08 May 2024

Sustainable construction and design take in a built asset's economic, environmental, ethical and social impacts over its lifetime. It emphasizes sustainable performance at every juncture, from asset design to end-of-life activities. Sustainable specifications encompass the responsible selection of:

  • Building methods.
  • Manufacturers.
  • Services.
  • Materials.
  • Products. 

In this article, we look at sustainable design and specification through the lens of UN Sustainability Goals 03, 08 and 11.

  • UN Goal 03, 'Good health and well-being' – acoustics, air and light quality, thermal comfort, humidity, green spaces, etc.
  • UN Goal 08 (part), 'Decent work' – health and safety, supply line integrity, ethical hiring practices, apprenticeships, and training.
  • UN Goal 11, 'Sustainable cities and communities' – retrofitting, sustainable housing, natural and social environments.
While some of this may feel outside of our industry remit, keeping these goals in mind can help strengthen your sustainability approach and provide insight into ways to design and specify that may not have occurred to you.

Goal 03: Good health and well-being

Goal 03 promotes healthier lives and well-being for everyone at every age. It aims to create strategies, environments, and social spaces that address issues proactively rather than relying on reactive responses.

  • Lowering maternal mortality rates and ending preventable deaths for children under five.
  • Finding better ways to fight infectious diseases, reduce mortality from non-communicable diseases, and strengthen our approach to preventing and treating substance abuse.
  • Universal access to healthcare, including sexual and reproductive care, family planning and education.
  • Promoting mental health.
  • Reducing road injuries and deaths.
  • Minimizing illnesses and deaths from pollution and hazardous chemicals.

How this applies to you

  • While much of this goal feels related to things outside of our industry, you can address a variety of elements via the built environment, including:

  • Site safety (hazardous chemicals exposure).
  • Preventing air, water and soil pollution and contamination.
  • Air quality (minimizing VOCs, etc.).
  • Light quality (maximizing passive measures and improving mental well-being).
  • Thermal comfort.
  • Humidity levels and controlling damp and indoor pollutants.
  • Acoustics.
  • Access to green spaces.
  • Infrastructure.
  • Inclusive design.

 Things to consider

A few considerations you may want to take on board include:

  • Eliminating hazards from your design proposal to ensure a safe working environment and determine the acceptable emissions from non-road mobile machinery.
  • Specifying an asset's comfort performance in a way that supports and enhances the occupants' physical and psychological well-being. In addition to thermal comfort, access to natural light and avoiding glare, things like access to natural views have been shown to reduce stress, improve happiness and even increase work performance and productivity.
  • Specifying for inclusion – not just adapting for physical disabilities but invisible ones, like autism and issues related to our ageing population. We work and remain independent longer than our predecessors; however, that doesn't mean that we don't still have age-related issues that can be supported or hindered by how the spaces we access are designed.

The most successful sustainable outcomes happen when engagement begins early in the project. Educating and having the client on board with your vision is fundamental to achieving this.

BREEAM also encourages and awards recognition credits for spaces that ensure adequate airflow. This includes naturally ventilated areas and mixed-modelled and air-conditioned spaces where achieving natural ventilation is difficult.

Goal 08: Decent work

Goal 08 has two elements – decent work and economic growth, with the decent work element focusing on things such as:

  • Eliminating modern slavery and child labour.
  • Ensuring full and productive employment and decent work for everyone, including those with disabilities – visible or invisible. It also includes providing equal pay for work of equal value.
  • Promoting youth training, education and employment.
  • Protecting labour rights and ensuring safe working environments.

How this applies to you

To meet this goal, it is your responsibility to:

  • Combat human exploitation by ensuring the integrity of the supply chain and contractor/ subcontractor employment practices.
  • Not promote or engage in unfair hiring practices or support those who do.
  • Actively invest in employee health, well-being, safety and training.
  • Promote and participate in apprenticeship programmes.

