Sustainability is a multi-dimensional concept. NBS Live on 26 November 2013 managed to cover many of the dimensions in a short space of time. How did they do it? Melanie Thompson of Get Sust! suspects they had some special help ... (can you guess what?).

The vast and empty central space of Islington’s Business Design Centre – the Victorian Royal Agricultural Hall, remodelled in the 1980s – is just the sort of eerie place where Cybermen lurk behind the heavily swinging service doors, or where shape-shifting mannequins congregate in the basement ready to pounce. But it is a great place for a construction industry CPD gig ... honest!

As the rest of the world recovered from the previous weekend’s 50th anniversary Dr Who-fest externallink, those in the know hopped on the Tube to Islington where the NBS was holding a birthday bash of its own: NBS Live, marking 40 years as the construction industry’s favourite specification and information provider. The event was billed as “Everything you need to know about the future of the built environment in just one day”. That’s a pretty ambitious aim.

I didn’t spot any men in stripy scarves or wearing fezzes in the audience, but they must surely have had some sort of Who-vian assistance to cram so much stuff into this event – one venue; four themed ‘rooms’; 77 speakers. Here’s my pick of eleven speakers on sustainability-related topics…

Time for action

The clock is ticking loudly for the UK government’s Chief Construction Advisor, Peter Hansford. His aim is to get the industry back on the sustainable track by 2025. By then, the global industry should have grown by 70%. And by then, Hansford hopes for a 50% cut in the time from conception to completion, a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions, and a 50% reduction in the trade gap between imports and exports of construction products (i.e. more to be sourced in the UK).

The government’s Construction 2025 externallink strategy has five themes – people, smart, sustainable, growth and leadership. Hansford’s sustainability message was a tad weak, with the emphasis on procurement efficiency, ‘clienting skills’ (i.e. clients seeking sustainable solutions as a rule rather than as an exception), and tapping into ‘big data’ – the first of many references to building information modelling (BIM) during the NBS Live event.

But good news emerged during questions from the floor, when Hansford reassured the NBS Live audience that his team have also engaged with the Labour opposition, and there is broad cross-party support for the strategy. No excuses then: time to get the industry back on track.

Attitudes to Part L

Over in the Technical room Anne Woodeson of Wilkinson Eyre Architects confessed her disappointment at the latest changes to Part L of the Building Regulations. She and her fellow architect panellist (Peter Fisher, Bennetts Associates) are, she said, already well ahead of the curve when it comes to energy-efficient buildings. She strongly urged developers and designers not to regard Part L as a ‘target’ but as a baseline for performance.

Nor was she a lone voice in expressing concerns about the housing standards review, which has decided daylighting in dwellings is not a problem. “We say it is,” says Woodeson, explaining that, with the greater emphasis on delivering the fabric energy efficiency standards (FEES) set by Part L1 externallink, developers will be tempted to reduce window sizes as an easy option to meet envelope targets. She presented a case study of a Code for Sustainable Homes development where early analysis using proprietary software (Sefaira externallink) improved the performance of ground floor apartments (by adding heated cores and triple-glazed ‘pop-out’ windows). Her top tip for architects: engage with building physicists.

Relative requirements

In a neat collision of worlds, next to the podium came building physicist and building services specialist Ant Wilson of Aecom. “How do I get around Part L?” is a question Wilson hears all too often. With the air of a weary time-traveller he explained that building services are regarded by designers as the ‘get out of jail free’ card in the game to meet Building Regulations. His advice: start with the Part L ‘notional building’ and concentrate on saving energy through fabric measures first. Other key points were

Bennetts Associates’ Peter Fisher echoed Woodeson’s concerns about Part L and sustainability. In particular, embodied energy and transport emissions are two important dimensions to sustainability that are not covered by the Building Regulations. Bucking the trend elsewhere in the event, Fisher says his practice no longer relies on BREEAM to guide sustainability decisions, preferring the wider scope of Soft Landings externallink. He presented several case studies, including the Dogs Trust Rehoming Centre externallink in Basildon, where landscaping and regeneration of local woodlands are as much a part of the project as the low-carbon buildings.

During this Technical session’s Q&A, all three speakers warned of the risks of letting the software or the Regulations get in the way of good – and therefore sustainable – design. Concerns include: the risk of being sued if a building doesn’t perform as well as intended; and the fads and fashions that make homes and offices uncomfortable for occupiers (e.g. unnecessarily small windows in homes to meet the Regulations, compared with floor-to-ceiling glazing causing overheated offices). On the latter, Peter Fisher reminded the NBS Live audience of the archetypal Georgian terrace with 45% fenestration: the fundamental rules of thumb haven’t changed.

Dimensions galore

True to NBS’s raison d’être, BIM had a room to itself, and Dr Stephen Hamil has already provided a comprehensive report of the day-long proceedings. But three speakers in the BIM sustainability session cannot go unmentioned here.

Following on from the opening session ‘BIM – collaboration for beginners’ which featured tempting high-tech promises and high-gloss visuals, Elrond Burrell of Architype brought the BIM room audience down to earth with a bump, saying: it’s not about the sexy graphics, it’s about the data.

Burrell’s talk centred on BIM for very-low-energy buildings, using the Passivhaus standard and in particular, the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP) externallink, an open-source, spreadsheet-based system of testing and refining designs on-the-fly. He told of sustainability dimensions galore: core data on surface area and volume driving accurate assessments of the ‘heat loss envelope’; time saved by avoiding the need to re-enter data at different stages of the process; and – in a school design case study – indoor air quality (and therefore health, well-being and learning outcomes) are improved in buildings. Sustainability rules!

