Sustainable BuildingsConstructionHow to Get Started with Sustainable Construction: City Authorities

How to Get Started with Sustainable Construction: City Authorities

Karl Dickinson
Karl Dickinson
Change matters. It takes courage. As a writer - and citizen - I am inspired by stories of those who challenge the 'we've always done it this way' attitude. We can do better - it's time to listen to those who go against the grain.

Sustainable construction offers us the means to create durable, desirable cities of the future; places that are socially beneficial, environmentally friendly, and economically viable. With decisive and informed policy, upskilling, and budget-setting, city authorities hold the reigns for manoeuvring towards a sustainable construction drive in their jurisdiction. It’s time to pick up the pace. Let’s get started!

It’s the job of local administrations to meet our residential, commercial, educational, healthcare, and leisure needs, while we expect them to limit the urban impact this has on the natural world. By adopting greener building practices, we can achieve a balance. But sustainable construction isn’t confined to the materials we use or powering new properties with renewables; progress hinges on planning processes, energy efficiency, job creation, responsible leadership, collaborations with supply chains, and policies that enable, encourage, and enforce it all.

Make a Target

Make relevant, realistic, reachable goals. But be ambitious. BREEAM, the building environment assessment standard, published planning guidance that tells us it is “key” to “set requirements that exceed the statutory minima”. It’s why the Paris Agreement aims to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels; 2°C is manageable but why settle when we can do better?

“Developers mostly build to minimum standards.”

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

In the sphere of construction, make objectives too easy and you compromise on impact; too hard and you risk disenfranchising stakeholders, losing their motivation and commitment.

Obtainable goals will vary depending on local geography, economics, and demography. Samples include:

  • Minimum percentages of natural building materials per project.
  • A target number of buildings per year to be built using sustainable methods – increasing annually.
  • Establishing a cut-off date after which no building can be constructed using traditional methods.
  • Setting aside a budget to underpin job creation, develop awareness campaigns, and create youth training opportunities.

Ask an Expert

Internationally recognised standards like LEED are viewed as reliable indicators of a building’s efficiency because, says BREEAM’s Director Martin Townsend, they are “carried out by qualified and licensed, independent assessors”.

He sees the benefit that “local authorities don’t need a complete range of sustainable building expertise”. But what if they did? There are advantages to cities having qualified personnel in their planning departments, as it:

  • Safeguards against unpredictable wait times, fluctuations in service, and non-compliance with building regulations that could be encountered with external agencies.
  • Provides a centralised construction ecosystem, a highly convenient single access point for citizens, developers, and contractors.
  • Designs coordinated protocols for every step of the process, such as automatically triggering evaluations when applying for a building permit and integrating ratings reporting into standard paperwork. This bypasses lengthy, disjointed systems.

Continuous Learning Not Carbon Burning

With the low carbon economy set to grow 4 times faster than other sectors, a focus on training for contemporary construction practices is instrumental in meeting Paris Agreement targets. The UK’s Climate Change Committee called on the government to offer a national programme of “support to train designers, builders and installers”.

Authorities should work with local training providers to create meaningful, accessible curriculums for education-age students and those seeking in-job or back-to-work retraining. Ideally providing funded and increasing accessibility with flexible and part-time study programmes.

Pledge Allegiance

Greenbuild has been asking attendees to commit to small changes at their conferences, creating a shift in behaviour. “Locally inspired pledge options feel more relatable to people who are on-site and encourage locals to take ownership”, writes Janelle Penny, Editor-in-Chief with This applies to organisations as much as individuals.

“As of now, I am only offering my expertise by suggesting sustainable design solutions, and I will not compromise the sustainability of any project due to budgetary concerns.”

That’s an excerpt from Seattle’s Josh Architects self-penned pledge. There’s more:

“I will commit to offer sustainable solutions in every situation. I will be honored knowing that I have educated my clients on the sustainable options for their projects.”

Lead the charge. As the city authority, put together a simple list of promises that developers, housing associations, construction firms, and suppliers can commit to. When they sign up, provide a certificate they can physically display as a reminder of their pledge to employees and clients can identify reputable dealers at a glance.

