The road to delivering zero carbon

M&E Sustainability
Meeting clients’ expectations for a sustainable and affordable outcome — Jim O’Neill.

Although the M&E industry is cutting carbon emissions, it must fundamentally rethink how it delivers projects because it has to go lower, says Jim O’Neil.

The building-services industry has done an excellent job in developing technical solutions. We now have a myriad of products at our fingertips able to cut energy consumption in buildings. Lower carbon footprints are definitely achievable, but to meet longer-term targets we have to go much lower still — and that will require a radical rethink of how we deliver complete projects.

High-efficiency condensing boilers are a good case in point. These are being rolled out across the country and offer theoretical operating efficiencies in the high 90%s. The operational reality is somewhat different. According to the Chartered Institute of Plumbing & Heating Engineers (CIPHE) 8.5 million homes do not have any thermostatic controls on their heating systems and over 30% of all condensing boilers are not linked to room thermostats. This means that condensing boilers, and the same applies to many other higher-efficiency products, are not reaching their full potential because they are not properly controlled. In the commercial-heating sector, weather compensation control is not being fitted as standard to ensure the equipment works at its optimum efficiency all year round.

So, while the carbon footprint is shrinking, it is not shrinking enough.

There is plenty of legislation, such as the new Carbon Reduction Commitment, focusing end users on cutting energy consumption — but there is deep concern that the solutions being put forward to help building owners meet their responsibilities are flawed. We have to look at why truly sustainable projects are not being delivered.

How the contract is structured rather than lack of technical expertise or available technology is generally the issue. M&E experts are not engaged at the outset, so opportunities are missed right from the start. For example, the architect will decide the orientation of a building for aesthetic reasons, when spinning it through 90° could make a huge difference to its energy performance — and cost.

Our tendering system is antiquated and not appropriate for modern sustainable building projects. ‘Information over­load’ has been highlighted by specialist sub-contractors as a major contributor to lost time and missed opportunities during the design stages. In fact, the total estimated loss on construction tendering is somewhere between £3 billion and £5 billion a year. This money is simply disappearing out of the process when it could be used to make our built environment more sustainable.

A huge amount of largely irrelevant information is passed from clients and consultants to main contractors and then on further down the supply chain — leaving specialist contractors to wade through it all in a forlorn search for the relevant parts. The explosion of information technology has multiplied the problem. It is far too easy to mail out a CD-ROM crammed with all the design drawings and ancillary information for a whole project to everyone involved, without any preliminary editing.

As a result, time is wasted and designs are inaccurate and incomplete. Details are continually being changed and the design revised, which pushes up costs and makes it impossible for the specialists to add full value and detailed sustainability advice.

However, the design-and-build model is re-emerging across the contracting sector and, in many ways, represents our best hope for streamlining the delivery process and ensuring the finished product is sustainable. With contractors leading a design-and-build project, M&E specialists can ensure the sustainable design elements are appropriate — as well as being buildable and affordable from the outset.

Contractors are also looking to deliver more of the design-and-build process through offsite prefabrication. This targets other aspects of sustainability, such as the 13% of all materials used in construction projects that are simply thrown away. Offsite prefabrication speeds up work on site and improves productivity because factory conditions are far more conducive to efficient working practices than building sites.

All these issues have to be presented in a persuasive package to the end client, which requires us to look at the project from their point of view. In the retail sector, for example, clients need to be shown how what we are proposing will increase sales — or why would they be interested? We also need to be able to carry out post-occupancy evaluations to show that our designs do deliver and, if they don’t, we can put them right. In other words, we have to get better at understanding how the finished building will be used and how it will be managed if we are to design it for sustainability.


The truth is that zero-carbon buildings are still some way out of our reach because of our traditional procurement process, which creates waste and inhibits innovation. Unless we reform it, clients will turn to a new breed of company to deliver what we cannot. These companies will be focused on project outcomes rather than technical solutions — and that is where ‘traditional’ M&E firms must focus. We know we can do the technical things, but clients don’t care how you do it — they just want a sustainable and affordable outcome.

Jim O’Neil is chairman of M&E Sustainability, a joint initiative created by the Heating & Ventilating Contractors’ Association and the Electrical Contractors’ Association to promote sustainable project delivery across the m&e sector.


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