n the afternoon of Tuesday 2nd, eight sustainability veterans left their offices and made tracks to AMF's parent company, Knauf's newly-opened showroom in the heart of London’s Clerkenwell to discuss the drivers, understanding and challenges regarding the subject of sustainability in the vast world of construction. At the head of the table chairing the symposium was Ben Humphries, Director of Architype; a leading practice in the field of sustainable architecture. Suspending the panellists’ getting-to-know-each-other chatter, Humphries opened the debate and put the overarching question to the discussion’s representatives: "Is sustainable design and construction becoming better understood?". After a temporary hiatus, the overall consensus from Humphries' seven peers was a question of "who understands sustainability?".
The phraseology surrounding sustainability is often haphazardly launched around the industry, and can frequently be misconstrued as responsibilities and specifications drift down the construction chain. Sacha Conte, Specification Manager at Knauf AMF, confirmed: "The architect or individual in charge of sustainability may have an understanding of it, however, as you hand a project down, the term starts to lose its message." Conte soon went on to label the cause of sustainability’s lost meaning, underlining the all-important obstacle of cost. He accurately indicated that many sub-contractors further down the construction chain will question why they're faced by a price hike for a product that boasts sustainable credentials rather than opting for a cheaper alternative.
"The architect or individual in charge of sustainability may have an understanding of it, however, as you hand a project down, the term starts to lose its message" – Sacha Conte, Specification Manager at Knauf AMF
The customer is always right?
Shikha Bhardwaj, Senior Environmental Consultant at ChapmanBDSP, stated that: "Sustainability generally is understood as a 'checklist' or a race to the finish line to achieve certification, however it is, personally, a mindset and a design approach."
Bhardwaj revealed that, in her experience, clients, and designers, often relate sustainability only to certification and compliance and rarely to the building design itself. She went on to explain: "Some clients are passionate and more intrigued to explore the potential and long-term benefits of sustainable strategies, yet some are purely focused on achieving a high BREEAM certification. However, it’s our responsibility, to highlight the potential, possibilities and benefits of a sustainable design, rather than limiting our interventions to meet the compliance/certification requirements. As an environmental consultant, I believe it’s my duty to emphasise the importance and impact of a sustainable and environmentally-friendly design to the design team and the client, along with ways of implementing these strategies from early design stages. That said, in the end it's always the client's decision." Focusing on educating clients, Bhardwaj continued that it's about how inclined the clients are to change their perception towards sustainability and in parallel, the willingness of architects to integrate sustainability principles in their design for effective results.
Humphries agreed. Referring to Bhardwaj's checklist reference, he expounded that if a client regards sustainability as a “tick-box exercise”, they'll soon lose interest, but if there are tangible benefits to designing and specifying with sustainability in mind, clients are more willing to embrace the principles.
“Sustainability generally is understood as a 'checklist' or a race to the finish line to achieve certification, however it is, personally, a mindset and a design approach.” – Shikha Bhardwaj, Senior Environmental Consultant at ChapmanBDSP
Incentivising the industry
Conte shortly enquired as to whether there are any incentives in place to inspire individuals to follow sustainable attitudes, he mentioned: "In my view, this concept of producing sustainable buildings only works if the parties all the way down the line are on board."
Peter Kelly, Head of Sustainability at ISG Fit Out and Engineering Services, subsequently presented Conte with a typical scenario. "If you’re working in a sector in which there’s a valuable asset that will eventually be sold on," he said, "a client will be open to sustainable solutions because this asset will have first-class credentials – allowing it to be worth more. Even on the other end of the spectrum, for instance, you’ve got the client who wants to take an office block and sell it on as soon as they’ve got a tenant. This type of client will usually follow the preconditions of a certification system such as BREEAM because...they will receive an extra £5 or £10 per m², for example, to have a BREEAM ‘Excellent’-rated building, so there are some incentives in place."
Dr Joe Croft, Head of Environmental and Sustainability at Overbury & Morgan Lovell, asserted: "If a client is willing to incorporate sustainable elements – even if it is purely for ‘tick-box’ purposes – then I'm satisfied they're considering it. Frankly, the only way the industry becomes sustainable is if there is an economic link...if there's no financial gain, people will lose interest. So, the fact there's that measurable difference...means people are considering it.” Croft proposed a solution toward implanting long-term sustainable philosophies into the minds of both the industry and its clients via advanced and reviewed accreditation systems, he submitted: “It’s the easiest thing in the world to criticise the certification schemes, but I believe we need to work with schemes to help them update and improve. The schemes, ultimately, are what's driving the industry – rightly or wrongly…either legislation has to push sustainability further, or the schemes do."
