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by Roland Finch
NBS Technical Author
What is sustainable development?
There are two generally accepted definitions: firstly that it ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (1) and the UK definition: ‘Ensuring a better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come’ (2).
Sustainable housing, as you might expect, is generally used to describe the process as it applies to the housing industry, in short, less waste, more re-use and recycling, together with lower life-cycle environmental impacts and costs, better reliability, less maintenance, and greater user satisfaction.
Waste is not just measured in terms of surplus materials; it can be expressed as unnecessary use of land, time, and ultimately financial return. Techniques such as whole life costs can, and should be used objectively on a series of options, to form a long-term view of their impacts.
The government publication A Better Quality of Life: a strategy for sustainable development for the UK (3) recommends the use of an action plan.
Every action plan should contain a series of targets, measures to achieve them and methods for measurement and review of the processes. The government’s approach is based on ten targets, as follows:
- Re-use existing assets – The decision to build in the first place should be scrutinised. Refurbishment may be a better option. In any event the preferred option should be brownfield development, and this is encouraged wherever possible.
- Design for minimum waste – The potential for waste can often be reduced at an early stage. This needs clear and accurate specification, which is often overlooked, as well as a design concept to maximise re-use and recycling of materials. Designers are often best placed to be aware of new ideas, and this also addresses one of the main Egan principles of using innovation in problem solving and training.
- Lean construction – The targets of supply chain integration, site management, best value, improved communications and user focus can all be achieved in a sustainable way.
- Minimise energy use – This should include energy in materials manufacture as well as considering one of the largest energy uses, transport.
- Energy in use – Heating (and cooling) of buildings has one of the greatest impacts. Buildings consume huge amounts of energy during their lifespan. Relatively simple considerations such as position or orientation of buildings on a site can generate significant benefits. The use of design solutions such as passive heating, natural light, air movement and thermal mass can contribute greatly, as can the use of energy from renewable sources such as solar or wind power.
- Pollution – The four major sources of pollution from the construction industry; waste materials, emissions from vehicles, noise and releases to water, ground and the atmosphere, are all well known, but often not enough is done to combat them.
- Biodiversity – Look for opportunities throughout the construction process from the extraction of raw materials, through the construction phase, to the use of buildings and their landscaping, to provide, protect and enhance natural habitats. As with many of the other issues, this is also best addressed at design stage.
- Conserve water resources – Another design issue, natural resources may be better used by including measures for greater efficiency in use. This may not be immediately evident in the building process, but there is much potential for gain when considering costs-in-use. Information can be gained from water and energy audits of existing buildings and the technique of benchmarking can be used to great effect.
- Respect people and their local environment – Although sometimes not rated as highly as other items, this is one of the cornerstones of government sustainability policy, and has resulted in a separate “respect for people” initiative. Consideration should be given to all those upon whom the project may impact, from the local community to persons directly employed in the construction.
- Set targets – these are the measures by which the success or failure of all the other criteria will be judged. There is a wealth of benchmarking, best practice and other management systems information which is being developed for construction and sustainability in particular. Several organisations have already introduced environmental management systems to evaluate performance on construction projects. More recently, environmental management systems such as ISO 14000 as well as a number of evaluation schemes such as the BRE Eco-homes standard, have provided a means for assessing and managing their effects.
It can be shown that as well as the general sense of well being associated with contributing towards the preservation of the planet and the larger community, a strong case can be made for the business benefits of adopting a “green” approach. There is an ever-increasing list of demonstration projects and case studies which show how this has been achieved, while the House Builders’ Federation recently launched a new housing sustainability award in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, details of which are available on their website at www.hbf.co.uk.
If, however, the concept is not to be dismissed as a political gimmick or worse, then it must be implemented properly. It is important to consider the long-term consequences of adopting a particular strategy, especially in the face of pressure for short-term gain.
(1) World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED): Our common future. (The Brundtland Report): Oxford University Press, 1987.
(2) and (3) UK Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions: A Better Quality of Life: a strategy for sustainable development for the UK: TSO May 1999. Copies Available from:
Sustainable Development Unit,
5/B2, Ashdown House, 123 Victoria Street, London SW1E 6DE
Sources of further information:
P O Box 147
DTI Enquiry Unit
1 Victoria Street
London SW1H OET
Office of Government Commerce
Great Peter Street
Related NBS information:
- Before you start building "green"
- Smart homes
- Public sector building: adaptable housing for special needs
Confirmed as current June 2007
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