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Sustainability built to last

John McMullan, commercial manager from EPDM roofing specialist, Firestone Building Products, discusses why a ‘built to last’ culture should be at the heart of an FM’s sustainability strategy

Whether tasked with improving the sustainability of a legacy building or maximising the sustainability of a new build, the FM cannot avoid the issue of sustainability. 

It is a concept that has pre-occupied the architectural professional for years and become a key concern of the construction sector, both of which play major roles in ensuring that a building is designed, specified and constructed to have minimal environmental impact over a maximum period of time.

However, true sustainability cannot be delivered over the long-term by ‘environmentally-friendly’ specification alone. A truly sustainable building needs to go much further than using environmentally responsible materials at the time of build or refurbishment; a sustainable project needs to ensure that eco-specification and the reduced carbon footprint of a scheme can be sustained for the longest possible service life.

That approach must include both longevity of the initial design and construction and a sustainable maintenance, repair and future proofing strategy. Increasingly, both owners and occupiers are focused on improving their buildings’ sustainability. That focus is driven not only by the need to reduce operational and maintenance costs but also as an integral part of managing their reputation as environmentally responsible businesses.

The FM, therefore, must build sustainability into all decisions affecting both reactive and preventative maintenance, repairs and modifications, considering both the environmental profile of the materials used and their long-term performance and adaptability.

When it comes to roofing, the only transparent way to truly assess a roofing system’s environmental profile is to average its carbon footprint across its life span, including embedded carbon from its manufacturing processes and transportation, recyclability and potential waste stream implications.

While the physical life span of a building is usually an influence in its design and specification, a greater influence at design and construction stage is often the project’s ‘working life’; a term which can be taken to mean the period for which the building will be used for its intended purpose, with reasonable maintenance but without major repair.

The anticipated working life of many buildings is in the region of just 20 years: in a world with limited resources and a construction industry that claims to put sustainability at its heart, that’s simply not long enough!

Part of the problem is that legislation surrounding the topic of sustainability is primarily focused on a building’s services installation and thermal performance, rather than its long-term viability. From an FM perspective, this is also a major consideration as thermal performance is directly linked to operational costs so focusing a sustainability strategy on the task of reducing energy bills makes sound commercial sense.

However, reducing the building’s maintenance and replacement costs also delivers both financial and environmental benefits. The difference is that, while building Part L into the fabric of any new building is a mandatory design element, there is no such mandatory requirement to ensure that the fabric of the building will still be fit for purpose 10, 20 or 50 years down the line.

Instead, the life span element of a building’s sustainability is viewed by the construction sector as more of a budgetary consideration, which, lasts no longer than the construction programme. Consequently, the longevity and long-term performance of construction materials are weighed against their purchase cost to determine the specification strategy instead of being prioritised as a key element of the building’s sustainability credentials.

Ideally, where the FM will be responsible for a new build facility, the company should be brought into the project at pre-construction stage to enable the FM function to influence specification of materials on both the environmental and maintenance criteria. In reality, however, this is a rare privilege.

Discussing the best solution for a specific building with a trusted roofing contractor can help to determine the most sustainable approach, however, it’s essential to emphasise that the sustainability and whole life cost benefits are the highest priority as many contractors will focus on offering the best price rather than the best system to win the contract.

It’s also important to note that many roofing contractors specialise in a specific type of roofing technology and their preference may not be your best option. The chosen system should demonstrate the long-term benefits of prolonged service life, greater adaptability if future changes are required and reduced maintenance, in addition to improving the sustainability of the building. For example, EPDM is an inert material that resists the effect of UV and ozone degradation, while retaining flexibility over a service life in excess of 50 years, which adds up to excellent sustainability and whole lifecycle cost benefits.

For refurbishment projects, the first indicator of whether a roofing system contributes to the building’s sustainability is whether or not a strip out of the existing substrate will be required.

Overlaying an existing sound structure and coverings not only reduces the length of the programme but also prevents strip out waste from being sent to landfill. For optimum service life, overlaying must be carried out to a high standard using materials that are compatible with the existing substrate and each other, For example, if the requirement is for upgraded insulation and new waterproofing, it’s essential that the waterproofing membrane is compatible with the new insulation and the selected attachment system components are also compatible.

The roof build up should always be specified in line with the manufacturer’s recommendations and best practice guidelines and each component should be able to demonstrate an extended service life as a component of the overall roof system. An EPDM membrane, for example, will last up to 50 years. The extended waterproofing service life can only be achieved, however, if the complete system – comprising membrane, accessories and substrate – all offer long-term performance.

Where potential compatibility issues have been identified, it’s worth considering the use of a cover board, to create a robust surface between the substrate and the new system

The environmental impact and embedded carbon of any construction material are important specification considerations but service life is also critical. Too often, too much emphasis is placed on meeting criteria set out by building regulations and eco initiatives without sufficient regard for genuinely reducing average carbon footprint and waste by specifying buildings that last longer. Surely it’s now time we started building longevity into mandatory sustainability requirements as well as forward-thinking cost strategies?

About Sarah OBeirne


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