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Is "Sustainable Construction" sustainable?

Is "Sustainable Construction" sustainable?

Sustainability in construction is all the rage - and rightly so. It's not just another fad and it impacts us all, developers, financiers, builders, designers and end-users. But is the way we go about it giving us truly sustainable outcomes? I'm starting to have my doubts in some cases.

You'll know by now that one of my hobby-horses is "tick box myopia" that is, the habit of following checklists blindly and ticking the boxes, regardless of circumstance or context. This might be due to time constraints, organizational culture or individual behaviours.

Well, I've just come across an example of this (& not for the first time) in supposedly "sustainable" (or "Green") building practice. The tender specification (laudably) set a series of "green" targets to be met by suppliers as part of the contract. Documentation indicating their compliance with, or close to, the requirements of the specification was supplied by all tenderers with their bids. Only one tenderer provided documentation indicating they met all requirements of the specification and they were duly selected. Unfortunately, no validation exercise was undertaken by the client to check the veracity of the claims made. During construction, some doubts were raised and two things became apparent:

  1. The claims made by the winning tenderer of compliance with the "Green" requirements of the tender (but not other performance measures, I should stress) were not met in practice;
  2. The somewhat lower "Green" claims made by at least two of the non-successful tenderers were valid and were easily verifiably so. In fact, at least one met the specification better than the successful tenderer.

The result? Despite the clear requirements set out in the tender, the winning tenderer was retained on the project as it was "too difficult" (read embarrassing?) to change supplier in mid-project.

This situation arose not because of any inherent defect in the nature of "Green" procurement and supply, but because problems of this sort are (in this observer's experience) symptomatic of the time-poor and arguably "knowledge poor" nature of much of our management practice. Who makes the checks? How and what to ask? Where? It takes knowledge and experience to make the right call and a clear commitment to enforce specifications.

If we really want a sustainable outcome (be it "Green", service life or utility), then we have to set up a clear methodology for specifying it, measuring it and in the end, taking responsibility for enforcing it. Tick box forms and subsequent blind acceptance of received documents are not a substitute for exercising a reasonable degree of care. Otherwise, "sustainability" becomes just an exercise in corporate window dressing.

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