Select Committee on Environmental Audit Written Evidence


Memorandum from Tom Woolley

  1.  I am Professor of Architecture at Queens University Belfast and Director of the proposed Centre for Green Building Research. My primary area of work is on the field of sustainable building and housing and we carry out research, publication and consultancy in this area. Our most significant output is The Green Building Handbook, Volume 1, 1997 and Volume 2, 2000 published by Spon Press. Volume 2 won a Gold medal from the Chartered Institute of Building. Our research ranges from innovative work on new sustainable materials such as building with hemp and other crop-based materials. We have been funded by the Engineering Research council (EPSRC) to do work on ecological building materials and products. We also do work on environmental assessment methodologies and have given papers on this at international conferences including, Oslo, Brisbane, Mexico City, California, South Africa etc.

  2.  We are one of the few independent sources of information on the environmental aspects of building and housing. We are currently carrying out a feasibility study, funded by the Energy Saving Trust into an innovative demonstration sustainable housing project with the Rural Housing Association in Northern Ireland. We have carried out an environmental audit for Portakabin/Yorkon and are involved in a project with Taylor Woodrow Ltd called "Balanced Value". Professor Woolley was a member of the working group set up by the Town and Country Planning Association looking into planning aspects of sustainable housing.

  3.  Summary of main points in this memorandum:

    —  Current sustainable housing practice is uneven and partial and fails to adopt an holistic approach.

    —  Measures are cherry picked with little understanding of their environmental impact.

    —  Many measures are "greenwash" in that they only done for public relations reasons. There is insufficient joined up thinking between the agencies involved.

    —  Little attempt is made to insist on environmental auditing of construction innovations and there is no clear benchmark on which this can be based.

    —  Much innovation in building methods is being done in the same quick fix way as in the 60s and 70s.

    —  Insufficient work is being done in the UK to develop life cycle analysis and to define sustainability in terms of building methods which last.

    —  Much can be learnt from traditional methods of construction which were much more sustainable.

    —  Much more needs to be done to develop and harmonise environmental standards to ensure that there is a consistent set of standards which the industry can work to.

    —  There is insufficient support for independent research and development in this sector. Insufficient University based research is being carried out compared with other European countries.

    —  The UK Government could do more to support the development of green and ecological building products.

    —  There is insufficient date on the environmental performance of products and materials

    —  There is a need for greater emphasis on sustainability in the work done on efficiency in the construction industry and more consultation with the alternative green building movement.

    —  We need more and better demonstrations of sustainable housing that reflect holistic thinking but current procurement methods inhibit this.

    —  There is a need for a high level Government enquiry into sustainable construction that will shift thinking about housing provision, not just in terms of numbers and planning but how it is actually built.

  4.  The lack of holistic thinking in sustainable housing: In order to ensure that future buildings are "truly sustainable and take full account of environmental objectives." (Quotation from Press Release 30 April 2004), it is necessary to be clear what is meant by sustainability and environmental objectives. Plenty of work has been done to define these terms, but what happens in practice in the industry is that different sustainable actions are cherry picked on the basis that doing a little is better than nothing. This idea is based on a fallacy and current practice of this kind must be challenged and revised if future building is to be truly sustainable. Instead a balanced and holistic approach should be adopted in which an assessment of the implications of all actions is made, based on fundamental thinking about environmental impact.

  5.  Examples of cherry picking: Much current practice assumes that simply increasing insulation, or adding renewable energy is in itself sustainable. These measures are usually driven by what grants or funding is available, or by regulations. The environmental impact of such measures is rarely assessed. Thus the use of fossil fuel based insulation materials, heavily dosed with fire retardant chemicals and toxic binders can do more damage to the environment in the long term through pollution to sea or air, than the carbon emissions they may save over a few years. Sealing up an air tight, well-insulated house with toxic materials, with inadequate ventilation may do considerable damage to the health of building occupants. Truly sustainable housing would assess all of these issues and sustainable measures will be taken for all of them, not just a handful, which are easy to do. An holistic assessment will involve consideration of about 40 factors.

