have others that don’t really care; it’s profit for them.

PM: I could note the same thing. I have worked with some great clients who know exactly what they want, and they will drive it. But sadly there are people out there who care very little beyond the bottom line. 

FB: Design and Build contracting is a fundamental area where specification becomes a much weaker tool than you normally need it to be. And the fact that architects concentrate so strongly on surface in recent years and have given up a sense of ownership of the way that buildings are actually made and how they are put together is a real problem. We have allowed ourselves to say, ‘Build it like this or something similar.’ Part of specifying for green buildings is actually specifying that ‘or something similar’ very carefully. There isn’t something similar mostly. We must concentrate on making our specifications effective all the way through. That is where GreenSpec is very useful; you can check up on when you are giving options what those options are.

SP: Because of the particular reputation of your practice, are you developing an expertise in the knowledge of materials that other practices don’t have? I think the degree of technical know-how about materials is not going to decrease, it’s going to increase. When we have a universal application of environmental product declarations, I suspect we’re going to have people who specialise in understanding what those mean. Architects are going to have to develop an expertise, or somebody else is going to do that. It might be that we surrender another facet of our profession to another person yet to be invented. 

FB: We’re all about multi-team working really, and the kind of specialisation within multi-team working.

SP: Do you think it is the province of the architectural profession that they should be able to advise their clients on technologies and materials?

FB: Absolutely, you can’t design good buildings if you don’t understand the materials they are made of, and you need to understand them pretty well, a lot better I would say than mostly architects coming out of school today.

HH: Do you find more architects coming to ask you for this information?

GT: Yes and even engineers now, which is quite interesting, specifically to do with concrete structure, of course.

With the Code for Sustainable Homes disappearing, we are quite likely to get BREEAM Homes arriving. If BRE don’t do that, they will have lost a huge potential for furthering their power base. But in terms of specification and an architect’s role, who is the person who is going to pull together at concept stage the building solution for a client? 

The architect is the only person who has really got that grip, and hopefully the sustainability issues as well. Many of the sustainability issues are things we have been dealing with at a different level for a long time. You made the point about blocks already using recycled material. They did it because that was economically the sensible thing to do. I rather agree with your analysis, this word ‘sustainability’ is going to disappear soon. Every time we get a student who has been at college a long time after me, they just think about these things naturally. Unfortunately we are on a precipice where we have to move an awful lot faster than waiting for the next batch of people to influence the industry. In terms of the carbon agenda, we don’t have an awful lot of time.

SP: Is your main agenda the carbon agenda?

GT: Sustainability is much broader than carbon, but all those aspects of holistic design, looking at the life of a building. Different buildings will last for different periods of time. In the City some buildings get knocked down within 18 years. I was talking to a developer and I said, ‘Well why don’t you just design for 18 years?’ Well, we wouldn’t get funding for that. The drivers for the life of a building are both client and commercial, and it is a very complex subject. I’ve never yet met a client who told me how long he wanted a building to last for, unless it was a very short period of time. 

RB: I see two positive things happening in terms of specification as a tool. One is the growth of BIM. Let’s not talk about BIM for any length of time, but it does provide a mechanism to build a specification around. So architects who take BIM seriously and then look at the NBS and how you read the two together, suddenly have an extremely powerful tool for describing the building in detail, and for actually knowing more about it than they used to know. They know how many cubic metres of concrete there are going to be in there, how many cubic metres of block work. Actually architects and designers want to learn a lot about that famous question, ‘How much does your building weigh, Mr Foster?’ They will actually know and will have a tool to think about that. 

The second thing that is happening, certainly in the residential sector, is a big focus on the performance gap, where we are designing things to be ex-carbon and ex-energy and we’re finding out that - lo and behold - when we build them and test them that we are only achieving about 50 per cent of that. So there is going to be a toughening certainly in the residential sector on regulation in the next four or five years, to drive down that gap to a point where buildings are being delivered which actually do what they say on the tin. It is slightly extraordinary to find ourselves in the situation where we have to actually deliver the things we say we are delivering, but that’s where we are. 

Part of the reason for that gap is that step between the design and the delivery: the lack of meshing, the lack of responsibility. There is a gap in responsibility which is why it is leading to a gap in performance. Contractors don’t feel themselves really responsible for the performance of the building, they just want to build the thing that meets the specification, hand it over and run away. It is actually not really a responsible method of procurement, and it is giving us a poor result actually. That tightening up will help the architect or somebody working with the architect very closely to tighten the specification, go back to something like an NBS, link it with BIM, and we have got a very powerful set of tools.

CH: As regards BIM, a few people round the table deal with housing. Has anybody actually applied BIM to a mass housing scheme at this point?

RB: Yes.

CH: We’ve had quite a bit of trouble getting volume housebuilders to be interested in BIM because of the number of small subcontractors traditionally employed in the housing market.

RB: The ones where we have employed it is for a main contractor, not for a housebuilder.

AB: Some of the major housebuilders have invested quite heavily in it in terms of their in-house design teams producing the standard house types, not many but some of them have. 

HH: John Lambert who is here with us from Forticrete has just been talking with me about the parallels between the construction industry and the food industry which I thought would be interesting to share with all of you.

