We don’t talk about the environmental impact of CFCs much anymore because the O-Zone depleting gases were banned worldwide back in 2010 in an attempt to stop the damage to the O-Zone getting any worse. However, global efforts to reduce buildings’ operational carbon by improving the thermal performance of the building envelope have inadvertently contributed to a serious escalation of O-Zone depletion recently thanks to the use of cheap Chinese insulation products manufactured using CFC-11.
First of all, let’s be clear, it is unlikely the specifiers and contractors who used the O-Zone unfriendly insulation were aware of the CFCs used in its manufacture; the source of the CFCs has only recently been confirmed by NGO the Environmental Investigations Agency (EIA) following an investigation into the reasons for a sudden and significant rise in emissions. The problem is, however, that those using the O-Zone depleting insulation did not check or question the reasons why it was so cheap; they simply selected it because the price was right and it ticked the box for thermal performance.
It’s a cautionary tale that’s symptomatic of a widespread failing in the construction sector: rather than considering the environmental impact of building materials throughout their lifecycle on a cradle-to-cradle basis – raw material, manufacture, transportation, installation, service life, recyclability/re-use – many specifiers are simply focused on whether they deliver the performance to meet EPC, BREEAM or LEED requirements at the right cost.
The causes of this superficial approach to environmentally responsible specification are largely down to two factors.
Firstly there’s cost – or at least perceived cost. The specifiers that used the insulation manufactured using CFCs used it because it was cheap. And because it was cheap they didn’t ask why, they just relished finding something that came in under budget without the need for value engineering. The combination of tight project budgets, minimal construction margins and a specification culture that considers product purchase costs rather than installed or whole life cost means that specifiers are often looking for the cheapest solution rather than the best solution for their budget.
Secondly, there is a lack of legislation around the environmental impact of materials as opposed to the environmental impact of the finished project. While operational emissions are monitored through building regulations and EPC ratings, there is no legislative framework to restrict embedded emissions values. In effect, this means a building that meets high standards of environmental compliance could still have been constructed using materials with a negative environmental impact at every stage – including raw material sourcing, manufacturing process, transportation emissions, installation method, service life and waste.
The construction sector has come a long way in terms of environmental awareness and compliance but the scandal of the CFC emissions caused by cheap insulation is a reminder that there is still a long way to go. There is a bitter irony in the fact that, by meeting thermal performance standards designed to improve environmental standards, those specifying the cut-price insulation have probably done more environmental damage than an uninsulated building would have during its lifetime.
As the MD of a company that specialises in woodfibre insulation – systems fabricated from renewable sources that offer carbon lock up, lightweight construction and complete recyclability – I know that misconceptions about the cost of sustainable/eco-friendly/renewable products still exist. Until we begin to look at the environmental impact of the construction sector more holistically – from both a cultural and legislative point of view – we cannot achieve the goal of constructing buildings that manage both the financial and environmental project cost effectively.