Things to consider

During concept design and spatial coordination, you should look at:

  • Implementing design risk management processes and identifying, recording and analyzing significant or unusual foreseeable health and safety hazards (like electricity or chemicals).
  • Reducing or eliminating identified risks, recording control measures, coordinating information from the architectural concept and outline specification, and ensuring they align with other project strategies and the project brief.
  • Updating pre-construction information.
  • Initiating a health and safety file and updating the design risk management process if necessary.
  • Including the critical health and safety design decisions made and recorded during pre-construction in the stage report.

It is beneficial to take a proactive approach from RIBA Plan of Work Stage 0 and use preliminaries to determine things like:

  • Health and safety (plans/ files).
  • Working conditions.
  • Good working methodologies.
  • Materials location and supply chain integrity, with a mind to mitigating human rights conflicts/ risks.

By doing it this way, you can set out general requirements, define minimum contract requirements for safety and environmental protection, address health and safety issues, and identify and eliminate threats to a safe working environment.

Goal 11: Sustainable cities and communities

The primary purpose of Goal 11 is to ensure that the spaces where humans dwell are resilient, safe, inclusive and sustainable.

How this applies to you

As construction professionals, it is our responsibility to do our best to ensure we are taking part in:

  • Providing housing that is safe and affordable.
  • Creating resilient buildings with a focus on using local materials whenever possible.
  • Developing transportation systems that are accessible, affordable and safe.
  • Designing inclusive urban environments.
  • Including green and public spaces that are safe, accessible and inclusive.

This goal also aims to:

  • Strengthen national and regional development planning and strengthen the environmental links between urban and rural areas.
  • Reduce our cities' negative impact on the environment and natural disasters' effect on our communities and economy, emphasizing the protection of the poor and vulnerable.

Things to consider – communities and housing


Retrofitting and refurbishment are vital for reducing our sector's negative impact. After all, the more sustainable building is the one that already exists.

Multiple systems fall under retrofitting, so consider how you can improve a building's energy efficiency when determining how to specify for sustainability. Define materials reuse and recycling via preliminaries and determine what existing materials can be retained or reused to reduce embodied energy. Also, consider incorporating sustainable design to improve the building's performance via external wall insulation systems, photovoltaics, solar heating, etc.

Sustainability performance requirements

For anyone wanting to go beyond third-party rating schemes, use preliminaries to set your project's specific sustainability performance requirements, carbon mission targets, etc. While high-efficiency envelopes like Fabric First, Active House, Passivhaus (Passive House), etc., can incur higher initial construction costs, they can significantly reduce or eliminate fuel poverty via long-term running cost production. By combining multiple approaches, you can design for both comfort and sustainability.

  • Increasing wall insulation to reduce thermal bridging.
  • Increasing loft insulation.
  • Sealing around door and window openings to improve airtightness.

 Using renewable materials can reduce embodied carbon compared to using other energy-intensive materials. Sourcing locally whenever possible also has a significant impact. For instance, thatch materials are both renewable and typically locally sourced. However, when using thatch, fire risks need to be carefully considered.

Other renewable materials examples include:

  • Recycled and reclaimed timber, steel, plastic and natural rubber.
  • Clay brick.
  • Cork and bamboo.

Numerous sustainable alternatives to traditional plastic-based insulations exist, including sheep's wool, recycled paper, expanded cork (to BS EN 13170), cotton fibre matt, and hemp fibre.

Things to consider – natural and social environments


Biodiversity is an integral part of the built environment's overall sustainability strategy; addressing it through design and specification can significantly and positively impact our work. Some of the things you should be considering include:

  • Use preliminaries and project management content to set your overarching strategy for interweaving biodiversity and ecological integrity into your project and mitigating or avoiding habitat harm during site development.
  • Create high-level scope statements to outline biodiversity, habitat protection and management specifications.
  • Introduce measures to protect flora and fauna species and consider site vegetation control systems for any invasive species that might be detrimental to the existing ones.
  • Determine survey requirements (Chartered Institute of Ecology, Environmental Management, Joint Nature Conservation Committee).
  • Use species introduction systems and surveys to identify works facilitating species introduction (roosting and nesting structures, feeding stations).