JL: We were talking about the drivers for sustainability for a manufacturer. If we look at Tesco and Sainsbury’s, they are trying to do environmentally friendly activities in there, but our equivalent of a Tesco or a Sainsbury’s is Travis Perkins, and our equivalent of a Sainsbury’s is a Jewson’s outlet. They have both said to us several years ago: ‘We want you to be doing the best that you can and to prove to us that you are acting in an environmentally responsible manner.’ As a manufacturer, you can go a number of different ways. You can find a scheme to sign up to, which puts you on an annual assessment of your activities and your impacts which is BS14001. When it comes to picking materials and to sourcing responsibly, even if there isn’t legislation, to just start off where somebody says to us – as Jewson’s did, as Travis Perkins did: ‘If you are not 14001 by this date, you are not one of our suppliers.’ That has started to happen in the housebuilders. Look at Barratts. Mark Clare [Barratt Group Chief Executive] and I talk on several occasions during the course of the year, and we often talk about how they are looking to be more responsible in sourcing their materials. 14001 is high on their agenda. They are beginning to take suppliers that don’t have it off their supply chain. From a specification point of view, 14001 could be a good starting point. Even on design and build projects, with a client on board to say if you are going to put an alternative forward, it should come from a supplier with 14001. Then you know that they are trapped into an annual assessment system - voluntarily in most cases. We spend a good level of money in our business – and I’m talking in excess of hundreds of thousands of pounds per annum - to try and reduce our impact on the environment. And we are doing that all the time now; it has actually become cultural right across the business. It was a client that turned round and said if you don’t do it, you’re not in.

HH: I’ve heard Bill McDonough of Cradle2Cradle speak several times over the years, and he often says that it is the Walmarts and Tescos who are going to force this agenda by driving it through their supply chains. What do the architects around the table think? Is a 14001 certification a bar that someone would look at as an architect specifying? 

GT: John also mentioned responsible sourcing – BES 6001.

JL: It’s quite interesting when you talk to some of the clients, and we do a hell of a lot with housebuilders, the level that we are at at the procurement end, they don’t even know what it is, even if they have signed up to it. They are not in a position where they can make a value judgement because they don’t understand it. So we are actively educating our clients to differentiate so that at least puts us in a better position. If it is X product from Forticrete and Y from a competitor, we have got all the green credentials to go with it, and we’re into 6001, we are into 14001, why wouldn’t they want to use us? We use a lot of moral arguments, and John referred to a product, and it is really interesting even down at planning level. We go on behalf of a client and the planner says, ‘I don’t want that product, I want this product.’ I’ve often used through our sales force the National Planning Policy Framework document. You slap that down in front of a planner and say: ‘Do you use this?’ Often the question is: ‘Well, that’s my Highway Code.’ So you quote clause number 19 that says you are supposed to act in a responsible manner and you are not supposed to be an impediment to sustainable and environmental impact. And they often will do that. So we will go on behalf of a client and say: ‘Here you have got a traditional material you insisted on, here is the alternative that we invented that is 40 per cent less carbon per roof. Why are you insisting on it? Because your bible says you are supposed to encourage this product.’ And there are lots of really interesting ways that we are going out of our way to actually convince people on a moral argument, that we can back up with facts that actually say, ‘14001, we are a supplier, that one isn’t.’ Why Mr Planner are you insisting on that? If you look at some materials, natural stone compared to what we make – what do we do? We take natural stone, we crush it, we stick it back together with a glue called cement. We have about 2.5 per cent process waste from beginning to end. If you look at natural stone it has got in excess in most quarries around the country of 60 per cent waste. Why are you insisting on natural when ours is the same aggregate, we just stuck it together with a process. And one of them is 60 per cent waste that goes nowhere. 

FB: I am slightly scared about the food analogy because the fact is that obesity is rising more steadily now than at any time ever in the past. Should we be really thinking of the food industry as our model? Or is there actually quite a good comparison because similarly our carbon from the building industry is rising? The questions we ask, for instance, about bricks. Of course bricks last forever, that’s what is so wonderful about them. The point is how are they put together? And if you actually really interrogate the whole industry, specification around mortar is actually very problematic. ‘Oh well, we really do need this bit of cement because it will hold it together.’ Actually that is the bit that we need to be focusing on, not the bricks, they are fine, they have got lots of life in them. It is what we do with them, how we put them together.

JF: There is more embodied carbon in the brick than ever there is in the mortar.

FB: But the point is the brick can be used again…

JF: So can the mortar. Most end life of the brick is to crush it up and put it into concrete.

FB: You should be able to just pick the brick out and re-build with it. That is what we can’t do. We used to be able to do that and we can’t do that.

JF: That is only because people are making the mortar too strong.

FB: Exactly my point.

JF: That’s not our fault is it?

CH: I think this raises an interesting point about the different sorts of buildings we are aiming at. Obviously there are some people concerned with housing here. What we found when we started doing our research is that a lot of the expertise was at what I term to be at the enthusiast level. There are quite a number of low energy houses in this country. I used to work for a guy that lived in Britain’s first earth shelter house, and he was considered a whacko because he was concerned about energy in the seventies. A lot of that knowledge is carried out by people building their own houses, or building on a very small scale. It is easy if you are to re-use bricks to get the mortar off them if you are not faced with a contractual deadline, or a programme, if you have got to employ lots of people with chisels to get them off. 

