Monday, July 09, 2012

GVis2012 – Sustainability in Construction

If you missed last week’s GVis2012 half-day conference in Leeds, here’s my take on it.

The event was challenging from two points of view. First of all, the programme packed a considerable amount of sustainability information into 3½ hours. Secondly it pushed the technical envelope with Twitterfeed, simultaneous webcast and speakers from across the world presenting via Skype. The session closed with four 20x20 presentations – 20 slides with a maximum of 20 seconds each, so there was no loss of pace there!

Plenary sessions were followed by four parallel breakout sessions. Delegates had to choose two of four, so these are my comments on the parts of the conference that I was able to take part in – as a non-expert in property issues.

The session was ably led by Paula Widdowson of CSR-i. She was able to start by bringing us up to date on the latest news for local sustainability – the government’s CITY DEAL announcement promising £1bn for improving east-west transport links, Leeds as a centre for pioneering the green economy and £50m of new money for environmental projects.

Our first speaker was Mel Starrs from PRP Environmental. She said that CSR is sometimes seen as a criticism whereas it should be a communication process. A means by which visions, ethics and beliefs are made explicit; making people accountable to specific commitments. In an ideal world sustainability consultants will make themselves redundant, although she admitted that that was some way off. Although the theme of the event was construction, there was a great deal of solid information for sustainability specialists in all fields in Mel’s presentation and throughout the programme. She quoted cases studies: Patagonia Outdoor Clothes and InterfaceFlor. She spoke about BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method but you knew that), and how productivity is better in green buildings with natural ventilation and natural light. Despite this only 6% of new buildings are BREEAM certified. There are leaders, however. Apparently the greenest tenants are the oil companies and banks. Well, nobody’s all bad. You can find Mel’s detailed summary of her presentation here:

For the first breakout session I chose the Living Building Challenge, presented via Skype by Eden Bruckman in California. This was a challenge, not least because all the sessions took place in the same room and the sound from California was weak. Martin Brown controlled the presentation at the Leeds end. The Living Building Challenge goes a whole lot further than BREEAM or equivalent US standards and if the BREEAM uptake is relatively low what hope for something far more demanding? However if we don’t set high targets we’ll never achieve excellence. The objectives include net zero water use and net zero energy use – nothing more than current solar income. All materials must come from proven sustainable sources. It’s a whole philosophy. The aim is to establish “collaboratives” throughout the world. So far there are some 140 projects; the nearest to the UK is a project in Ireland.

My next roundtable session was on CSR and Competitive Advantage, led by Pedro Pablo Cardoso-Castro from Leeds Business School. We started by viewing Michael Porter’s keynote address to the 2012 Corporate Philanthropy Summit. Business is under pressure and facing greater challenges than ever, but in many cases CSR is a bolt-on with a finite budget and is not achieving solutions  to these problems. It is time for a totally integrated strategy (cf Bob Willard’s Stage 4). Business can deliver solutions, but business is business and not charity.

Some organisations have dropped the S from CSR, but Pedro gave examples of organisations where the social aspect has been fundamental to their strategy. ALFA Ceramica in Colombia needed to maintain employment in the face of falling domestic demand. As a company owned by Opus Dei, the commercial arm of the Catholic Church, they saw a duty to protect their employees. They created upmarket tiles and mosaics and exploited markets in Europe. They developed a system of traceability so that purchasers of unique designs could link them back to the family that made them. Corona, their major competitor, followed a similar policy but diversified into kitchens and bathrooms and concentrated on the US market. Corona provides its employees with training in social development and joins ALFA in the belief that strong business depends on strong society. (Come back Titus Salt!) This approach has been vindicated by the fact that both these organisations remained profitable during recession.

Mention was also made of Marshalls, a sustainability success story from here in Yorkshire, and of how they invest in their people in India, a country which provides much of their raw material.

Tamara Bergkamp of the Global Reporting Initiative gave a keynote speech from the Netherlands via Skype. She repeated the well-known wisdom: what you don’t measure you can’t manage and added that what you can’t manage you can’t change. She championed the business case for reporting and at that point my pen ran out, but you’ll find much more on the website.

I thought Pecha Kucha was an abandoned temple in South America but apparently it’s another name for 20x20 presentations.

First up was Faye Jenkins of Laing O’Rourke who explained the benefits of apprenticeships in the construction industry and the problems caused because school leavers have very little idea of the range of trades and opportunities available. Only eight slides, but a strong message.

I think Rick Hamilton, co2sense, has done this before. Twenty slides, not one up for more than 20 seconds. The trouble is that everything now went so fast that his presentation blurred into the ones by Martin Brown of Fairsnape and Eddie Murphy of Mott Macdonald. They mentioned the ecology of commerce, HIUT Denim, Agenda 21, Skanska, #GVisChat, #EndFossilFuelSubsidy, and told us that “CSR needs to shift from doing less bad”. I couldn’t absorb any more!

Thanks to all for a most stimulating afternoon.

We’re promised that the slides will be up on the website. In the meantime have a look at this.


Several books were mentioned during the event. You might want to look them up if you haven’t already heard of them.

  • Let My People Go Surfing -  Yvon Chouinard

  • 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years

  • The Ecology of Commerce, a declaration of sustainability

  • Confessions of a Radical Industrialist

  • Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet

The next Tweetchat at #GVisChat will be at 20.00 on 26th July.