“We need more than iconic buildings”

British environmentalist, writer and former government advisor Jonathon Porritt is non-executive director at UK construction firm Willmott Dixon. I asked him about the potential for a greener construction industry.

OB: The buildings sector is responsible for a third of total energy use. Do you think it will ever be possible to make it sustainable?

JP: First define what you mean by “sustainable”! On carbon, water, waste and building materials, there’s no reason why the industry shouldn’t be putting up completely sustainable buildings within a few years. We still have a target here in the United Kingdom for zero-carbon non-domestic buildings by 2018.

And we should be encouraged by what’s going on elsewhere. We’re already beginning to see “carbon positive” buildings on the ground in Germany and other countries, and the level of ambition is rising all the time. Many companies are now committing to some kind of “zero waste to landfill” strategy, and are involved in very significant waste-minimisation programmes.

OB: What are the key challenges? And is legislation the only way to meet them? 

 JP: Construction is a sector that suffers from low margins, complex supply chains, deeply conservative leadership values and a chronic innovation deficit. It’s hardly surprising that it is driven primarily by legislative interventions of one kind or another: building codes, health and safety regulations and so on.

Here in the United Kingdom, the target imposed on volume house-builders to achieve zero-carbon housing by 2016 has had a bigger impact than any other single policy.

The exception to this regulatory approach has been the kind of voluntary leadership provided through initiatives like LEED in the United States and BREEAM here in the UK. These codes on sustainable building have had a huge impact, and are beginning to make a real difference.

OB: We’re now getting to a point in China and globally, where there has been plenty of demonstration of green-building techniques. How do we move to an age of scaling up? Are we ready for it yet?

JP: There’s no reason why every country, including China, shouldn’t be scaling up on sustainability in terms of both of new build and existing buildings. There are no technological barriers that cannot be overcome in this regard.

But investors are not providing the capital, and governments are not framing market conditions to make a real priority of low-carbon development. Not the odd iconic building, but mainstream buildings across the entire economy.

The problem is that without a real price on CO2 (on every tonne of CO2 in every country around the world) the pace of change will remain regrettably slow. Governments know that this is what they are going to have to introduce in due course, but are still mighty reluctant to take that next step.

OB: Many global construction and design firms are trying to break into the green-buildings sector in China and other developing countries. How do you make sure there is actual benefit on the ground – and it’s not just a chance for good pr and engineering showcasing? 

JP: A lot of today’s “sustainability showcases” for construction are driven by architectural prestige and by the pursuit of iconic buildings. Great for architects and those associated with it, and indeed for the reputation of the cities involved, and fine for grabbing people’s attention and media headlines. But it isn’t really what counts. What really matters is replication and mass roll-outs. This is a much more pedestrian approach to the challenge it has to be said, but a precondition for future success. We won’t get to a sustainable future via a scattering of iconic buildings.

OB: In the UK, fashioning effective green buildings legislation has been tough. Energy Performance Certificates for instance (a compulsory assessment needed to sell a property) have come in for heavy criticism. What do you think the lessons are?

JP: The trouble is that governments blow hot and cold within the green buildings agenda, and in the process they unnecessarily ramp up levels of political and regulatory risk. Just look at the debate about feed-in tariffs all around the world.

Clarity, transparency and accountability: these are the absolute priorities. We need public policy to be geared as much to long-term investment cycles as to short-term political expediency. The lessons here are absolutely clear: consult widely, determine the regulations transparently – and then stick to your guns.

Image from Imperial College London