When we were doing our initial research, we went into it with a whole list of materials that we really wanted to use, and we quickly discovered that in a commercial sphere they were completely unsuitable. We couldn’t get anybody to take a risk on them. They weren’t available in the quantities we wanted. There wasn’t the expertise in the country. 

Context is incredibly important, and just because a material appears to be sustainable with a low carbon footprint, it doesn’t mean it is going to be successful in a particular context. I agree that you should be able to pick bricks up, but to get a contractor to build something the size of the Barbican doing that won’t happen.

FB: But you’re talking about house building. Houses are really good examples of buildings that could be built with lime mortar. 

SL: The point about scaling up is a really good one. It is exactly the process that I have been going through in the last few months, moving from the small where you can literally specify anything and the clients are on board, to having to deal with design and build contracts and producing a hundred houses at a time. It is a completely different challenge. Whereas clients are willing to take a risk sometimes and don’t need NHBC warranties. That is not the case when you get to largescale. We need warranties. There are products at the moment that we need to educate the warranty providers on, like timber frame buildings, because we are coming up against challenges there. And then also the private housebuilder sector, getting mortgages on some buildings using natural materials, you are coming up against challenges which is ridiculous because these are proven technologies, but it is a lack of education. And the point about specifying materials that a builder can guarantee that he can have on site when he needs them is a challenge as well, and making sure that we don’t specify something that is necessarily going to be able to come from one provider because if there is a problem with that one provider then there is a problem across the full site.

HH: I want to follow up on a question about the nitty gritty of specifying. When you are doing research on some new possible alternative material, or even comparing to a more conventional choice, how do you find the process of actually getting the information you need from the manufacturers in order to be able to make educated choices?

SL: That is challenging. The more environmental the product, the easier it can be to get that information because that is their focus. They put a lot of research and time into that but you have to be pretty discerning when you are looking at the information, and be able to make value judgements that aren’t necessarily on paper. It is difficult. There are new regulations coming in all the time. At least now all the insulation is supposed to be valued to the λ90/90 standard so we should now have a direct comparison so we understand the thermal conductivity of insulation, which we didn’t really before. It is getting better. Four or five years ago when I was first working on the Passivhaus projects, it was really difficult to find out G values of windows, but now that is pretty commonplace. You can find out this information. It is getting better.

HH: And coming back to concrete, what are some of the issues in terms of specification that you would be looking for?

CH: The whole issue of low carbon concrete led us to write the guide because we had so much trouble getting information on where to source low carbon alternatives to cement. That has changed a lot, and I can see now that several companies are actually marketing low carbon cement. One of the surprising things that we did find was that one of the products we were looking for turned out to be commonly available from a truly major supplier, but he didn’t realise it was a sustainable alternative. Every yard in the country had a silo full of this particular thing we were looking for. And it had never occurred to them, and I know to this day it is really not marketed as a sustainable alternative. 

It has improved immensely, and I can reel off four or five low carbon concrete products that we can source. We had trouble finding one, and we actually had to change supplier mid-track because they said they could get a particular sort of low carbon concrete, and then they said they couldn’t and I think because the GGBS had been bought up by someone else. It has changed a lot, it has improved. 

GT: Can I interject here? There is something I ought to speak briefly about. The words cement and concrete are broadly interchangeable to a large audience; they don’t really understand the difference. If you look at precast blocks, something like 4 per cent of a block is cement, and in ordinary concrete, it varies between 8 and 12 per cent. You get these magical figures about one ton of carbon equals one ton of cement, but actually no-one actually buys cement, they buy concrete, and they build with concrete. If you haven’t read this document, The Concrete Centre’s Specifying Sustainable Concrete, you need to. 

HH: When was this written?

GT: This was written about two years ago, and we are re-doing it at the moment. It has had a recent update because the biocarbon figures have changed.  So the cement table has been updated in the last year, but it is ongoing because the industry is always moving forward with new figures. Specifying sustainable concrete covers a whole range of things about secondary aggregates and recycled aggregates – and I’m now talking concrete rather than blocks. If you recycle aggregate and then transport it more than about 11 kilometres, you might as well not bother, because your carbon footprint is going to be greater. There is quite a lot of complexity in that aspect. There are issues there that need to be looked at. 

I would also say that carbon isn’t the only bit of sustainability, and the industry report covers a whole range of different metrics, waste and all those issues that we need to look at. We have touched on the magic three - the social, the environmental and the cost - that are critical issues, and they all balance out in different ways.

JF: Another change is the UK moving from British Standards to European Standards, which means that most products are now performance-based. The old prescriptive minimum dimensions and cement contents are gone, so we are able to engineer the shape of a product much better these days. The move to the European Standard has reduced the amount of cement and aggregate we’re using by up to 15 per cent.

CH: It’s probably worth mentioning the dark side of specification and marketing. In addition to what we term greenwash - unsubstantiated claims by some manufacturers, there is actually negative marketing from some industries against other industries. You will see many headlines which – while not out and out lies when you read the text underneath them – are intended to mislead. I see this a lot, without mentioning names, really major industries. Everything should be approached with a certain degree of cynicism and the intention of trying to find out for yourself what the actual truth in the figures are. Go into specification open-minded without presumption. It was an interesting point you made about the recycled aggregate, but it came as a shock to us that we thought it must be better, but apparently recycled aggregate, because it is angular shaped rather than rounded, can take more cement content. So it becomes less a win material.

