Supply Chain Sustainability School                            SBE0054

Written evidence from the Supply Chain Sustainability School

This evidence submission has been coordinated by Martin Gettings FIEMA CENV, Director Sustainability Canary Wharf Group, Chair WCoC Climate Action Group, and Chair Supply Chain Sustainability School Climate Action Group.

1. Launched in 2012, the Supply Chain Sustainability School is a free learning environment, upskilling those working within, or aspiring to work within, the built environment sector. We focus on 17 key topics of sustainability, as well as addressing topics in offsite, digital, procurement, lean construction and management.

2. Membership is free and signing up is easy. Membership gives access to thousands of learning resources and CPD-accredited content. The School also offers CPD training and networking activities. The School is accessible to anyone working in the built environment or aspiring to work in the sector and can help any built environment organisation gain competitive advantage and make a real difference to business.

3. We service the markets of construction, infrastructure, homes and facilities management across England, Scotland and Wales. We cover a wealth of topics relevant to any workplace, from fairness, inclusion and respect (FIR) and modern slavery; to waste and wellbeing. We also offer specialist topic groups in offsite, digital, procurement, management and lean construction. The School has also established a Climate Action Group, which is driving carbon reporting in the supply chain.

4. The School is an award-winning, industry-wide collaboration with its vision and work directed by Partners and registered users. With over 120 Partners, the School is the key industry-led organisation for driving the improvement of sustainability knowledge and skills throughout the value chain.

6. Partners include the major players in the built environment; clients, major contractors and key suppliers who sit alongside a group of forward-thinking supply chain members; all with one mission – to deliver more efficient and sustainable projects and sustainable built environment. They lead and drive the direction of the School, ensuring that a tailored, supply chain support approach can be delivered across industry. It is this approach and constitution that makes Supply Chain Sustainability School a very appropriate contributor to the EAC Call to Evidence

How can materials be employed to reduce the carbon impact of new buildings, including efficient heating and cooling, and which materials are most effective at reducing embodied carbon?

7. The right choice of materials is at the core of being carbon efficient. Designing for and choosing suitable materials for the intended outcome of the building or asset will not only directly drive lower embodied carbon but also more efficient operational use, once completed. This requires the client, design teams and construction contractors to collaborate, early on in the design phase to assess all possibilities to minimize carbon. The design itself it important to maximise the use of passive techniques optimising the use of natural daylight and air flow for lighting, heating and cooling. When it comes to materials themselves there isn't a simple, single solution to say X is better than Y. They all have benefits, in different ways, for more than just carbon – engineering and other design aspects need to be woven into that decision. But there are straightforward ecodesign principles that should be followed in all cases: simply using less material, rather than over engineering the design; choosing materials with recycled content, as opposed to virgin sources, and obtained from suppliers whose manufacturing sites have a lower carbon intensity. Moreover, choosing alternative materials, different to the norm, and encouraging innovative materials can further drive carbon reductions. 

What role can nature-based materials can play in achieving the Government’s net zero ambition?

8. Nature based materials certainly have a role to play. But as above it is not a simple case of saying that timber products are ‘better’. While they have the benefit of sequestering carbon during their growth phase, they still nonetheless incur carbon impacts and emissions through the course of their harvesting, processing, manufacturing and installation, much as do other materials. Furthermore, if they are not sourced sustainably, e.g.  for every tree removed, it is replaced by at least one more, there is a risk of reducing the overall carbon sink that they are contributing. And finally we shouldn’t ignore end of life impacts. If a wooden frame building, for example, is demolished and the timber disposed rather than reused elsewhere, the carbon it has absorbed will eventually be released, cancelling out the sequestering benefits.

What methods account for embodied carbon in buildings and how can this be consistently applied across the sector?

9. There are many methods, standards and tools for calculating carbon. BS EN 15978 and the related standards such as BS EN 15804 for Environmental Product Declarations is probably the most commonly used for construction projects across their lifetime. These, coupled with datasets such as the Bath inventory of Carbon and Energy (Bath ICE) are moving us to some level of consistency in approach. However there is still some way to go in applying these standards, and the underlying emissions factor data, in a unified way. We need to focus on the bigger picture, understand where the key hotspots for embodied carbon exist, and by extension operational carbon too, in order to make meaningful and large scale changes to how we design and build.

