Edge event highlights: Sustainable building products – so what?

Sustainable building products

Last month, Edge, the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) and the Supply Chain Sustainability School co-hosted an event Sustainable Building Products – So What?, bringing together representatives from across the buildings supply chain – from property owners to product manufacturers – discuss their progress to sustainability or the road blocks standing in the way. Here’s what they had to say and how we’re committed to helping.

THE EVENT

Sustainable Building Products – So What? sprung from regular conversations we had, suggesting that those producing sustainable building products were unsure what value they gained by certifying their goods, and the apparent difficulties faced by builders and developers tasked with finding sustainable materials as they seek to develop climate-friendly supply chains.

Our aim was to explore why this apparent mismatch exists between the two ends of the market; whether it is a true reflection of the market; and what could be done to make things work better. The resulting debate was fascinating and uncovered huge challenges that we collectively face over the coming years.

THE SPEAKERS

Cathy Inglis, Brickworks 

Cathy Inglis opened with a candid assessment of Brickworks’ approach. Their carbon-neutral bricks currently don’t bring them any real advantage in the market: they exist because the people at Brickworks think that addressing environmental impacts is the right thing to do. And as much as construction companies’ and developers’ sustainability teams might put in place well-meaning procurement policies, it all falls down as you move along the supply chain to subcontractors who aren’t engaged and all too easily substitute in cheaper, more familiar, or more readily available materials.

Mark Pulham, Ubiq 

That view was echoed by Mark Pulham, whose company, Ubiq, focuses on bringing sustainable alternative products onto the market. Without products’ embodied environmental impacts featuring in building codes as a key component of their amenity, there is currently simply not enough of a driver for those specifying materials to make the right environmental choices.

Andrew Thai, Frasers Property

Andrew Thai brought a developer’s view to the evening’s discussion. Frasers are keen to take a lead and are working hard to ensure that their buildings are as sustainable as they can be, including the materials used in construction. They’re increasingly looking at things like the Living Building Challenge – and the demands’ associated product requirements – in order to stretch themselves. But ultimately they work in a commercial market where cost and quality often trump other concerns. And that’s where one key opportunity lies – making sure that sustainability and quality go hand in hand.

Nicole Sullivan, GBCA,

GBCA continues to do what it can to drive the agenda, says Nicole Sullivan, with Green Star on a transition towards delivering zero carbon buildings over the coming decades. The rating system currently rewards sustainable material use and encourages a life-cycle approach. But ultimately its flexibility is such that it doesn’t currently require users to go down those routes. Whether or not that is something that GBCA needs to push for is currently under consideration, but the drive for change also needs to come from members. Is it something that they want? Would they be ready?

James Braham, John Holland Group

From a contractor’s perspective, according to James Braham, Green Star and ISCA have already driven massive change. JHG wouldn’t be so far down their sustainability journey without them. But again, the issue is often with subcontractors who aren’t involved in the conversation and don’t have the same ethos or drivers in their businesses. They need to be brought to the table. And it’s true that identifying sustainable products is hard – without a central register of information, time and effort becomes a barrier to doing the right thing. The Responsible Construction Leadership Group’s work in developing a materials register for contractors will, he thinks, be a helpful step forward in the sustainable use of materials.

SO WHAT?

So where does all that leave us? The discussion brought home many issues we’d been hearing in our day-to-day work. At the top end of town, there is ambition to make buildings more sustainable and that is filtering into the products market. But the barriers to this becoming mainstream practice are significant. Outside a small ‘club’ of sustainability advocates – many of whom were in the room! – awareness of the benefits that sustainability can bring and the quality of the products available and where to find them is very limited. And the current policies and standards driving action, while helpful, don’t go far enough and only tend to influence a small part of a gigantic market.

On the plus side, there are big changes on the horizon. Following the Paris agreement, more and more companies are adopting Science-Based Targets, forcing them to address the sustainability impacts of their supply chains. At the same time, the evolution of standards such as Green Star and ISCA is only going one way: towards zero carbon. Organisations such as the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors are taking action, too, having recently launched a consultation on a new draft professional statement on whole of life carbon assessment. All this suggests that there may well be a Kodak-style moment coming, with those failing to address the embodied impacts of construction – whether it be the products or the buildings they go into – falling by the wayside.

So the transition is happening, but there are a few key things we should consider working on to make it faster:

  1. This month’s event was useful, but it only reached out to a small number of the converted. We need to broaden and deepen the message, working through organisations such as the GBCA, SCSS and ISCA, to reach out to new audiences, especially further down the supply chain.
  2. Increased drivers for action. We need regulations such as buildings codes and industry standards such as Green Star to place a greater emphasis on the embodied impacts of products, systems, buildings and other assets. To do that, we need a better evidence base, including an understanding of what “good” looks like.
  3. Greater visibility. There is a plethora of different product standards, but no single place to find them (as a client or specifier) or advertise them (as a manufacturer). Perhaps it’s time for that to change?

We’re committed to addressing all those issues here at Edge, and over the coming months will be working with our stakeholders, in particular those present at the event, to push forward. If you would like to join us in those efforts please let us know – only through collaboration do we have a hope of making progress!

In follow-up to the event, Edge pledges to:

  • Work with the GBCA to develop training courses to help educate the sector – especially specifiers – on sustainable materials, their value and where to find them
  • Collaborate with the Supply Chain Sustainability School to develop similar training courses and engagement materials to increase awareness of sustainable materials in the supply chain, and SME contractors in particular, and to build a library of case studies to help remove the ‘fear of the unknown’
  • Engage with key stakeholders to build consensus around the need to include sustainable material standards in key legislation (esp. building codes) and raise the bar within industry standards
  • Scope out the potential to develop lifecycle carbon benchmarks for key building types as a means of measuring performance and driving improvement
  • Gather support for establishing a one-stop-shop for those seeking certified sustainable materials

 

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