JF: That is if you are putting it back in at random. The way we make a concrete block, normally we will pick up an aggregate that has a gap grading. If you then tune your recycling into that gap grading, by and large we will save 10 per cent cement on every product we make with recycled content in it.

GT: That’s the difference, we are talking here the difference between in situ and precast. You are talking in situ, as was I, and you are talking precast and that is something different, it is a factory-made product.

JF: But it could be the same couldn’t it? If you understand the grading of the aggregates you have got, if there is something wrong with them, then if you make that recycled content fill that gap grading, then you are going to save cement.

RB: What this does point to is that you can get into a very intricate numbers game, and you can spend quite a lot of time and effort comparing the number of trucks you might need to move a pile of aggregate from one canopy to the next. Somebody has got to pay for that. This is all time consuming and complex. You need someone with a lot of experience and knowledge and understanding of the materials themselves, specification. And I don’t see them in our industry. I’ve got someone who was a specialist in LCA on my team, but the technical guys who specify materials know less about LCA. They know a lot about mortar, and they know a lot about grouting and a lot about sealants and how to keep the rain out. But they don’t really understand necessarily the impact of choosing one material over another from a lifecycle or an impact perspective for toxicity. I think there is some work to be done to bring those two areas of interest together.

PM: I think that is true to a degree, I’m not sure we are completely ignorant. 

RB: I’m speaking from our experience that historically there have been people who have worked on the technical aspects of construction and then the people who are interested in the sustainability aspects, and we probably need to put them together a little bit more than we have. 

FB: Can we talk a little bit about specifying process as well as materials? For instance, around the issue of airtightness, I developed a way of specifying not just what result we want, but also something about the process that I think helps to get to the end that I want. That is partly to do with using GreenSpec, because your work on air tightness has been really exemplary. Now I’m always thinking that you shouldn’t really use specification to describe how to do something. But when you are trying to encourage people to do something in a different way from how they have done it before, it can be useful. To what extent do we grab the tools we’ve got? It is quite good to give people quite a chunk of text and say, ‘Look this is the kind of process that I expect you to go through, and if you allow for all this you might end up achieving the result that I’m looking for.’ This is not really what specification is up there to do, but actually it can be handy. I’ve found that by including it in quite a big way on certain projects, it has enabled the person who is pricing it to realise we are serious about that. They can’t just come along later and say: ‘Oh, we didn’t quite read that bit of text.’ What do other people think? Is that something you ever do? Is it an okay way to use specification?

CH: I think that is absolutely necessary, particularly when using innovative materials, and maybe building materials that come out of Europe. We have built schools from what looks like Weetabix; it is a block made from recycled timber which is then fill with concrete. It is used on 60 per cent of building sites in Austria, but it is hardly used here at all. If you are getting people to tender for it, you need to explain what you want to see because the tenders will come back and say: ‘Oh, we just ignored that; we will do it our way and it will be fine. And you say: ‘No, this is what we want, this is what we are going to go for, it is an innovative material.’ There are all sorts of advantages to that. 

It is absolutely imperative that if you want something and you have got that knowledge, you should go that extra mile to write in the specification. Whether the client expects it or not, he will thank you for it in the end because you get a better building and you get what you intended.

SP: When you use new materials, do you think of the legal implications? The son of the partner of the first firm I worked for said: ‘Always think of the day when you are standing in front of a hostile barrister, and he is asking: ‘What made you think you could make that material work?’ Somebody has got to do it at some point. There is a process of specifying the kind of blocks that you were suggesting that leads eventually to widespread adoption. The mass housebuilders aren’t in a position to do it because presumably they have got NHBC on their backs, and they are not going to do anything that is going to frighten the legal profession.

CH: It is interesting you raise that because we spent a huge amount of time sorting warranties out. And the engineering approach necessary to create certain openings with this block was unusual for our normal structural engineer. The supplier recommended somebody and brought them in to do the specialist bits. A lot of work is involved with ascertaining who takes the blame. Also, tied in with that - I know this by bitter experience - the materials that you want to use can affect the viability of what you want to design in terms of shape. At first glance something that appears to be fairly straight forward might turn out not to be. With my cynicism hat on, if you’re told something is feasible, make sure you understand the implications of what feasible entails.

Sustainability is possible but it requires absolute buy-in, right from inception. There is no point in coming along later on and going: ‘Oh, can you just get us BREEAM Outstanding?’ Everybody has to be on board, everybody has to understand.

There are implications to the way we procure buildings, too. In the commercial sphere, often we will be employed by a developer maybe with a mechanical engineer if we are lucky, to take a first stab at a building. There is no contractor, no structural engineer on board, and the integrated team to me is key to sustainability. And I include the client with the integrated team. Everybody has to understand what they are aiming for and have a target.

SP: The way that Paul - and he is amongst many - squirrels in the little changes is highly commendable. Do you think he was taking a risk?

