Sustainability in the spot light

Sustainability has become far more than a buzzword in recent years, with sustainable construction extending well beyond energy-saving design and basic regulatory compliance. An effective sustainability strategy, using environmentally-aware manufacturers, is now key for architects and specifiers to help mitigate the impact of sustainability throughout the building lifecycle. Here , Sophie Weston at Geberit, explores some of the measures to help ensure a sustainable construction supply chain.

A sustainable approach

No longer simply a ‘tick-box’ exercise, sustainability is now top of everyone’s agenda. In 2019, Foster + Partners became the first architectural practice to sign the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment. Soon after, the then 17 UK recipients of the Stirling Prize launched ‘Architects Declare’, a network of practices committed to addressing the climate and biodiversity emergency. By the end of the year, RIBA had set out its ambitions for the sector with the publication of its Sustainable Outcomes Guide, a set of eight measurable goals for projects of all scales, each one underpinned by specific design principles and each aligning with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

And so to the construction industry, where the need for the sector to take action has never been greater and where, according to the European Commission, the building sector contributes 11% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. But, it seems, times are finally changing. A 2018 survey reported that almost two-thirds of firms operating in the construction industry were more committed to taking action on sustainability than they were 12 months ago. Some of the big hitters are already leading the way, with the likes of Berkeley Group pledging to become carbon-positive and Landsec even opting for its carbon-reduction targets to be approved by the Science Based Targets Initiative.

Key drivers of sustainable construction

Much of this shift towards sustainability in recent years has, of course, been driven by legislative and regulatory change. The UK has a target to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, making it the first major economy to set such an ambitious target. As such, environmental assessment and certification has now become an integral part of building design. With 2.3m registered buildings worldwide, BREEAM also sets the standard for sustainable design and construction; more recently, the WELL Building Standard set out to be the first evidence-based standard that measured a building’s health and wellbeing, and was the first to grant certification only after assessing a building in operation.

Meanwhile, under the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) for Landlords, all privately rented commercial property must have a minimum EPC rating of ‘E’ before it can be let, with the Government last year announcing that it would raise this to 'B' by 2030 – a move that it estimates could cost approximately £5bn.

Product innovations

Yet, legislation is not the only driver in this sustainability shift. There is greater demand from businesses for sustainable buildings, including green offices, and growing numbers of firms are putting sustainability at the forefront of their own agenda. A 2018 survey of around 2,000 building professionals from across the globe showed that the international market for green construction projects has grown significantly in the last ten years, with 47% of those surveyed believing that the majority of their projects would be green by 2021. Interestingly, too, one US survey even reported that three-quarters of millennial workers would be willing to accept a smaller salary to work for an environmentally responsible company.

What businesses now seem to be understanding is that sustainability is no longer just about assessing a building’s performance – a sustainable building also has commercial (not to mention social) benefits for the operator. Considering the ‘trade-off’ of any additional costs of sustainable products or features at the design stage against these wider whole-life benefits, can help reduce Operational Expenditures. BREEAM certification, for instance, can increase rental rates for buildings by up to 24.9% compared to conventional buildings, with BREEAM also reporting that certified green buildings have seen sale prices increase by approximately 30%.

Specifying sustainable products

Sustainability is increasingly viewed through a prism of a ‘life cycle’ approach, with products celebrated that are created according to a stringent technical cycle; this cycle considers products through a building’s entire journey - from design and occupancy right through to wastage.

At Geberit, we have considered this whole life cycle for many years, having first implemented our Ecodesign approach back in 2007. For us, this has meant striking the balance between economic, environmental and social aspects in every decision-making processes.

For example, product development starts with selecting raw materials that are environmentally-friendly, resource efficient, recyclable and durable. We also offer reparable and retrofittable products, as well as a spare parts guarantee for up to 25 years.

Not only does our approach mean creating the smallest possible environmental footprint along the entire chain, but also ensuring that our production plants across the globe have prospects for employees and that we work with suppliers who share our vision. In recent years, other manufacturers have started to invest heavily in product development and design to ensure that this ‘Lifecycle’ concept is considered from the outset. Reducing water consumption is one example of these life cycle benefits. Geberit’s flush valve is the result of our innovative product development process; as well as using 50% recycled material, the flush performance has also improved by 30%. Overall, this meant a 12% reduction in plastic and 80% reduction in energy to produce the recycled material. Likewise, infrared taps can lead to significant water savings compared to a manual tap, as the water only remains in use while the user is operating it. Geberit Brenta or Geberit Piave taps can save up 80% of water thanks to the quick-response, two-beam scanning technology. In addition, these systems can operate independently from mains or battery power, further reducing the ecological impact to 50%, when compared to a battery-operated alternative, and 80% when compared to an electrical connection.

