Differing definitions of net zero could be stalling planet-positive construction with greenwashing, claims developer

In a recent live virtual roundtable, Development Finance Today teamed up with specialist lender West One to discuss the future of sustainable property development.

Head of development finance Guy Murray and development finance portfolio manager Alan Coleman represented West One during the event, which was moderated by Medianett Publishing’s managing director Caron Schreuder. Ben Spencer, founder of GS8 Developments — who received funding for his carbon-negative, zero-waste pilot housing scheme from the finance provider — rounded off the panel.

When asked whether there is demand from borrowers for sustainable development, Guy reported that the requests he was seeing to fund eco projects was minimal. However, it is something that the lender wants to support and is working to devise initiatives to incentivise this type of business.

“It’s a big thing we think about most days,” Guy said.

Wary of jumping on the EPC bandwagon, Guy felt that working with Ben on the Orford Road project (set to complete in July) was an excellent way to get comfortable with supporting sustainable development.

He added that institutional funds, which are more frequently backing specialist lenders, also have green objectives — and this could fuel a bigger appetite.

Alan emphasised the importance of making brokers and developers aware that there is access to funding for these innovative projects, and that financing them should not present a barrier to completion.

“Ultimately, it comes down to what will it cost,” Alan commented.

“Do we think that the developer has the experience to procure this and, therefore, would we be in a position to help them fund it? If we can answer these fundamental questions, then we'd look to progress the deal forward.”

Ben's journey started just over five years ago with the aim to deliver homes that had little to no utility bills, effectively putting money back in the pockets of families and first-time buyers.

At the time, there was less knowledge surrounding the link between carbon emissions and industry waste, and Ben wanted GS8 schemes to go further than the ‘tick-box’ benchmarks and accreditations that existed. 

The company’s three main targets are to be carbon negative, produce zero waste, and be net energy positive.

On the Orford Road site, a ratio of 1:1.4 has been achieved, with one being embodied carbon from manmade materials, and 1.4 the sequestered carbon in timber and other natural products.

“The zero-waste component is as it says on the tin,” Ben explained. “Nothing goes to landfill; everything gets 100% reused [in] the finished buildings, with the exception of contaminated materials.”

Furthermore, Ben shared that the products were secured before design, to further reduce waste. “We pre-procured the materials because we were using standard sizes, so we knew they would be readily available, and that drove what we ended up designing.”

Materials that are “dual performance” are also sought out. For example, wood chippings are compressed and returned to site as aesthetically pleasing worktops, while soil from the foundations is reused as ‘earth bricks’ for party walls that are both attractive (removing the need for paint) and insulating. 

The way they achieve a positive energy output is by taking a ‘fabric-first approach’, which encourages passive heating and cooling. 

“We look to reduce our facades down to the minimum number of materials possible and focus on quality of execution, particularly on air tightness and permeability,” Ben shared.

“What that did is take away the need to go heavy on the buildings with renewables, which is where a lot of people spend money and where the viability point comes into question.”

Having previously been quoted as saying that there is a chasm between the old- and new-school approaches to development, Ben was asked where we are in terms of progress. 

He is somewhat sceptical about the amount of greenwashing that takes place in the industry, and puts some of this down to a lack of continuity when it comes to definitions. “You could speak to two different organisations, and they could define net zero in a very different way.”

“There are companies that may have intentions, but when you break down the product and what they’re actually delivering, there’s a lot of greenwashing going on.”

On the topic of availability of materials in today’s uncertain geopolitical and economic environment, Ben advised that the “massive” global shortage of timber is a challenge, but that developers should be aware of reusable waste stream alternatives, albeit these are difficult to make viable at scale. 

He credited West One with having the “vision” to support the project and hopes that other lenders will start to see the value in planet-positive construction.

Given the developer’s plans to make its blueprint and framework available to the wider market in due course, the industry will hopefully see more partnerships between lenders and innovative builders.

“We're a company that needs to make profit; we’re not doing it for exhibition purposes,” Ben concludes. “It’s the future of our business and, we believe, the future of the housing industry and the built environment.”

The full virtual roundtable can be watched, below:

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