Green building champion

Sustainable construction has won widespread support but now real resources are required to take forward zero carbon goals, UK Green Building Council chief Paul King tells Catherine Early.

King: lives and breathes sustainable construction
King: lives and breathes sustainable construction

Paul King lives and breathes sustainable construction. After years of persuading developers and ministers to build greener, he spends his spare time planning an eco-home for his family from scratch. "Have I got a life outside green building?" he muses.

King left his position at the helm of WWF-UK's One Million Sustainable Homes campaign this spring to join the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), which launched in March. He sees many parallels between the two roles. At WWF, he strove to bring together businesses, non-governmental organisations, the public and the government to find common ground in the pursuit of environmental objectives, he says.

"The main difference with this job is that our members are mostly organisations that make change happen. So I am that much closer to influencing actual outcomes," he explains. The council is not a trade association or an industry lobby group, he maintains. It already boasts 160 members, ranging from the biggest names in house building and consultancy to government agencies and conservation charities.

Green council outlines priorities The council is affiliated to the US Green Building Council, which has been around since 1995 and was responsible for setting up the LEED building ratings system. The UK had already led the way - the BREEAM mechanism was established before LEED. But with so many interests now involved in green construction the council has reached a critical point, at which it needs to prioritise to avoid duplication.

"In the UK there were a lot more organisations and tools, so for some time there was a question of whether we needed another organisation. But ultimately we took the view that it is precisely because there are so many things around that we need to rationalise them all. The industry must take a lead in organising what information is available," King reasons.

One major area of work is investigating how non-domestic buildings can be made more environmentally friendly. UKGBC members have been working on this study for free, in exchange for involvement at an early stage of policy-making. They are due to report to the DCLG on their findings this month.

Non-domestic buildings pose even greater challenges for sustainable energy use than domestic ones, King argues. This is particularly true in urban areas because there is less space for technological fixes. Offices have much higher energy consumption than homes because of the amount of IT equipment they hold, he points out: "To try to deal with that using on-site renewables will be very difficult and expensive."

The council believes that it should be possible to achieve zero carbon business premises within a decade. It is looking at a range of options. "There is an ongoing debate with the DCLG about how tight the definition of zero carbon is in terms of off-site renewables. That is true in housing and it is going to be equally true in non-domestic buildings," he says.

This brings us neatly around to the hot topic of the Merton rule. King maintains that the rule, which insists on sourcing a proportion of energy from on-site renewable installations, should be cherished as a rare species of truly green policy. However, he accepts that it has had unintended consequences and has sometimes missed opportunities to minimise carbon emissions.

"The rule is about two things - carbon dioxide reduction and boosting microrenewables. We need to do both these things, but ultimately what matters is carbon dioxide reduction," he stresses. He would like to see the forthcoming planning policy statement (PPS) on climate change push local authorities towards tougher targets through a hierarchy of demand reduction, energy efficiency and renewables.

Robust plan dispels ambiguity

It is vital for the government to be clear about what it wants, King says. "We saw a draft of the PPS on climate change a while ago. There was ambiguity in that draft, in that you could almost read whatever you wanted into it in terms of the Merton rule," he observes.

However, he thinks that the DCLG has recognised the problem and is working to remove the ambiguity: "It would be very dangerous to get rid of the Merton rule and hope that we get a better outcome on the basis of quite a vague policy."

King recognises that it will not be possible to achieve zero carbon communities without using microrenewables. As a member of the group tasked with identifying barriers to Whitehall's 2016 target, he knows exactly what a huge undertaking it is. "The work is getting to quite a critical stage. It needs a robust project plan and some serious resources to make sure that things are followed through," he says.

He also worries about the availability of resources in the planning sector. "The planning system and planners should be champions of sustainability and people ought to be attracted to the profession for exactly that reason," he argues. "If we want the planning system to deliver sustainable development, we need to create the conditions that will attract and retain good people. Who is talking about that?"

Age: 40
Family: Partner and two children
Education: BA in history, University of Warwick; MBA, University of
Interests: Green building, singing in a male voice choir
2007: Chief executive, UK Green Building Council
2003: Campaign director, WWF-UK
2000: Senior manager, business and consumption policy team, WWF-UK
1999: Secondment to WWF Bhutan
1997: Corporate business co-ordinator, WWF-UK
1994: Fund-raiser, corporate partnership department, WWF-UK

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