CH: No, I think he is absolutely right. There are a lot of us who do it. We are well aware of the environmental advantages, and might not flag them up, as long as there are no adverse implications to it. 

PM: I don’t see it as a risk. I can specify something that was un-green. I wouldn’t go out of my way to get the client’s buy-in. Nobody is ever going to get down and get the client to sign off every clause of every spec. You write what you believe to be the best thing. I would describe it as doing my job, to be honest. That is what I try to do.

RB: The key is to justify your choices well. We use prefabrication quite a lot, and we work for contractors who are building other people’s schemes. We use prefabrication as much as possible; we think it is a really good approach. When we can justify it with the contractor, they are quite can-do people. That is why they are contractors. If you discuss it with them and point out the advantages and take them to another site where it has worked, people do accept good evidence, particularly where it is going to save them time. Yes, you sometimes are squirreling things away, but sometimes you just have to come out with it and say: ‘This is our big idea on this project guys, we think this is the way to approach it, don’t you agree?’

SL: To pick up on your point about the risk of using a product which is being used for the first time here, but at the same time it has been used in so many buildings in Austria, so is it really a risk? Sometimes we can be quite insular looking but we are not that different from other countries.  We can look to research from the great building research institutes on the continent, and in other countries we can look for that guarantee to reduce the risk and ensure that we are not putting our clients at risk.

CH: Coming out of the recession, let’s face it, the quicker and easier you can design a building, the greater the chances of commercial survival. If you want an easy life, and just to make a profit then you probably wouldn’t do it, but architects are terrible at business. We think more about other things. It will end up a better product in the end and ultimately, you can turn around to the client and say: ‘Look what I’m doing for your social agenda and for your marketing potential by using this innovative or sustainable product.’

JF: If the product you are talking about is the one I’m thinking about, it has got an Agrement certificate in Austria. The problem we have when we bring those products into the UK, is that it is like starting again. If we invented it in the UK and the British had an Agrement certificate, the Irish would accept it, and the Germans would accept it. When we come to this country, the Agrement Board is very intransigent. They want to start again.

SP: Is that a legal requirement to start again or is it just a cultural habit that we have here?

JF: It is culture. If you’ve got an agreement certificate, it should just be transferable, but to bring anything from any of our sister companies into the UK is a nightmare. It is a two year process.

SP: And quite a cost as well.

JF: Huge cost. That is why you default into making something that fits into a European Standard.

SP: So it is an easy way to do it, reproduce it in a UK fashion, rather like making copies of clothing in China. This isn’t the real thing, but it ticks all our boxes.

JF: For people trying to make the product, it is frustrating. It is certified elsewhere, but you have to start again. It is ridiculous.

SP: And this is holding back the industry presumably?

JF: Yes. Some of the products are common place in Europe. It is ridiculous. 

RB: In the housing sector, NHBC are a huge barrier. They have their way of doing things, they and the house builders are essentially a kind of glove and they work together, and it is like having an elastic band and an accelerator, it just slows down the pressure of change. What is worrying right now is what we are seeing in the housing industry. Because of the huge demand and the political need to continually grow the economy, we are going to push ahead and build as much housing as possible as quickly as possible with anything we can get our hands on. That sort of positive change is going to be side-lined for a while, all on the altar of meeting demand, when actually even with all the house builders running at full tilt, they still won’t be able to meet it.

SP: That said, I think Bellway Homes has just built a CLT development in Hackney with the backing of the NHBC. Is it finished yet or is it still being built?

RB: I think it is finished.

SP: And they sold all that they have put on plan, so I take your point. The NHBC is a serious impediment but somehow they have produced an exception to the rule. 

RB: In that particular case there was a culvert underneath the site so you couldn’t build a heavy building on the site, and they used CL. That is a nice example of a clever use of a sustainable material to build a tall building on site. You are maximizing the site but minimizing the weight of the building, so that is just a clever solution, and it comes back to my point about if you have got a good reason for your solution then everybody should be able to buy into it.

SL: It is just the extra effort you have to go to as a design team to push through something which really should be being supported by policy.

SP: It would be useful to approach NHBC because they are such a serious obstacle to forward thinking design. Is there a catalogue of exemplar buildings that have been already built that you could take to them and say: ‘Look guys, this is the way it is being done already. Do you have a problem with this?’

RB: It is a bit like any other building inspector, they have their rule book, but it comes down to individual NHBC officers, so it is a bit like the fire officer. You have something that passes the regs but the fire officer won’t accept it. We have a curious approach to regulation in this country where we have a lot of standards, a lot of regulation but then there is still a lot of discretion on the part of local authority building control, or NHBC, or Premier Guarantee, or whatever. You can find yourself in hot water quite late on in the project, even having followed all the regulations. 

FB: There is also the other side of that, the way NHBC has been slow to take on board some of the issues around moisture, so that actually although they are regulating so carefully, they are allowing buildings to be built which are going to be problematic, I think. It might be quite interesting to look at some of those institutions and what is holding up a more sustainability-focused evolutionary approach within those organisations.

AB: BRE, BBA, the NHBC, they haven’t got many competitors have they, that is the fundamental issue. We as a manufacturer, we develop a new product, we have got to go through the BBA process. Then we go through all the issues about trying to get it into the market, and brick layers or contractors not wanting to use it because it is new. But fundamentally those organisations, there is not many other places we can go to as a manufacturer. 