"The schemes, ultimately, are what's driving the industry – rightly or wrongly…either legislation has to push sustainability further, or the schemes do" – Dr Joe Croft, Head of Environmental and Sustainability at Overbury and Morgan Lovell
Put down the checklist
Tick boxes, checklists, to-do lists – whatever your synonym preference – appeared to be the impediments of pushing the innovative boundaries and striving for true sustainability. While many may believe they are sustainably specifying – dotting every ‘I’ and crossing every ‘T’ – to achieve favoured credits for building standards, what was evident from the eight experts seated around Knauf’s ground-floor table was that this ‘checklist mentality’ clearly needs to be removed from construction’s demeanour.
Probing further into the realm’s checklist approach, Andrew Moore, Associate Sustainability Consultant at Hilson Moran, voiced of his experience as a Sustainability Consultant. "...I think we often get bogged down with more compliance work rather than driving innovation forward," he said. He continued to describe how Hilson Moran is making small steps to eliminate the act of construction teams solely striking through an arm’s-length list of prerequisites in order to achieve credits. "What we're doing now is educating the design team and explaining why we're doing what we're doing to move away from that checklist attitude. It's so easy to fall into and entirely understandable why; time pressures are a hindering factor.”
"...What we're doing now is educating the design team and explaining why we're doing what we're doing to move away from that checklist attitude" – Andrew Moore, Associate Sustainability Consultant at Hilson Moran
Hunting down accreditation
Croft agreed with Moore's remark surrounding time pressures and affirmed that short timescales often impede implementation of sustainable principles. Underscoring BREEAM, he said: "It’s been a good thing for contractors like us over the past 10 years, but there are a lot of credits for the process and not a great deal of time dedicated to the end product. We could have a scheme that's purely about the end product, on the other hand; we could have a certification for the process itself."
Bhardwaj intriguingly added: "Although, is it possible to produce a ‘good’ product without engaging in a ‘good’ process?". She continued to elaborate: "If your process is well integrated with the sustainable principles, you surely don't have to worry so much about the end product. BREEAM certification – which I’m mindful is beneficial, can be regarded as a guideline and encourages people to take certain decisions to achieve a more sustainable product – is, ultimately, a way to reward and compare different buildings."
Later quizzing the panel after a series of diversified opinions on processes and accreditation, Knauf AMF’s Conte raised the question if “BREEAM has lost its visibility?”. Hilson Moran’s Moore and Overbury and Morgan Lovell's Croft concluded that the scheme, fundamentally, “needs to up its standards” and “look at what’s happening in reality”, while ISG’s Kelly suggested the need to incentivise better-performing buildings as a mode of cogently pushing sustainability and standards.
Delving deeper into the sphere of accreditation, Humphries cited the Government's Code for Sustainable Homes as an example of how a scheme has enticed house-builders to be more sustainable. Prior to its abolishment in 2015: "...The Code for Sustainable Homes did force some developers to be more sustainable...but I do have some concerns with some of these programmes. You can spend an awful lot of money chasing one or two credits and end up with something, that actually, in terms of final outcome, is not really that sustainable."
Humphries referred to public sector examples of BREEAM accreditations. He talked of Post-Occupancy Evaluations (POEs) at recent school projects, which were all highly BREEAM rated, yet consuming tremendous amounts of energy. Replying to Humphries’ statement on energy efficiency and addressing the crux of a holistic approach to sustainability, Croft rationalised with a commonplace circumstance. "…You may be concerned with the energy efficiency of a project,” he commented, “yet, another party may approach the project whose focus is water usage, for instance, and could question its sustainability in that regard."
Focusing on energy, Humphries began to refer to Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs). "EPC methodology is fundamentally flawed," he told, "and the performance gap is there at least partly because of the methodology. So that's why, 10 years ago, we decided that Passivhaus was a better route because it's a methodology that takes on board all regulated and unregulated energy use. And so, you get a building that's much closer to your design. Across Europe, many are now taking on board the Passivhaus standard because you're getting much better, low-energy, high-quality, high-comfort buildings. The performance on POEs we've completed corresponds with the design – which is closing the performance gap. I do think the tools are out there, however, the issue is the industry and the legislation hasn't kept abreast of that."
"…You can spend an awful lot of money chasing one or two credits and end up with something, that actually, in terms of final outcome, is not really that sustainable" – Ben Humphries, Director of Architype
Scrutinise the credentials
Moving on to the sustainable ethos of Knauf AMF, Conte spoke of the company's dedication to sustainability: "We work in approximately 115 countries, and each of these countries has a different testing requirement – even within the EU – so we test to each country's requirements. All of our products are both sustainable and recyclable." Conte advanced to depict Knauf AMF's recyclable tile – a 100% recyclable tile that can be repurposed at the end of its lifecycle. "We launched our recyclable tile approximately five years ago," he revealed, "and since then we have not had one project that's used our takeback scheme."
He later announced that, in fact, throughout his seven years at Knauf AMF, he's only had six designers and architects query the sustainability credentials of an AMF product at the beginning of a project – and two of the discerning six were seated around the table.