Breaking the Code

There is a shortage of regulations that enforce sustainable construction. The challenge is that developers and builders actually in favour of it “have to put in extra time, money, and effort as there are even more approvals and clearances required”. The answer? Put rules in place, cut the amount of red tape, and provide appropriate support.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

The paper Sustainable Building Through Project Planning Process identified two strategies that city-level decision-makers can adopt to steer construction practices:

  1. “Codes and ordinances can be used as a regulatory tool” by setting out “clear criteria that stakeholders need to meet.” Punitive measures for non-compliance add traction to this approach.
  2. Incentives are effective. This can take the form of financing that offsets upfront costs or provides consultation sessions with experts, thereby reducing the difficulty laypeople may face in building sustainably.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s investigation into sustainable homes found that a concentration on green fabric improvements would lead to decreased supply of new homes by up to 2%. However, this can be offset by increasing planning permission rates by 20%, boosting supply by 3.5%: authorities can favour sustainable construction by making reasonable allowances not afforded traditional builds.

Put Your Money Where Your Emissions Are

It’s time to start thinking differently. Green construction isn’t limited to building sites. Denver, Colorado has designated a budget from its tax-fed Climate Protection Fund to hire a building decarbonisation incentives manager. Of its many objectives, this role will facilitate sustainable “workforce training and job creation”.

People Make Popular Policy

Boston in the USA is being held aloft as an example of good policy-writing. Smart Cities Dive said the city “worked diligently to bring all affected parties into the process”. Other cities should, too.

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s deputy director of strategy and city engagement, Emily Barkdoll, reflected on the inclusion of vulnerable citizens in constructing new policy:

“They really wanted to make sure that the people who feel the biggest effects from climate change not just had a seat at the table, but generally had power-sharing on how this would be implemented.”

The involvement of all community groups serves as a blueprint for other cities.

Making Allowances

The Good Practice Guidance for sustainable construction advises authorities to create a policy that “allows for the full zero carbon standard” of their buildings “to be achieved through the use of ‘allowable solutions’”.

This could be through introducing carbon offset or community energy funds, renewable energy, LED lighting, and district heating. A city that takes a holistic perspective rather than just homing in on the building site can create a whole culture of sustainable construction.

Go Public

Contemporary construction should be far more than a box-ticking exercise. The World Green Building Council says it “calls for a holistic approach that is embedded deep within an organisation’s design and its people”.

Local authorities should lead by example, employing natural materials, community energy, and circular planning in public buildings.

This is exactly what happened in Zurich. In 2002, a new school became the city’s first building to use recycled concrete: 80% of it! By 2005, Zurich mandated all public buildings – from art galleries to hospitals – built with cement must contain 25% of recycled material. “In 2013, the city went a step further to mandate the use of CO2-reduced cement”, cites Bloomberg.

What Wood You Do?

It’s time for cities to review their building regs and throw out those based on archaic attitudes and materials – they only hinder progress.

Most cities around the world restrict how high an all-timber build can go: a maximum of 8 storeys, above which it’s classed as high-rise. But as the 20-floor wood hotel in Swedish city Skellefteå shows us, this natural material has suitable strength, durability, and aesthetic.

How City Authorities Can Get Started with Sustainable Construction in a Nutshell

It may seem unfair, but the construction sector looks to urban administrations to set the trend for sustainable building. We need to face this head-on, or risk an “if they’re not, I won’t” attitude from the industry. Thankfully, there’s much we can do.

First by being a leading example and resource of expertise and services, and secondly by undertaking a much-needed policy review: creating up-to-date regulations for sustainable building practices will reverberate throughout the building sector so long as we set clear, realistic targets. As custodians of public money city authorities should use their privileged position to assign budgets for incentives, training opportunities, and green-sector jobs. And in everything we do, let’s shoot for the stars – aim high and achieve better than the minimum.

It isn’t easy for cities to turn around quick changes, but that’s exactly what we need them to do.

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