SP: The BRE is sitting on everything, they sit on the Green Guide, they sit on the Code for Sustainable Homes. 

JF: It is their funding now isn’t it? Otherwise they wouldn’t exist at all, and there is very little or no fundamental research there anymore. 

SP: They are a business aren’t they?

AB: And that is the problem really, the business isn’t there to actually do the things we need them to do. We actually need them to be doing research, and they could be really a contribution to this whole work, and they are not.

CH: How much does the concrete industry use the BRE?

JF: Not a lot. We have had two or three research products on alternate cements. We have looked at using different binders for the concrete. They have run those successfully.

JL: We have been involved with some of the research projects with BRE, and the last one was a Victorian terrace house that they were refurbishing. Having visited and offered to contribute to the cost of the project, you then suddenly find that there is an alternative product that is specified outside of its performance range, which was a plain tile used at 22.5 degree pitch and it doesn’t work. We often find that they will have one agenda. If they can get some money in. Similarly with NHBC, we have found they are specifying their guidance for roofing - the way that the roof should be constructed and ventilated, and every manufacturer in the UK doesn’t agree with what is in the book, but they won’t change it.

SP: How do you challenge them?

JL: We now have a trade association, a roof tile association, and we have an annual dialogue with them, but they are still unwilling to take out certain aspects of the content, and leave it with some form of reference back to the manufacturer. They are very rigid, and the industry does not like what is in the guidance, and they are unwilling to change it.

CH: There have been attempts to create an alternative standard, particularly for materials. Gary Newman from Bangor University started the Alliance of Sustainable Building Products. Unfortunately it coincided with the recession, he is still making a go of it, and it is still small. But we are back to the discussion about the BRE and BREEAM. It has become like a defacto standard, and it is the only game in town. As we have said, it is a double-edged sword. If BREEAM didn’t exist, would there be a sustainable agenda, even if you are just box ticking? But the conversation round the table shows there is a deep degree of scepticism.

GT: We have had deep and meaningful discussions with them about the changes to BREEAM in 2014, and the revisions to 6001. So we are certainly actively engaged with them. The last time we used them was when they acted as the formulator of our resource efficiency action plan. And they were the consultants on that. 

JF: There used to be expertise in there, but it is dwindling, it has gone. If you want fundamental analysis from them, they can’t do it anymore. 

HH: We have quite an unusual forum here in the room because we have some architects very dedicated to specifying green, and we have some manufacturers. As specifiers, when you are searching for information, whether you are looking to specify an innovative product, or you are looking to get the information you need to understand what is in a more conventional product, how do you go about it? Can you access the information you need?  What are the steps that you go through?

PM: Step one is probably the manufacturer’s literature. The rule of treating it with more than a little scepticism is a good one. But you have got to see what they have got to say for themselves by talking to their technical person.

FB: You need quite a long time to find that technical person and you have to usually ask quite a lot of questions to get there, so finding that person is quite a job. That is key. It is quite interesting that now that person isn’t necessarily even in this country; that person might be really quite a long way away, and it might take you quite a long time to get hold of them. 

SL: Another place I use to find out about new products is conferences. A conference should be a really good place to do it, but sometimes conferences get too big, there is so much stuff it is very difficult to filter through. The International Passivhaus Conference is usually quite good because it is a much more refined, select group of products. It is often stuff that is available in the UK, and you can go there and it is filtered for you, so you can pick from that. 

SP: When Ecobuild was smaller, it was really quite good. 

CH: I would agree that the manufacturer’s literature is the first step and trying to find the person you need to speak to. But I’d also source the likes of GreenSpec which is invaluable, largely because it is objective and there are very few objective sources.

PM: That would probably be step two. Find from the manufacturer’s what you are after, and then find some independent way of authenticating that. I’m happy to put my hands up and say I’ve used GreenSpec many times and with good results.

AB: Sandy, can I ask what your assessment process is?

SP: Our first job is to familiarise ourselves. Our background is that we are set up as a joint project with BRE 12 years ago. And it was a two year project and after that we were on our own. So it was largely funded by ourselves, so it is my bank manager who has been smiling. Our prime job, as we see it, is to familiarise the architect on the drawing board - people like me who don’t know very much - and get them up to speed on materials and techniques.  Materials are phenomenally difficult things to look at. Our real problem is that we are working with very little evidence, and until there is a good general evidence base available for all materials through EPDs, there isn’t a systematic way of judging materials. 

FB: What is your timeframe for those do you think?

AB: Bricks are the first construction product to be verified under BRE Global’s recently launched EPD scheme. There is a long way to go.

GT: The Concrete Centre is just about to commission someone to produce a generic EPD. But the interesting thing about EPDs is that designers need a generic figure when they are doing the early design. They are not going to focus in on whose concrete it is, and then at some stage individual companies are producing their own product EPDs. And then of course it links with BIM, quite clearly because that is where the embodied bit is going to be counted and how it is going to be counted. I think there is progress.

JL: The difficulty is what criteria do you put into the EPD and it is so broad. I come back to a comment Chris made about literature and statements you make about products. We got so brassed off when the Green Guide came out that all concrete roof tiles get an A+ rating. Then John goes away and invents in the late 80s and early 90s a product that is 40% less carbon per roof. And it gets the same rating.

