18 March 2013

Black Thoughts on Ecobuild

Well that’s ecobuild over for another year, and I for one say good!  In many ways I think that ecobuild reflects many of the barriers that are preventing our industry delivering the step-change that is required to address the pressing issues of our age.  As I walked around the vast, artificially conditioned interior of ExCel London what struck me most powerfully was the gap between presentation and reality.

Every product has
been greenwashed!
In the evolution of sustainable design I believe that we have really not changed much at all; all that has changed is the words that we use to describe products and the spin that is used to emphasise their virtues.  Ecobuild is dominated by major global construction product manufacturers and suppliers all of whom have added words like “eco” or “green” to the descriptions of their products and then, in the vast majority of cases, simply continued with business as usual.

The high cost of exhibiting at the show prevents most small companies and start-ups from displaying their wares, so almost all of the really interesting things that one found in the early shows, back in the good old days at Earls Court, have now disappeared.  For me to continue to make the annual pilgrimage to the Royal Docks, this must change.  I think that as the UK’s largest construction trade show there is a responsibility incumbent upon UBM, the franchises new owners to give something back, and this should be in the form of small low or no cost stands for small and medium sized enterprises (SME’s) and start-ups.

As a practice, we have an initiative called Product of the Month where we ask our team to identify innovative sustainable building products and materials.  On average we have noted that it takes at somewhere between 3 and 5 years for the products that we find to appear at ecobuild.  Clearly, this would be cut dramatically if they were able to exhibit at low or no cost.  Also, by gaining exposure sooner they are more likely to survive and thrive.

The international nature of the industry is reflected at ecobuild, with significant space given over to foreign firms, with a rapid growth in those coming from China.  Many contractors now boast about having their own global supply chain, able to source products direct from Chinese manufacturers, cutting out the middle men.  But is this really a sustainable model for the UK economy?

I passionately believe that we need to rebalance our economy by growing our manufacturing sector.  This is essential if we are to create the range of jobs that we need to achieve full employment and long term social cohesion.  Construction products and materials manufactured and sourced from the UK create jobs and ensure that value is created in the UK and not aboard.  Removing long distance supply chains also delivers easy cuts in embedded carbon, which is increasingly important as we cut operational energy.

Glabal trade,
large carbon footprint!
Local sourcing of construction labour will ensure that host communities benefit from the construction process, but I would like this principle extended.  Small and medium scale (SME) businesses create jobs locally and in greater numbers than large national or international firms.  I would like to see all state funded procurement favour local small businesses for all contracts below £5 million.  Locally designed and built projects will help reconnect the property industry with the communities that we should be serving, correcting the distortions that have occurred due to property being seen primarily as an investment asset class rather than a means of enhancing the efficiency and wellbeing of building occupiers.

There is a pressing need for radical change to make the construction industry relevant and capable of addressing the concerns of our age.  The future must be small, local and accountable if we are to deliver intrinsically sustainable development.

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