The role of contractors in sustainability

Mike Taylor
To make our own industry [M&E contracting] sustainable in the long term, we have to move with the times – HVCA president Mike Taylor.
HVCA president Mike Taylor argues that sustainability is the most immediate battle confronting the building-services sector and that contractors are in the front line.Despite everything we have heard and read about climate change in the past year, nine out of 10 UK residents still believe that its effects will not be seen in their lifetime. Even more astonishing, one in 10 believes it is a complete myth and will never happen. This is according to research carried out by the Energy Saving Trust to help focus its campaign on cutting energy waste in our homes, which account for a quarter of all the carbon dioxide emitted by the country. An astonishing £96 million is wasted on energy in British households every week. Perhaps the film ‘The day after tomorrow’ appeared too far-fetched and has done more harm than good. Ignorance might be a reason, but it is not an excuse. We in the building-services sector have less excuse than most because I cannot remember a time when we were not talking about the issue of energy efficiency, and you will not see a manufacturer launch a new product these days that is not accompanied by some claim for more efficient operation. However, the issue has become a lot more complex in recent months with the word ‘sustainability’ now on every lip. This is a huge step further because it encompasses a much wider set of goals and principles. Sustainability applies to social and economic factors as well as the more easily grasped technical elements of energy saving and recycling waste products. It is true to say that the principal thrust lies with architects and designers, but that is not another excuse for us in the contracting and facilities-management business to sit back and watch this all happen. We have a responsibility to ourselves, our companies, our industry and mankind to ensure that we have the skills, the imagination and the dedication required to make things happen in new and innovative ways. Socially sensitive Sustainability encompasses our efficient generation and use of energy, the reduction of our dependence on fossil fuels and the minimisation of waste in all its manifestations. It requires us all to plan our developments in socially sensitive ways and to look at the impact on local economies of our work. Ultimately it also means that we do should be much more efficiently managed to be less wasteful and far less expensive. We have to strike a balance between the commercial and the residential, between public and private forms of transport to service our projects and look at how new developments will impact on the public that live in and around the local area for generations to come. This might seem rather far above the heads of ‘mere’ M&E contractors, but they are not — in fact, these values are going to be central to the way we do our work in the future. Why? Because they are already moving centre stage for our clients: the developers, main contractors and end users, who need planning permission for the projects they aspire to complete, but who are now coming up against a whole raft of new rules and regulations. Over the next 12 months our industry enters a period of unprecedented regulation with the advent of the new Parts L, P and F of the Building Regulations, the imminent arrival of the EU Directive on the Energy Performance of Buildings from 1 January next year and the Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment Directive from August this year. On top of that we have the Government’s Code of Sustainable Buildings coming into force next year. All are aimed at increasing recycling, reducing waste and improving the environmental footprint of our work. But this should not just be about pressure from the EU and our own Government. To make our own industry sustainable in the long-term we have to move with the times —‘adapt or die’, to quote last year’s crusading CIBSE president Terry Wyatt. Clients are now looking to us to help them comply with this mountain of regulation and meet their own corporate responsibilities. If we cannot come up with the answers then they will have to look elsewhere. We cannot expect clients to lead us by the nose; we must provide leadership from within the industry. We at the ‘implementation’ end have a crucial role to play, as the aspirations of designers cannot be turned into reality without our technical expertise and ethical support. Cold blood At the HVCA Centenary Convention in Harrogate last June, Prof. Wyatt made delegates’ blood run cold with his nightmare visions of a world in which global warming and carbon-dioxide emissions have been allowed to run riot. Ultimately the responsibility lies with us to help ensure that such horrific scenarios are never allowed to come true. I am therefore delighted that the council of the HVCA has already begun the process of developing a coherent and ‘joined-up’ policy on sustainability and more clearly defining the role of our members in its delivery. Clearly, a key component will be our ability and willingness to work as part of integrated project teams. Sustainable goals will simply not be reached unless we work more collaboratively as a sector. There is so much waste and duplication of effort in our existing working practices that our projects will continue to spiral in cost and produce excessive carbon waste unless we create a whole new working environment in which we can all thrive. Over the past decade construction costs have risen by 32%. In the same period major industries like the automotive and IT sectors have improved their product quality out of all recognition while also cutting their prices. Construction clients are asking why we cannot do the same, and that means eliminating the waste and streamlining our project-management techniques. A whole new attitude to training is required that places equal importance on ‘soft’ skills such as monitoring and measuring performance, process analysis and partnering to ensure we learn from our mistakes and do not replicate them. We have to develop a whole new breed of services engineers happy to work with others to define and attain sustainable targets on every project and who will ditch the ‘blame culture’ in favour of shared risk where everyone benefits from working together to solve problems. Technical skills will still be vital, but we have to be smarter about training our people to give them abilities in the right areas. In many cases, unsustainable solutions are being specified and implemented because the knowledge of the project team has not kept pace with changes in IT and the like. For example, controls engineers are now able to piggy-back on Ethernet systems already carrying telephone and computer communications around a building rather than installing a whole new separate system simply to carry information for running the building services. Our project teams need to be conditioned to look for cost- and time-saving solutions like this wherever they can. If we do not, our clients will rapidly run out of patience with us, and legislators will make our lives increasingly difficult. It is a big subject with a multitude of different elements to take into account, but there is no reason why we in the contracting sector should wait to be told what to do by those supposedly further up the chain. We know what the problem is, and we have the solutions. Now all we have to do is make sure that management and employees alike have the will to do something about it. Mike Taylor is president of the Heating & Ventilating Contractors’ Association
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