SP: I was one of the witnesses brought in at the beginning of the Brighton Sustainable Homes Code. Way back in 2003, I wrote a small pamphlet on the business of rating, saying look at white goods, look at how ludicrous this is going to be when everybody reaches A. And this was a serious objection because you have got generically absolute crap and then you have a few distinguished products that are really good. How are you going to say they are really good unless you have environmental profiling. Environmental flooring is phenomenally expensive and it has been obsessed with flooring. Clearly there is a little battle between the flooring companies.

HH: So what is the way forward then?

JL:  Environmental profiling might be appropriate, but it will probably take ten to fifteen years to get it down to the level, it is more than a decade away.

RB: It comes back to the designers too and hopefully the BIM interaction, because you don’t want to spend a lot of time and effort on something which is only 2 per cent of the weight of the building. You want to spend all the effort on the 90 per cent weight of the building.

JL:  As a manufacturer that will be really useful for us to understand because we might be putting a hell of a lot of marketing something that is only 2 per cent of the building. And we are better off actually agreeing what it is going to be good enough, because you are going to be focused on where you make bigger savings.

SP: But even 2 per cent of the building might have effects beyond the embodied energy. You might be putting radioactive waste into the building, but it would still have an EPD. What I find confusing and actually very disappointing is that conversations about materials are very quickly dominated by the carbon argument. What we really ought to be doing is opening up about the other environmental impacts and health impacts of materials which are not being considered, and I think are going into reverse.

RB: I’d be surprised if anyone here would say that the Green Guide is one of the five places to search for information. That is a point worth making. 

HH: We are almost out of time. I’m going to go around the table and please contribute if you have anything further you want to say in terms of best practise or innovative ways of specifying that you think are a way forward that we should share.

While we have fired some shots at the BRE, without them we would be a long way back

RB: We are all a long way from best practice throughout the industry. We all have really exemplar projects, where we have done a great job for one reason or another, but we need to bring that best practice into normal practise, so normal practise becomes best practice. There is an opportunity coming up with the demise of the Code for Sustainable Homes for us to rethink this. While we have fired some shots at the BRE, without them we would be a long way back. I think that they are open to recasting the whole discussion around how you look at sustainability, particularly in the residential sector by relating it back to what people want to buy. We have tried the stick approach, now we need some market demand. The Code was never marketed to purchasers as a desirable thing, it was only ever a stamp for builders and contractors and the housing associations. We have an opportunity in the next six months to recast our whole discussion and we should all be part of it.

JF: From my perspective, we will always try to make a product that is cost effective, we will try to reduce the embodied carbon element because that is the right thing to do. But at the end of the day it is going to come down to making the product at a lower cost. The other challenge is to make products less susceptible to workmanship on the building site. Because however good we make a product, the guy on the site can ruin it, so we have to address that problem. 

HH: John, can you elaborate on some of the changes that have been made? You have been driving this for a number of years now, so aside from the lighter and leaner profile, what are some of the other changes?

JF: We engineer the product to be fit for purpose. That is fundamental, and that is by and large done. In terms of the binders that we use, the cement, whatever you like to call it, we will maximise that for as long as the sustainable materials are there. The cement industry is already mopping all those up, so we have to look for something else. Then it is really about engaging with somebody that has got the new kind of cement. It is moving from the current cement, which is tri calcium cylocate to something lower to get the carbon footprint down. Moving back more to the cements we made between the war years. The problems with those is they set slower, though they ultimately get to the same strength; the heat evolution is lower so you would argue the durability is better. So it is going back to those kind of cements. We are engaging with one company at the moment that is looking very promising to do that. It will use the same equipment as the cement industry and the same raw materials so there is no huge gap, and that is what I’m looking for in the twilight of my years in the industry.

HH: So is that where the biggest win can be made?

JF: Yes, because it must happen. The road map is there: this is how we are producing, that is where we are going, these are the carbon emissions; these are what we think are going to be there: alternate cements and binders. But really and truly none of them have become commercial yet.

AB: Picking up on what John said, in the heavy clay concrete sector, there have been articles saying we don’t innovate enough because we are an old established industry. Clearly you can see that things are happening. It’s critical for our sector to have stability in the market. Every five years a change of government and a change of policy doesn’t help us to think about building new factories which are £20 to £50million investments. We need stability and a government that is planning to grow housing where it is not just about capacity of production, but also about capacity of people and skills.

CH: First, it’s heartening how far the concrete and cement industry have come in the five years since we started looking into this, and it would have transformed what we did in the end, and the outcome in terms of what we actually wrote. In terms of summary, the key things are don’t take any information on face value, be aware of box ticking for what it is, and recognise that no-one else is going to do it but you. So there is no point complaining if you are not prepared to actually go that extra mile.

SP: I am massively encouraged by everything I hear round the table. The heavy industries are getting on board really well and progressing in whichever direction they possibly can. That is going to bear results. And for somebody who has been previously passionate and concrete - I love the stuff, and I really hope it can come up trumps again. I am also seriously impressed by the progress structural timber has been making in this country; it has opened up in the short time it has existed; it has virtually exploded in terms of what it can do and what it is doing. 

