Greener bricks to build with

Sensemaking / Greener bricks to build with

A new awards scheme helps sustainable suppliers stand out in the construction industry.

09 Nov 2011

A new awards scheme helps sustainable suppliers stand out in the construction industry.

We all do it. When buying something that matters, most of us stick to the places we know – the hairdresser, the car repair shop, even the takeaway. In business, it’s the same. When a building company wants to purchase concrete or windows, they go to familiar suppliers. Better the devil you know.

So what happens when companies want to make a step change and source products that are greener?

Enter the minefield. “If you’re starting from scratch it is pretty hard distilling what’s green and what’s not”, says Jonathan Hines from Ashden Awards winners Architype, which specialises in sustainable architecture. He recalls buying windows for a school built to rigorous Passivhaus standards (see image): “Getting the right window at the right price took a lot of effort.” The variety of accreditation schemes, drawing on different and complex criteria, didn’t make it any easier. “What’s more, we don’t trust many of them”, adds Hines.

Architype isn’t alone in finding reliable information on suppliers’ standards hard to come by. Joe Ravetz of the Centre for Urban and Regional Ecology at Manchester University explains that some benchmarking studies are based purely on what the companies themselves say. It doesn’t help that increasing numbers are making green claims about their products. “They may have [what appears to be] a good green policy”, says Hines, “but it doesn’t mean that what they build is actually green.”

So, it’s small wonder that when a building contractor wants to green up its act, it opts for the supplier it already knows and trusts, rather than approach a new one.

Does this matter? The trouble is that the combination of greenwash on the supply side, and the fact that many construction companies are unwilling, or unable, to do their homework, means the best suppliers are likely to be missed.

“Who supplies what to construction companies tends to be a question of who you know and what favours are required for passing contacts on”, says Ravetz. “The industry is very fragmented, and information is poorly communicated.”

Bad communication about good suppliers is something construction multinational Skanska, named Green Company of the Year 2011 by The Sunday Times, has decided to tackle. Skanska admits that even among its own staff it struggles to ensure everyone knows where to find the best buy. (To be fair, it does have 55,000 employees across three continents.)

“People need to be shaken out of their comfort zones”

Its answer is the Supply Chain Green Solution Award, now in its second year, which encourages suppliers to come forward with their green products. The idea is that the profile given to shortlisted companies will raise awareness of their work around Skanska and encourage procurers to give them a go. “People need to be shaken out of their comfort zones”, says Sustainability Manager Daniella Holt.

Skanska is also spreading the word about its green finds more widely, through collaboration with the Modern Built Environment Knowledge Transfer Network. This platform, led by BRE and funded by the Technology Strategy Board, aims to increase the application of innovation in the built environment.

The first Green Solution Award winner was the design and installation service provider Prater. It won not because of any groundbreaking widget, but for really trying to embed green standards in its overall approach. Runners-up included The EcoCrib, a retaining wall made from 100% recycled plastic; a watertight manhole designed by drainage company CPM to last for at least 120 years; and Lafarge’s Extensia concrete flooring , which is strong enough to support a heavy load on a thin slab without adding steel fibres to the mix, so cutting carbon by as much as 20%.

Both the range of innovations out there and the general ignorance of them are symptoms of the rapid growth of the green building industry. The number of people attending the Green Build trade show this year was double that of 2010, while the International Business Times describes green building as moving “in just a few years from obscurity to a significant trend”. And not too soon. The built environment accounts for 40-50% of our global draw on natural resources, and so the potential impact of truly green products and attitudes is huge.

The UK’s Green Building Council publishes a statistic from which we should all take cheer: CO2 emissions caused by the built environment in the UK are down 20% in the last 20 years. Not a lot of people know that. – Charlotte Sankey

Skanska is a Forum for the Future partner.

Photo: Architype

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