Landscape management

When specifying how a site should be managed for biodiversity and visual interest, objectives can include providing wildlife habitats, managing locally native species and/ or controlling invasive species.

Lighting and light pollution

Light pollution is a major environmental issue related to external lighting. Undesirable effects created by light pollution include:

  • Wasted energy caused by excessive light or light lost upwards.
  • Urban sky glow disruptively permeates rural and countryside areas.
  • Intrusive light and glare disturb neighbouring building occupiers.
  • Reduced star and night sky visibility, which is essential to our natural environment.
  • Harmful changes to habitats and behaviours of affected plants and wildlife.

You should carefully weigh the effects of lighting design and product choices against their potential negative impact. Ask yourself:

  • Does the design or products unnecessarily allow light to escape above the horizon (via poorly designed, wrongly specified, wrongly installed luminaires)?
  • Are the light levels so high that they will increase the reflection from illuminated surfaces?
  • Does the lighting design allow light to stray where it is unwanted and unneeded, for instance, into the sky or toward dwellings?

Flood mitigation

Along with other mitigating measures, SuDs can help to partially address flooding during severe rainstorms using swales and wetland systems. You can also use permeable paving systems to dispose of rainwater locally instead of having it collected into mains drainage, which can significantly reduce the effect of flash flooding and drought.

Things to consider –community and social values


During a project's initial stages, consider people's current disabilities, those they may have had at one point, and those they might have in the future. Designing for inclusivity can take numerous forms. For example, accessible toilet accommodations that comply with Building Regulations guidance for non-domestic buildings. By addressing accessibility at a whole project level, you can define high-level requirements for accessibility within the project for people with disabilities, including car parking and sanitary facilities, etc. Types of disabilities to consider include:

  • Intellectual.
  • Learning.
  • Neurological.
  • Psychiatric.
  • Physical.
  • The presence in the body of disease-causing organisms.

Typically, creating inclusivity requires careful attention to what separate components are being specified (often by proprietary reference). Consider:

  • Transfer handing.
  • WC pan and seat material and colour (to give correct LRV differences).
  • WC cistern arrangements (e.g., concealed).
  • Basin material, water supply fittings.
  • Basin water supply temperature (maximum).
  • Support rail colour.
  • Included accessories.
  • Operating devices like flush mechanisms and taps that can be used with a closed fist.

Also, the external built environment and the spaces around and between buildings should be considered to ensure they are inclusive and meet all users' needs.

Outdoor shelters

While not always obvious, many ways exist to incorporate sustainable community and social value goals into the built environment. This can be via inclusive design (above) that considers accessibility and issues like neurodiversity (i.e., factoring in light and noise levels for autistic comfort) or from other means, like outdoor shelters, which can include structures like:

  • Bird hides allow users to better understand ecosystems and biodiversity by viewing birds and other wildlife in their habitats.
  • Bus and bike shelters that encourage more environmentally friendly transportation alternatives.

Shelters can significantly contribute to safe cycling and other means of transportation when strategically placed to be safe and accessible at critical locations where people work, play and live.

End note for CIS users

This article is based on Part One of the Sustainable Specification Guides, created for NBS Chorus customers looking to specify sustainability. The guide itself covers much more and includes Chorus-specific specification examples for reference. You can find the guides on the NBS website.

It is important to note that if you are interested in NBS Chorus, it does include CIS links within its guidance content so that you can easily access related standards and regulations via your CIS subscription. The NBS website provides more information.

NBS Technical Authoring Team acknowledgements

The NBS Sustainable Specification Guides are a collaborative effort that relies heavily on our Technical Authoring Team's expertise. Primary contributing authors include Technical Content Editor Anna Dekker, who also specializes in landscaping and biodiversity, Senior Technical Author James Smith, and Senior Technical Author Stephen Surtees.

In case you missed them, other recently highlighted NBS articles include:

Also of possible interest is The Building Safety Act and specification, written by Senior Technical Author James Smith.