10. In order to optimise this, we need to develop skills and competence. Many organisations are aware of the need to reduce carbon, contribute to the UK’s Net Zero targets, and in many cases are working towards science based targets. But, from the experience in the Supply Chain Sustainability Skills, the knowledge and how-to skills are lacking at sufficient depth in many organisations to make carbon embedded in the decision-making process in design, procurement and construction. All to often it is down to a small number of people in the CSR/Sustainability/HSEQ team to drive carbon considerations as much a part of the design and procurement as safety is. Part of this is raising the awareness and availability of lower carbon solutions, stimulating the market to invest, and do something different to the norm. It needs to become a regular part of what is assessed. It needs to be a standing agenda item

Should the embodied carbon impact of alternative building materials take into account the carbon cost of manufacture and delivery to site, enabling customers to assess the relative impact of imported versus domestically sourced materials?

11. Yes.  This is the whole point. To reduce the carbon impacts from the products and materials we use, we need to take a holistic life cycle approach. this means understating the carbon impacts from extraction of raw materials, through processing into basic commodities, onto manufacture into products and components and then the transport impacts too. Then we are able to compare the relative merits of two products that fulfil the same purpose but come from different sources. In parallel we need to not forget other sustainability issues, such as resource consumption (circular economy) – where and how were the raw materials extracted and what does that mean for impacts on biodiversity at that location, as well as the labour standards of the suppliers who undertake that extraction. There are also the socio-economic and social value benefits to consider, and sourcing locally often comes into this frame. Sourcing from within UK will certainly support UK business, help to “build back better”, but might not have a lower carbon impact – we shouldn’t assume that if something comes from overseas it will have a higher carbon impact simply due to the transportation. In many cases the overall carbon can be lower, despite the shipping distance being longer, due to factors such as more efficient production processes.

How well is green infrastructure being incorporated into building design and developments to achieve climate resilience and other benefits?

12. What is meant by ‘green infrastructure’? It seems to be broad phrase and would need better description. But the wider point is that adaptation is just as important as mitigation. This comes back to the points above about designing for lower carbon, using natural ventilation and light instead of relying on energy-hungry HVAC. It also means we need to enable building and asset design that allow for more green spaces in and around buildings. There are increasing examples of green walls and rooves, but by stipulating and encouraging more green space, we can be more ambitious, deliver more. Designing in more green areas brings so many benefits: enabling carbon sequestration, even if only on a low level, wellbeing for those people working and living nearby, natural cooling created by the difference in air temperatures between shaded and non-shaded areas, an opportunity for increased biodiversity, local employment for grounds maintenance, and so on.

How should we take into account the use of materials to minimise carbon footprint, such as use of water harvesting from the roof, grey water circulation, porous surfaces for hardstanding, energy generation systems such as solar panels?

13. Yes. As with all materials we should look at their lifecycle impacts – the embodied carbon that it takes to manufacture them and any other impacts from maintenance, refurb and replacement. With the examples given here there are in-use benefits too, that other materials don’t provide during the occupancy phase, such as many of the structural elements. Therefore, the impacts of manufacturing greywater and rainwater systems, PV panels, etc, should be considered against the benefits they bring during the lifetime of the building. The most obvious candidate in this ‘bucket’ is insultation. It has long been proven that whilst the carbon ‘cost’ of manufacturing insulation can be relatively high, depending on the materials used, the benefits it brings over the lifetime of its use – better energy efficiency and hence reduced carbon emissions – far outweighs the upfront ‘cost’. It should be noted that the energy and carbon needed to ‘make’ drinking water is relatively insignificant in a building’s operation compared to lighting and HVAC. So whilst water conservation is important from the point of resources, it is not material for carbon.

How should re-use and refurbishment of buildings be balanced with new developments?

14. Again, this comes down to the design part of the process. To reduce the need to create more embodied carbon through specifying new materials, all possibilities for redesigning, reusing, refurbishing and re-purposing existing assets should be considered in the design in the frame of what is required at the Brief and Concept Design stages. Not only will this allow for the design to keep some of the existing elements of the building, reducing carbon, it will have other knock-on benefits. These include reducing impacts on waste processing and landfill; reducing the drain on natural resources and the concomitant biodiversity impacts; retaining local built environment heritage, where appropriate, and so on.

What can the Government do to incentivise more repair, maintenance and retrofit of existing buildings?

15. Change the tax conditions so that retrofit and refurbishment are more appealing than new build, i.e. swap around the current situation where refurb has to pay VAT and new build doesn’t. More than that though, make it a core part of the Government’s policy and plans to encourage reuse, repair, maintenance and upgrade, where technically possible.

May 2021