Although we sometimes characterise the industry as a bit of an ocean liner, there are bits that go off and do very interesting things very quickly, so I’m impressed by that. Overall I’d like to see much more information and a hell of a lot more evidence, and that is not for the old traditional materials but also for the new renewable materials that are coming onto the market, because sometimes they claim something that really won’t cut the cloth. 

PM: Just because a material is 10 per cent, 1 per cent, or 0.5 per cent of the weight of a building, it doesn’t mean that it is in fact very small. That idea is quite concerning, and I’m thinking here of things like pilot paints amd adhesives. These are the things that just sneak into your spec. You might specify a flooring product, and you can go a long way down the road of saying, ‘Right, this material is great and I really like it,’ and then suddenly sneakily you find out that it is skimmed down, and all your great work has come to nothing. Actually you have just let something really horrible into your space. Something I’m very mindful of, when looking at product literature or speaking to manufacturers, is not just what is your product but what comes with it. That is something that I’m sure we have all been stung by once and are keen not to get stung by again. We have just started dipping our toe into the water of switching how we write specs to go along with the BIM we were approaching earlier on. I don’t have any great conclusions, I have dabbled. I’ve written a few specs in NBS CREATE, and I’ve found it quite an interesting experience. The process isn’t quite there yet, and I look forward to seeing how it develops. It has potential and it could be very useful. As we change the way we design also we need to develop how specs are written but we don’t necessarily have the tools fully functioning yet.

SL: Barron and Smith has started to look at NBS CREATE as well as part of this change. The linking of how something is to be done with what - whereas the specification often covered the ‘what’ and just made reference to manufacturer’s installation details – and providing more information on how to do it is really important. This picks up on Fran’s point about getting results on site, so nailing down the performance by providing more information and specifications. And then that also hopefully reduced the risk of rectification works as well, because if we are giving more explanation of how something is to be done hopefully that is followed and the rectification is then reduced. And then writing into the specification, or writing into the performance requirements for testing as you go along, where that is possible, again will help reduce the risk. As for the point on who should be writing specifications, to me it is imperative that architects read this because we have to understand how the building has come together so that when we go understand when there have been material substitutions. We have to be able to look at any substitutions and understand its impact on the full building fabric and the moisture profiles of the components.

PM: It is not just an architect, it is the architect. You quite often hear that one architect has designed a building and it gets passed onto someone else who might be incredibly technically knowledgeable.

HH: So how does that work in practise then, say in a practise like yours, if say you are the specialist for specifications? Is every architect on every project developing and then consulting with you?

PM: I’m not the only person who writes specs. If I write a spec for somebody else, then it will certainly be very close consultation. We will sit down and go through what they want and I will be writing it for them, and I will be asking questions – what did you mean, how is it going to work on this? I’m not going to cobble something together that seems to roughly fit the drawings.

HH: How does that work in your practise?

RB: There are a group of people, who work on the specification side but tend to lead the technical side as well because of the vast experience. So they take the junior architects through, or mentor them through the process. We also review projects on a regular basis with senior staff so that we head off major issues. Specification is quite a difficult thing to review, it is really quite a detailed task. I suppose reviewing process is more about the design, making sure the design and your raw materials are going to work and we are happy with them.

PM: There is certainly a danger of there being a disconnect between the design and the specification. That is a trap that we have got to be very careful not to fall into.

RB: Because of design and build, there is that disconnect in most schemes, certainly most housing schemes where it is designed by one single architect and built by another. Unfortunately a lot of architects have given up the process of building, because they found that working for contractors can be a very painful, difficult.

CH: It is very rare that the design team for the initial concept in our practise will be divorced from the specification writing. Working on large commercial buildings, and often in design and build sphere, that specification may already exists. It will be a client specification or developer’s specification which we might have had a hand in. If you are dealing with a client that views themselves as providing a product, then they have a standard specification, and you need a very good relationship with that client to effect and change that specification. I think risk is potentially compounded by the advent of BIM. 

BIM will change the industrty out of all recognition in the next five or ten years

The industry is going to change out of all recognition in the next five or ten years because of BIM, to the point where the medium sized practice will be under threat because BIM is a very large investment. You will have large practices that have BIM capability, and small practices, two-man bands that will design things and not have to bother with BIM. And then in between you will have BIM-equipped contractors, and there are actually now contractors that we worked with in the past who are now declaring their ability to be able to detail and bring buildings to fruition without an architect because they have a BIM capability. And so there is this risk that you do get occasionally in North America where the architect is a one-man band, a designer, and will do the design concept. Then to completion it is given to a multi-disciplinary company, a contractor, or a consultant who will just put together the technical aspect of it.  And they will be divorced from it. That is a huge risk and I can actually see it going that way, and that maybe the designers’ input into specification might actually get less. That is a challenge for architecture in this country.

GT: From an industry point of view we are committed to providing more and better data, and that is essential to allowing designers to make the right decisions. Today’s discussion is quite good, but the elephant in the room is something we haven’t even talked about which is the consequences of too much carbon. That is climate change, overheating, and extreme weather events that seem to be increasing. Designers need to be thinking about this going forward. 

HH: Thank you very much everyone. 

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