The welcome rise of whole-life sustainability

Tom de Saulles, Senior Manager of Building Sustainability at The Concrete Centre, discusses the merits of encouraging lifelong sustainability.

‘Green construction’ remains far from a black and white issue.

Whereas embodied carbon was once king with a focus on how to lower carbon during construction, we’re now seeing an encouraging shift towards whole-life analysis.  This means measuring carbon impacts over a building’s lifetime and beyond, including materials extraction, product miles during construction, operation, maintenance and recyclability following demolition.

Few would disagree with the merits of this comprehensive approach, although it’s not a practice routinely applied in the design and construction of new homes and buildings – at least not yet.

However, encouraging progress has been made over the last year, with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) publishing a professional statement requiring members to undertake whole-life carbon assessments of new projects.  Similarly, the draft New London Plan includes a new requirement for both embodied and whole-life carbon evaluation for construction projects.  

These are significant and welcome developments that should help deliver buildings with optimised carbon footprints over their lifetime.  

With the advent of ‘bytes and mortar’ construction and increasingly integrated design tools, it will also become easier to assess a building’s composite performance in response to different materials options. For example, digital tools will help enhance the accuracy of our lifetime performance predictions and translate the inherent benefits of concrete and masonry into tangible numbers, facilitating informed specification decisions.

To some extent, environmental assessments tools like BREEAM already take a whole-life view, but until this approach is common practice, we must be mindful of basic, long-term performance and maintenance needs when designing buildings.  Durability and sustainability are closely linked – something that can be unwittingly taken for granted given the UK’s tradition of building with concrete and masonry.

Indeed, great progress has been made in ensuring new buildings have a high standard of fabric energy efficiency, providing for reduced carbon consumption over their in-use lifetime. The next key issue in determining a building’s whole-life sustainability will be improving the length of this lifetime.  Keeping resources in use for as long as possible is an important tenet of the circular economy.

When the government’s Construction Strategy is released, hopefully it will follow the lead of RIBA and others in emphasising the important role whole-life analysis plays in designing and specifying a greener built environment.