  6.  Guard against Greenwash: many organisations have now identified the marketing advantages of appearing to be sustainable, but very often the measures which are taken amount to little more than greenwash because they are tokenistic and use conventional building practice, with some small changes. Most timber suppliers will tell you that their timber is from a sustainable source and these largely bogus claims are readily accepted in the industry, as knowledge of certification is poor. This is partly because there is a plethora of environmental standards and everyone has a shallow understanding of some aspects of sustainability which is not based on a good knowledge base. At present the knowledge base is dispersed and fragmented. Essential data on environmental profiles, embodied energy, environmental impacts and assessment methodologies is not easily obtainable.

  7.  Agencies responsible for this work: Much good work is done through the Environmental best Practice Programme, Energy Saving Trust, Carbon Trust, BRE, CIRIA, BSRIA etc. and so on but little of this is joined up. There has not been a significant conference to bring together all of these bodies for over a decade and for researchers like myself to expand their knowledge base it is necessary to go to other countries. There is an urgent need for a review of the role of these organisations, the work which they subcontract to consultants and whether money is being wisely spent.

  8.  Innovative Construction Methods: A considerable number of new construction systems are appearing on the market in an effort to respond to demands for higher energy efficiency and lean construction. While these methods may receive Agrement certification or CE marking, the environmental impact of new products and construction methods is rarely or properly assessed. It is largely left to specifiers to deduce from a range of uneven information sources on a hand to mouth basis. It is sometimes possible to draw conclusions from the BRE Green Guide or the Green Building Handbook, but in many cases it is still an industry of make do and mend. Things have not moved on since the 60s and 70s when I saw industrialised systems rubber stamped and used for the housing boom, only to be demolished a decade later. The same risk exists today, even where things are more sophisticated, because companies are using quick fix solutions rather than sustainable ones. Many new quick fix forms of construction are likely to run into difficulties in a few years, while more sustainable ecological methods of building are being ignored.

  9.  Assessing life cycle performance and environmental impact: Currently very little work is being done on these two vital topics. Much better work is being done in Australia, Austria, USA and Holland developing holistic methodologies which can assess both environmental impact, economics and performance. This triple bottom line approach is absent from the belt and braces methods which are currently used in the UK to define environmental performance. There is little analysis in the UK of the longevity of materials as more sustainable solutions invariably increase labour costs . Instead the industry is fixated on de-skilling and using methods of construction which involve short term glue-ing and fixing methods. Sustainable construction means just what it says, that what we build should last more than 25 to 30 years. Many of the lightweight, synthetic forms of construction being introduced, not only damage the environment through pollution and eventual disposal problems but are unlikely to last very long.

  10.  Learning from tradition. Traditional building, using natural, local materials was inherently sustainable. When these buildings are demolished, they can be dismantled, materials like slate and brick and timber, taken out, cleaned up and re-used. Modern building methods using cement and glued fixings do not allow for dismantling and thus they end up in landfill. Very often new material is wasted on site (often as much as 20%) because construction methods are rushed and wasteful. More needs to be done to revive the use of materials like lime instead of cement and building workers need to be taught better ways of fixing and looking after materials. Materials like lime are being refined so that they can meet the needs of a mass industry but builders don't like them because they need time to dry out . Instead they prefer to use materials which, high in solvents dry out rapidly, but also create pollution.

  11.  Too much variation in environmental standards: Some of the academic work I have done, partly stimulated by the Partners in Innovative Balanced Value project, has been to compare environmental assessment systems and benchmarks. There are literally hundreds of them world-wide and they are all different. I have attached a conference paper, which addresses these issues. Many of the environmental standards like "Eco-Homes" have developed in a relatively pragmatic way, and while the standards are being revised it is not clear to me how this is being done within the walls of the BRE. A standard such as Eco Homes should be based on wide debate and social and economic criteria with input from a wide range of interests. Housing finance, building regulation and Planning Act requirements should be related to these standards, but at present they all operate independently. Many local authorities in England are introducing sustainable building standards, but they are all re-inventing the wheel and standards differ from place to place. Even something as simple as energy requirements in the building regulations are different in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland . . .and widely differ from those in similar climatic zones in Europe. . . . Why? This variation in standards causes serious commercial problems for companies, which are producing products for sale across the whole of the UK.