Catherine White, Director at Catherine White Interiors, added: "I talk to other suppliers and enquire about the eco-footprint of a particular product; however, many don't know – or they confess that an interior designer has never asked before. I just find that really shocking.”
Humphries related to Conte's remark, notifying that he had only come across two clients that were interested in demountable fit-outs that can be sent back to the manufacturer. "I think it's something we're trying to push as specifiers," he appended. The group agreed that the circular economy is altering and takeback schemes are gradually receiving the spotlight they deserve when it comes to awareness. Moore settled: sustainability "is playing on people's conscience more."
"I talk to other suppliers and enquire about the eco-footprint of a particular product; however, many don't know – or they confess that an interior designer has never asked before. I just find that really shocking." – Catherine White, Director at Catherine White Interiors
Lost in communication
Peter Kelly supplemented White's comment: The concern is "...Everyone talks down the line through the commercial and procurement teams and they're necessarily not the best people to talk to regarding sustainability. Teaching and training our commercial and procurement teams may help this matter." Humphries questioned Kelly about how companies, such as ISG Fit Out and Engineering Services, are changing this deficiency in knowledge throughout the construction chain. "We're encouraging people to know who the right contacts are," he responded. "So, you can ask manufacturers, such as Knauf AMF, what innovation and sustainability credentials they can bring to the table. To illustrate, we've had significant challenges trying to obtain LEED materials that are low in VOCs or formaldehyde-free – attempting to have those conversations with manufacturers and trying to locate the right person to have the discussion with takes a significant amount of time."
"We're encouraging people to know who the right contacts are…so you can ask manufacturers, such as Knauf AMF, what innovation and sustainability credentials they can bring to the table” – Peter Kelly, Head of Sustainability at ISG Fit Out and Engineering Services
Extending on the topic of the scarcity of communication between bodies, Ophélia Gisquet, Head of Interior Design at Upcircle, offered an eye-opening insight into her role. "The great difficulty for me...is if I'm working for a contractor, for example, I have no communication with the architect during the project – I am not permitted to contact the architect. If this changed, it would make a significant difference to how we're undertaking a project...an architect is, effectively, creating the concept of a design and the interior designer should conform to this concept in order to generate continuity." Conte highlighted the concerns of Gisquet's disclosure expressing that an architect may not be working to an equivalent design concept as an interior designer, and may be pursuing demanding sustainability credits, however, without interaction, both parties would unknowingly be unacquainted with the credentials and concept in question.
"...If I'm working for a contractor, for example, I have no communication with the architect during the project – I am not permitted to contact the architect. If this changed, it would make a significant difference to how we're undertaking a project." – Ophélia Gisquet, Head of Interior Design at Upcircle
A commercially-minded conclusion
As the sustainability-focused roundtable approached its finale, the conversation promptly moved to Cat A and B fit-outs.
Gisquet's design practice Upcircle – a new company with the primary objective of creating sustainable designs and implementing sustainable products within projects – has sustainability at its core. Likening Croft's comment to her experience under Upcircle, Gisquet told: "We're doing a lot of work with contractors for student accommodation projects, and a project's usually refurbished every five years, so we remove the floors, all the furniture; everything and repeat it again and again. I love my job as an interior designer, but it's hard to see so much waste coming out of these projects."
White also related to Croft's remark. "I've been working with some landlords on projects like this," she enlightened, "so instead of doing a Cat A finish; what they've been doing is bringing on board a design and build contractor and asking me to help them to, for example, design a lighting layout with highly rendered visuals to show my specification within the space. We can then present these renders to the potential tenants so they can visualise how a finished office will look."
Moore added that his team are starting to see a rise in VR. He explained that he believes VR should be encouraged to allow potential clients to visualise how a space would look, rather than fitting the ceilings and flooring into new-build projects. Consequently, White made of suggestion of installing temporary rafts – which can be "demounted and reinstated" – rather than installing a full ceiling. Conte returned to White's proposal with a clear conclusion to the table’s two-hour discussion. "Yes," he agreed, "something demountable and reusable makes more sense when we're talking about sustainability."
Ben Humphries, Director at Architype
Dr Joe Croft, Head of Environmental and Sustainability at Overbury and Morgan Lovell
Ophélia Gisquet, Head of Interior Design at Upcircle
Andrew Moore, Associate Sustainability Consultant at Hilson Moran
Catherine White, Director at Catherine White Interiors
Shikha Bhardwaj, Senior Environmental Consultant at ChapmanBDSP
Sacha Conte, Specification Manager at Knauf AMF
Peter Kelly, Head of Sustainability at ISG Fit Out and Engineering Services
To find out more about Knauf AMF’s takeback scheme or to discuss a recyclable and sustainable component for your project that goes beyond a ‘tick-box exercise’, do not hesitate to get in touch.