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April 2009 – Sustainability looks like a survivor

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Recent construction industry related gatherings have been slightly muted affairs, unsurprisingly since the background economic news has been almost unremittingly bleak. But as David Smith, the economics editor of the Sunday Times and guest speaker at the BCSA’s annual dinner, said, no matter how bad it looks now, recovery will come and the betting was that a start would be apparent by the end of the year.

That will still have been a long and deep recession for construction, and there will be casualties. One of the casualties predicted by many is the focus on sustainability that has dominated industry talk for the past few years. With the financial squeeze on it is feared that clients will not want to pay for sustainability and the industry will stop marketing its strengths in that area. This would be a big mistake.

The construction industry gathered at last month‘s Ecobuild conference eager to test the wind on whether sustainability should still concern them. The answer was an emphatic yes. Record crowds were reported at the event, dubbed the world’s biggest for sustainable design and construction. Corus supported the UK Green Building Council stand, which displayed the Corus sustainability story, and fielded representatives to answer questions from visitors. Interest in steel’s strong sustainability case was stronger than ever, they report.

Paul King, Chief Executive of the newly launched UK Green Building Council, said in an address: “Even in tough times, and perhaps particularly in tough times, customers will demand more in terms of efficiency, quality and productivity. A built environment that is sustainable – economically, socially and environmentally – is the only one worth investing in now.”

Mr King recognises there is more to sustainability than lowering carbon emissions, vital as that is, as the steel sector has recognised in its Target Zero drive (NSC News last month). The social benefits that go hand in hand with steel construction like better safety during construction, and training workers who are able to return home at night rather than employing an itinerant workforce, are also important.

Cost is important as a sustainable world doesn’t want to waste money, and good news on that front comes from the latest update to the Cost Comparison study series. Fourth quarter 2008 figures show that steel has gained in competitive advantage over concrete since 1995.

The average building options in the study in 1995 showed a £12.10 per square metre advantage for steel – this had grown to £22.22 in 2008. Steel has obviously increased in price since 1995, but so has concrete and reinforcement bar has increased most of all.

Commitment to making productivity gains and sharing them with the construction industry lies behind the remarkable success story of steel when, arguably, cost was the main driver in deciding on what material to choose. That same level of commitment lies behind the steel sector’s current drive to improve its already creditable sustainability case.

On any measure of sustainability steel ticks all the boxes of the Triple Bottom Line – environmental, economic and social. That is one thing at least that will survive all this recession throws at it.

Nick Barrett

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