Finally, Geberit urinal systems incorporate a water-saving dynamic flush function, making it ideal for heavy footfall washrooms. Flushing time is decreased when user frequency increases – so, for instance, the preset flush time is halved when another user approaches the urinal within one minute after the most recent flushing. Flow rate can also be reduced by changing the duration of the flush. To ensure accuracy, all Geberit’s infrared products operate with a proximity flush.

Looking at ‘behind the wall’ drainage and piping systems can also contribute to wastage. However, discharge pipes such as Geberit’s SuperTube create space and save material in high-rise buildings, with the discharge stacks that are installed with the two hydraulically-optimised bends enabling smaller pipe dimensions to be used. With no ventilation pipes required, this results in narrower pipe shafts. In one recent example, the number of discharge stacks were reduced from four to two, resulting in a roughly 40% reduction in raw materials. Meanwhile, one missing part of the energy efficient puzzle behind the wall has always been ventilation openings in wastewater stacks. While these openings prevent negative pressure forming and blowing open traps when a toilet is flushed, they can sometimes lead the drainage system to become a constant source of heat loss. Geberit’s energy retaining valves (ERV) enable open ventilation for the discharge stack on the roof but open only when pressure compensation is required. This means that up to 500 kWh can be saved per year in a multi-story building through the installation of an energy-retaining valve – corresponding to around 50 litres of heating oil.

This approach goes right across to our front-of-wall ceramics too. Geberit’s shower toilets, the ultimate in comfort and luxury, incorporate a range of smart features including an oscillating wash. Geberit’s AquaClean Sela, for instance, uses 50% reduced water thanks to innovative WhirlSpray shower – so even those products very much driven by wellbeing and luxury do, nevertheless, ensure this life-cycle approach is adopted.

Working in partnership

However, it is important to work closely with manufacturers to understand the importance of product matching, and in particular the impact it can have on BREEAM scores. Some architects remain unaware that BREEAM ratings will be affected by combining products across manufacturers – for instance, pairing selected Geberit Duofix frames with concealed cisterns along with Geberit WC ceramic pans can ensure the maximum BREEAM scoring. Water companies demand a Declaration of Performance before they switch on the water for any project, however – this is no guarantee that two different manufacturer’s products work efficiently and effectively together.

The onus is on the architect to ensure that the products they specify work and have been fully compatibility tested to achieve low flush volumes– without this information, the BREEAM status of the components is unknown. Geberit offers a range of compatible WC pans and cisterns performing effectively at low flush volumes that have been fully tested in accordance with the latest version of BS EN 997.

Thinking beyond the products

It’s fair to say that sustainability in 2020 goes beyond simply specifying energy saving products. It is also important to consider sustainability throughout the entire supply chain, particularly when selecting a manufacturer. After all, there’s little benefit in selecting water-efficient products if these have not been manufactured sustainably. Leading manufacturers should view product development process through the entire lifecycle. We don’t have to look too far to find industry trailblazers who are supporting architects and specifiers to meet sustainability goals. Danish carpet supplier, Egetaepper, for example, runs a “green thread” through everything it does, challenging standards and rethinking how aesthetics, quality and sustainability can be one. It’s a bold approach, but one which really sets them apart. At Geberit, meanwhile, we strive to ensure that each product is more sustainable than its predecessor. We are proud to have reduced our relative environmental impact by 27.5% since 2015 and our share of electricity from renewable sources totaled 42% at the end of 2019.

With the building and construction sector in Europe consuming around 10m tons of plastics each year (20% of Europe’s total plastics consumption), the industry is the second largest user of plastics - only behind the packaging industry itself. Therefore, we do all we can to ensure that our products use as little material as possible, opting for cardboard for most of our packaging and dispensing with expanded polystyrene and other plastics wherever we can.

Assessing the landscape in a post-lockdown world

As we emerge from Covid lockdown, now’s the time to reflect and appreciate the impact that Covid-19 has left on sustainability. The UK’s carbon emissions fell by 36% in the first four weeks of the lockdown compared to the most recent official carbon emissions data collected in 2018 and the UK is now one of a growing number of nations looking to reset the green agenda, addressing what now seems to be a growing consensus to tackle the climate emergency head-on. In a speech in July 2020, Lord Goldsmith (Minister of State in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) told Parliament that “…as countries respond to COVID-19, the coming months are crucial for climate and the 2030 agenda. Decisions that we take now are going to have impacts for decades to come.”

As we’ve seen, there is far more to sustainability than we might think. Let’s look beyond the obvious and consider the value of sustainable performance at every stage of the supply chain – and not just because it’s efficient or cost-effective. Time is running out and the action we take (or fail to take) now will affect future generations.

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