A sustainable journey

This Issue This is a part of the Net-zero carbon buildings feature

By - , Build 182

As a child, I was not a fan of Dr Seuss books, but there’s a line from environmental parable The Lorax that has stayed with me and is relevant to BRANZ’s journey towards sustainability: ‘unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.’

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CLIMATE CHANGE was momentarily sidelined by 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic, but despite that, it remains at the top of most ‘issues keeping CEOs awake at night’ lists. And while more and more business leaders are grappling with what this means for their companies, the expectations on the construction industry are mounting.

Construction industry has a key role

In February 2021, He Pou a Rangi, the Climate Change Commission, will start consultation on its Emissions Reduction Plan, which will set New Zealand’s first emissions budget. The built environment has a key role to play in this.

We in the construction industry will be responsible for identifying and enabling solutions to help achieve the emissions reduction targets. We also have a key role in tackling the myriad of other potential impacts of climate change on the built environment.

As an industry, we will need to adapt and evolve building techniques, improve building resilience and develop new materials capable of withstanding rising sea levels and adverse weather events.

We must also identify ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower the carbon footprint throughout the entire life cycle of the built environment.

Scientific solutions to support industry change

As a multi-faceted, science-led organisation, BRANZ is already playing a key role in examining how climate change will impact our built environment. For the past two decades, we have been building a suite of tools, information resources and a body of research to help enable better environmental performance by the sector. Our work has highlighted the need to improve energy efficiency, decrease the energy supply carbon footprint and manage peak demand.

Our work has provided guidance for reducing building material waste, reducing water use in buildings and passive design. BRANZ research and tools help the industry design buildings, market products and choose materials with a better understanding of environmental performance including embodied carbon. The importance of this work to the sector has led to a significant research programme focused on delivering the solutions needed for New Zealand’s transition to a zero-carbon built environment.

However, our research work in this space is only one part of the equation – we can’t stop there. As an organisation heavily committed over many decades to the quest for improving environmental responsibility and more recently carbon neutrality, we have remained committed to evaluating the performance of our own practices. After all, it’s not just the work done by the industry that needs to adapt to climate change, it’s the industry itself.

The BRANZ experience

Our journey towards sustainability began in 2006 with an on-site cardboard recycling cage and the use of vegetable printing inks for Build magazine. BRANZ joined the Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research Envirosmart programme, receiving a bronze certificate, knowing that it would be a journey of continuous improvement rather than a single grand gesture that would lead to ultimate success.

Every step on the journey counts

In short, no step was too small to be considered – hence printing inks and recycling programmes for cardboard, plastics and aluminium. That initial certification laid the foundation for activity that culminated in receiving Diamond Certification to the Toitū enviromark environmental programme in 2009, which we have now proudly held for 11 consecutive years.

There has been no resting on laurels. In the intervening 14 years, there have been dozens of small steps taken, from composting food scraps to reducing the frequency of lawn mowing, from replacing lease vehicles with more fuel-efficient models to monitoring and reducing electricity and water consumption. We use environmentally audited brands wherever possible – be it photocopy paper or dishwashing detergent. China cups replaced paper. Energy-efficient appliances have been chosen, and we have upcycled furniture wherever possible. The impact of these incremental improvements has expanded and accelerated over time.

Bigger issues have also been tackled. In a move that has proven prescient, in 2009, BRANZ first investigated the option of working from home for some staff. That initial investigation led to policy development in 2010 and working from home becoming a viable option in 2011. In 2011, BRANZ also first trialled teleconferencing on FaceMe.

In 2020, that foresight paid dividends with an almost seamless move to remote working through the lockdown.

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Net-zero emissions energy business by 2035

BRANZ’s goal is to become a net-zero emissions energy business by 2035 or before. That means providing and adapting our products and services to be delivered in a cleaner, more responsible way. We have developed codes, policies and standards to measure our progress towards that end.

These are regularly updated to ensure they remain fit for purpose and are well embedded in the culture of the organisation. For example, the BRANZ Group Environmental Policy demonstrates our commitment to minimising our impact on the local, national and global environment while following environmentally conscious and sustainable practices. It is reported on annually.

In terms of outcomes, the whole of our work to date has proven greater than the sum of its parts, but we have also put our money where our mouth is.

Getting our house in order

In 2010, BRANZ set about refurbishing its main campus building in Judgeford. Given our mission is to challenge Aotearoa New Zealand to create a building system that delivers better outcomes for all, we followed sustainable building principles.

We focused on the thermal envelope, ensuring the building would stay warm in winter and cool in summer. We used all the tricks in the book – added insulation and double glazing, passive ventilation, solar panels to preheat the hot water system and a low-emissions wood pellet heating solution.

 

Importantly, all this work was completed to well above Building Code standard, and a building management system was installed to ensure peak performance. Like any complex system, it has taken us some time to learn to use all these tools to the best effect, and tweaks have been made over the years to optimise building performance.

We continue to monitor our consumption of electricity and water and the amount of waste going to landfill – all are trending downwards. Further campus developments and reassessing our on-site sewage treatment plant are planned with environmental performance in our journey of continuous improvement.

Next year will see us publish our first carbon footprint with verified data going back to 2017. We also intend to introduce a biological diversity survey to ensure we remain good environmental stewards of our Judgeford site.

Lessons shared to inspire others

My hope in sharing this story of BRANZ’s experience in working towards a carbon-zero environmentally sustainable future is to inspire others to begin, continue or accelerate their own journey. The BRANZ lesson is that every little bit counts, that small steps matter and can create impacts beyond expectation. I strongly believe that, by each of us doing our bit and by working together, we CAN make a difference, but it will take effort.

The late Ray Anderson – founder of Interface, a US manufacturing company – was one of the earliest proponents and adopters of sustainability principles. He continued to push for more, new and better ways to effect positive environmental change. His view? ‘Comply is not a vision.’

I agree with Ray. It is that sense of vision and purpose that is required for our industry – indeed all industries and businesses – to embrace continuous improvement in the sustainability stakes. It is a journey, and the destination is too precious for us to fail.

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