  12.  The need for more independent research: While much of the work being done at the Building Research Establishment is excellent, the UK Government puts far too much funding into the BRE and supports other research of dubious quality in the private sector. Very little support is given to Universities to carry out research on environmental and sustainable aspects of housing and building construction. Much current work is driven by commercial vested interests, particularly the concrete, plastics and synthetic insulation industries. Very little work is done which might take a critical or independent look at these issues. I was asked by MISTRA, a small independent trust in Sweden linked to the Government, to review a £5 million sustainable building research programme. This programme was one of many programmes in Sweden, but it alone supported more PhD students and in depth research projects than the whole of the UK.

  13.  The UK Government could do much more to support innovative green and sustainable building methods and materials: Most of the environmentally friendly building materials and products used in the UK are imported from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Insulation products made from crop based materials such as straw, flax, hemp, wool and so on are being developed in these countries through direct Government subsidies. While these subsidies have been challenged by the "toxic" industries, natural products now have a substantial share of the market in these countries. Natural paints, oils and stains are also largely imported. While there are a few notable UK pioneers in this area, manufacture of sustainable building products is miniscule in the UK. There is no obvious Government agency which can support or encourage such initiatives.

  14.  Lack of data on these issues: It would be useful to support many of the above assertions with data but due to the dearth of research funding in the Cinderella field of sustainable construction little information is available. Instead it is necessary to rely on anecdotal evidence and to try and work at a local level grubbing up limited support from wherever it can be found. Research and development in this sector will only grow if it is championed by Government and a clear policy direction is given to support holistic thinking and practice. Environmental standards need to be co-ordinated with work in Europe but also peer reviewed by a range of bright young minds who are coming out of Universities, but unable to carry out PhDs in this area. Data must be more widely available and not subject to the current limitations of commercial confidentiality. More support for innovative demonstration projects must be forthcoming in order for things to be tried and tested at full scale.

  15.  Lack of interface with other Government Action on the construction industry: Work done following the Egan report and in efforts to improve efficiency and training in construction fails to address sustainability to any significant degree. Apart from a bit of cherry picking and greenwash there is a complete lack of joined up thinking on these issues.

  16.  The need for more consultation on sustainable building with the sustainable building community: I only found out about this enquiry after the deadline for receipt of submissions and a quick ring round other leading people in the sustainable construction and housing field revealed that no-one else knew about it either. I feel strongly that further consultation using the various environmental networks would yield a wealth of important and useful views and information which should be taken into account by the Environmental Audit Committee.

  17.  What would really sustainable housing be like? Currently we have very few models for really sustainable housing, projects like BEDZED in Sutton or other projects around the country are driven largely by pragmatic decisions that depend on funding resource and the degree of commitment of the actors in the project. Future projects need to include on site sewage treatment, rainwater harvesting, natural and low impact materials and construction systems which will last a long time, health and non polluting materials should be used, low energy should be a matter of course and so on. We have the expertise and knowledge to do all this, and it is affordable and feasible, it's just that hardly anyone does it.

  18.  Procurement Methods: there are many barriers and obstacles which get in the way of sustainable solutions. The whole system is geared up to work on a lowest initial cost, risk averse model which restricts the scope for innovation. A study of these issues would be an important aspect of promoting sustainable housing.

  19.  The need for a Government level enquiry: there is a need for a high powered enquiry into sustainable housing which will consider supply and demand and planning issues but largely focus on environmental impact, sustainability and construction methods and materials. This should be chaired by someone who would take a radical and independent view of the issues and while it should involve all interests in the construction industry should have the resources to commission work from people who would not otherwise have the resources to prepare detailed information. One objective of the enquiry would be to identify a research agenda to ensure that a proper knowledge base of material on environmental assessment is available. It should also endeavour to see how a proper broad based and internationally compatible set of environmental standards should be compiled. Finally it should look at ways in which product and building innovation can be encouraged and supported.

June 2004

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