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September 2011 – Sustainable surprises from steel

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The timing of the economy’s full emergence from the post credit crunch and recession environment may be more uncertain than it seemed just a couple of months ago, but when construction’s recovery does get properly under way there will be some pleasant surprises awaiting developers and other clients on the sustainability front.

The latest in the groundbreaking Target Zero series of low carbon design guides has just been published (see News), this one focussing on steel framed medium and high-rise office buildings. It shows convincingly that the 2010 Part L compliance target of reducing operational carbon emissions by 25% can be achieved by steel framed buildings using current best practice without any additional capital cost. This should bring some comfort to clients in this key sector of the market, a rare example of one which is showing signs of life, at least in London.

This is the fourth in a series that has already produced guides for designers of schools, warehouses, and supermarkets. The fifth guide, for mixed-use buildings, is under preparation and will complete the £1M Target Zero project being funded by Tata Steel and the BCSA.

These studies are not merely theoretical but are intended to provide designers with fully costed, practical information that they can use to support the government’s zero carbon targets. The office developments study for example uses a ten storey building that has actually been constructed as a benchmark to investigate three priority areas of sustainable construction – operational carbon emissions, BREEAM assessment rating, and embodied carbon.

Steel construction routinely of course already produces highly sustainable buildings, as the large number of structures achieving high BREEAM ratings proves; the first office to be rated Outstanding in England is the steel framed 7 More London, a ten storey prestige building on the Southbank of the Thames in London occupied as a headquarters by international management consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.

Earlier guides have produced details of how designers can achieve significant energy savings, which are even more valuable now that energy prices have risen so fast since the first report in 2009. That report, on schools, identified potential annual energy savings of £165M annually by adopting straightforward measures.

Steelwork contractors are working towards their own BREEAM recognition, with one having achieved BES6001 (see News). There are fairly highly set bars to be overcome to achieve BES6001, just as there are for the BCSA’s Sustainability Charter, and those who successfully tackle them are to be congratulated. For BES6001, for example, steelwork contractors have to prove that their policies, documentation systems, processes and procedures can manage the environmental and social aspects of sourcing materials. Supply chain management with a view to reducing environmental impacts must be demonstrated and commitment has to be shown to a range of sustainability issues like reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and managing water use.

Social issues are also very important to achieving BES6001, and steel contractors can easily demonstrate that steel construction with its mostly factory based workforce is inherently more supportive of family life than widespread use of itinerant workforces with other methods of construction.

The steel sector is already producing highly sustainable buildings and, as is seen with initiatives like Target Zero, is committed to continuously improving its sustainability performance  – all we hope for now is a more sustainable economic environment in which these skills can flourish.

Nick Barrett

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