The time and construction dimensions were ably demonstrated by James Anwyl, whose example of Hadlow College showed how a BIM simulation enabled his Eurobuild team externallink to run a ‘construction rehearsal’ for the largely prefabricated structure. By practising how best to crane in the panels, and where to site the cranes, they got the building in place in just three days.

Moreover, modelling the building’s mechanical ventilation and heat recovery (MVHR) system in just half a day saved £3,000 and lowered the risk of adopting the strategy. And exemplary airtightness was achieved, as demonstrated two years later, in part through the careful planning and positioning of holes in the fabric for ducts and extract vents, which were made in the frame offsite.

But the prize – if one existed – for cramming the most dimensions into a 30 minute presentation goes to Brendan Patchell of Bouygues (UK). Cautioning the audience to beware of ‘BIMwash’ and remember the not-so-old adage ‘garbage in; garbage out’, he nevertheless proclaimed the numerous benefits of taking BIM to the fourth, fifth and sixth dimensions:

  • 4D for time planning (see above);
  • 5D for capital cost planning (the quantity surveyor’s dream database);
  • 6D for operational costs (everything about the building at the facilities manager’s fingertips).

To which we can add the seventh dimension: BIM for deconstruction externallink. But there are more dimensions to sustainability than software alone can deliver.

Igloos and other ideas

Place-making was an issue in the Design Room for the morning session but it infiltrated the post-lunch session on housing too, in the form of Igloo Regeneration, introduced by Jon Sawyer. This has nothing to do with ice-houses, but everything to do with nice warm dream-homes. Sawyer’s pitch is that 6 million people per year want to build their own home, but only about 15,000 a year actually take the plunge. Inspired by schemes in Holland and elsewhere, the Igloo Regeneration Management concept externallink is to buy and reclaim land, mark it out into plots then sell the plots as ‘custom build’ opportunities. Igloo organizes a posse of house designers and builders who act as ‘home manufacturer’ and work with the plot owner to progress a concept design into a stamp-duty-free and customized new home.

Back in the Technical room, John Robertson Architects’ Festus Moffat was a man with a plan: a futuristic vision of how to reconfigure offices. His recipe: take one central London office building chock full of embodied energy; redesign the core by using the existing light-well space; move the plant to the roof (and add a garden there too); reconfigure the lifts and loos; pop on an air-source heat pump with variable refrigerant flow (thus opening up valuable ceiling height). Et voilà: one office with the highest BREEAM excellent score for refurbishment externallink (One Southampton Street).

Another neat idea in the Technical room came from Andrew Sutton of BRE, who started the countdown to the launch of RegBIM externallink, an ‘automated regulatory and standards compliancy checking tool’ that will be capable of taking off from within any BIM software platform or desktop. RegBIM will be platform-neutral and able to assess BIM files from any project against a variety of assessment systems. The Beta test version (due out in early 2014) will check for compliance with Building Regulations Part L (and other Parts), will show a total score plus information about opportunities for improvement, and generate provisional certificates for BREEAM and the like.

Space: the next frontier

One crucial dimension has so far gone unmentioned: people. My eleventh speaker of note was Sue Foxley, of property consultants Cluttons. An economist by training, Foxley gave a gripping whistle-stop tour through the statistical maze that is the current housing market. Her thesis: ‘housing need’ is not the same as ‘housing demand’.

In September 2013 she surveyed tenants in London and the south east asking:

  • “Why are you buying?” The top answer was ‘as an investment’ (e.g. to get into the market before prices rise any further).
  • “Why are you not buying?” Popular reasons cited were ‘money’ and ‘job security’.

Posing the same questions to homeowners in the region, the answers centred on ‘we need more space’ and ‘we need less space’ (i.e. downsizing and/or equity release). From this Foxley concluded that attitudes to home ownership focus around investment (getting a foot on the ladder) and personalization (having a place to call your own). Among the many useful facts she delivered, the following stood out:

  • The ‘home’ will have a more diverse and evolving lifecycle, with multiple households and generations sharing.
  • There will be changes of use from commercial to residential.
  • Sustainability and cost-effectiveness in the home will become more important.

By this point in proceedings, the sheer volume of facts, figures and ideas was making me feel as if I was falling headlong into a spinning vortex, and I hadn’t even made it through the wormhole of time and space to the Business & Practice room! Helpfully, Su Butcher’s provided a summary of all the day’s tweets externallink.

Not forgetting the twelfth person

As all true Dr Who fans know, there are ‘issues’ when it comes to the numbering of the doctors; and eagle-eyed readers may also have noticed a mismatch between the headline ‘twelve faces’ and my personal picks. And so in keeping with my seasonal theme I must name a twelfth. There is no contest here: Julia Park, Head of Housing Research at Levitt Bernstein externallink.

Far be it from me to say (but I will anyway) – NBS Live trumped the Dr Who franchise by inviting many talented and knowledge women to the spotlight! Much more significantly, Julia Park made the best argument in favour of space standards in housing I’ve heard: In a four-person, two-bedroom home, the only place for privacy is the ‘privy’.

Her studies on behalf of the Greater London Authority (GLA), and while seconded to DCLG’s housing standards review team, illustrate a catalogue of poor design practice that wastes resources, funds and – ultimately – lives. Park’s presentation (Design Room – Housing – slides 83 to 106) (be patient – it might take a little time to download), which includes eight reasons why space standards are essential, should be required reading for everyone involved in the housing sector.

I am sure I heard a distinguished (male) architect sitting near me gasp at Park’s illustration of the layout for a small flat, where the people squeezed on the sofa watching Dr Who also have a full view of anyone going to answer a call of nature.

It shouldn’t take a genius with two hearts and a sonic screwdriver to work out that people need space to live: why do you think Dr Who and his TARDIS are so popular? externallink[Play to fade.]