Green specifications are a set of agreements that are recommended for the sustainable building industry. They identify and qualify the specific conditions that property developers, designers and builders must meet to demonstrate sustainable development in practice.
Increasing concerns over environmental issues such as climate change and fossil fuel depletion, have put pressure on the building industry to become more environmentally responsible. This has been accelerated by a growing awareness of the use of toxic chemicals in building materials and their associated health risks. Builders and designers need information about non-toxic, environmentally friendly, and energy-efficient products that not only address these concerns and safeguard against environmental liability claims, but also conform to building codes and regulations.
Green specifications initially developed as guidelines for best practice, but there is now a global movement to standardise these rules into a set of legal requirements. EU directives demand building products that use fewer resources, prevent waste, and have lower impacts and risks to the environment. The UK Government has recently stated that all new development and regeneration schemes must conform to green specifications, and they are working closely with a wide network of organisations to formulate these into policy.
One of these organisations is the Building Research Establishment (BRE), an independent and impartial research and advisory body that has been instrumental in developing sustainable standards for the built environment.
BRE has published the definitive “Green Guide to Specifications” which contains around 300 specifications for different building materials, divided into elements such as: floors, roofs, walls, windows, ceilings, paints, insulation etc. Each material is measured by its environmental impact against key issues such as ozone depletion, climate change, fossil fuels, toxic emissions, pollution, waste, mining and mineral extraction, and water use (including mains, groundwater and surface). The embodied energy of a material is also measured and rated. This is an estimate of a material’s ‘true’ cost and takes into consideration all aspects of the energy required to produce that material, from its extraction, production, manufacture, transportation, storage and installation. This is known as “cradle to gate”.
Building materials are also assessed on their Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). This is a measurement of environmental impact throughout a material’s lifespan – production, manufacture, use and disposal. This is known as “cradle to grave”.
In the BRE guide, complex data about each building material is synthesised, assessed and rated using an Environmental Profiles Methodology. This is summarised into a user-friendly ratings system of A to C, where A has the least environmental impact. Anyone can confidently use this BRE guide to make informed choices about sustainable building materials, without needing to understand the complex methodology that underlies the assessment procedures.
It is important to realise that green specifications are to some extent contextual. A material might have a high embodied energy and in one context save more overall energy for a building, and in another context use more overall energy. Similarly, the functional performance and use of different buildings can affect the assessment of a given material.
Sustainable Building Standard
Green specifications are constantly changing as new materials are developed and our understanding of what it means to be sustainable evolves. Although the details of green specifications are not fixed, there is a general consensus that for a building to be sustainable it needs to use materials that: improve energy efficiency, reduce waste and pollution, conserve natural resources such as water and wood, are non-toxic, use renewable energies and have a long life-span.
The UK Government’s commitment to sustainable development, and its work with BRE and other relevant organisations, means that green specifications will soon become the required industry standard for all buildings, both new and existing. This makes it essential that anyone involved in the building industry gain knowledge of green specifications and start to make choices on how to implement these guidelines into their own practice.