Cost Effective Fit Out Solutions

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Sharing market knowledge and expertise is always at the forefront of Summertown’s activities. On 26th November, Summertown’s Projects Director Paul Briers hosted a workshop on ‘cost-effective fit-out solutions’ at the 2015 edition of The Big Five. Renowned as the largest and most informative construction exhibition in the Middle East, Paul was invited to shed light on Summertown’s in-depth understanding of the topic.

Balancing clients’ quality expectations with cost-effectiveness is a matter that is raised on nearly every Summertown project. However, as Paul explained, it is impossible to summarise cost-effectiveness by a single parameter. Instead, it can be determined by a life-cycle perspective where all costs and benefits of a given project are evaluated and compared over its economic life.

In particular, Paul highlighted five key areas that should be taken into consideration when undertaking a cost-effective fit-out design:

The first, site selection and the concept of being thoroughly aware of a company’s forecasted growth before investing in a space. Business assessment is a necessary step to ensure long-term planning of any site. For example, if the workforce is likely to increase and outgrow the office, then creating a cleverly designed, accommodating area is a necessity. If a full assessment is not carried out from the start, as companies grow in size, it becomes challenging to provide a working environment that meets the needs of its occupants. Currently, an interesting trend is ‘hot-desking’, a workspace sharing model in which employees outnumber desks. Proven to reduce cost through space savings, ‘hot-desking’ can be integrated into site selection from phase one of the fit-out.

The next subject matter, workspace design, focused on ‘rethinking’ the use of space. Until recently, open plan offices were considered the best environment for employees, encouraging collaboration, innovation and team work. Now many studies have proven that a lack of privacy negatively affects concentration levels, productivity and creativity. The focus is shifting towards building a space that offers the perfect balance between collaboration and privacy. Today, designers, architects and workspace experts are introducing these principles into their projects to increase user satisfaction. Investing in the workspace is no longer considered an extra cost, but as a productivity investment that enhances an organisation’s overall success.

The third topic, local versus international sourcing of materials, brought to light a predicament which many contractors face in the UAE. The limited product offering in the local market has resulted in much product being sourced from overseas. However, since sustainability in buildings has moved higher on the agenda in the UAE, the fit-out industry has experienced increased pressure to implement environmentally-responsible practices. The emerging demand for reusable and local materials is having a positive effect on their availability and prices in the market. As green practices are adopted on a larger scale, economies of scale are achieved and the unit cost of green products in the local market are lowered.

This led onto the subject of sustainability and the long-term ecological footprint of material and the number of questions that must be raised and answered when considering a fit-out. Where did the material come from? How was it processed or fabricated? How did it arrive on-site? How long will it last? How will it eventually be disposed of? The cost-effectiveness of sustainable fit-outs in the region has been a hot topic, and recently, we have witnessed a greater awareness from businesses regarding both the economic and corporate benefits of building green. Thankfully, today there is a larger offering and the price of green products has reduced, which has encouraged the development of green projects.

Overall, mitigating project risk as best as possible when undertaking a fit-out is key. A responsible contractor will be aware of any potential risks to the project, and will be prepared to mitigate them in the most cost-effective way possible. It is unrealistic to think that delivery of a fit-out project will come without risk, which is why transparency and open communication with the client is essential and allows for the team to maintain tight control on costs versus ‘allowable’. Contractors should not be afraid to ‘go above and beyond’ with their fit-out projects. However, cost-effective solutions that bring operational benefits for cleverly designed spaces should be front of mind at all times.

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Sustainability in the UAE – how green are we willing to go?

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By Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

At Summertown Interiors, we are huge supporters of the green building revolution which is happening in the UAE. With 800 registered LEED-accredited building projects of the 1,250 listed, the UAE is definitely spearheading change in the Middle East.

In both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the government has paved the way for the green movement by enforcing energy-efficient requirements for developers, namely Estidama and the Green Building Codes. Both are part of a long-term campaign in which the leadership is aiming to cut energy consumption by 20% by 2020, including the identification of sustainability as a key criterion in the event specification for Dubai Expo 2020.

Promisingly, we have witnessed a greater awareness from business regarding both the economic and corporate benefits of building green. A great example of this is how just a few years ago there was a shortage of eco products in the regional market which meant green investment was slightly halted. Thankfully, today there is a larger offering and the price of green products has reduced which has encouraged the development of green building projects.

In addition, attitudes in society towards sustainability have progressed and people are more aware and keener to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. Lots of companies are now advocates in promoting well-being at work, paying more attention to the quality of lighting, indoor air, sound level and visual design in the office, as well as providing their staff with breakout and gyms areas.

This being said, the UAE is still considerably behind its Western counterparts when it comes to the sustainability conversation. For example, there is little or no legislation that enforces companies to consider the environment – even Estidama’s mandatory status is a rare thing and most companies that take measures to ‘go green’ do so voluntarily.

This leads into the UAE’s sustainability reporting and the lack of procedures when it comes to companies reporting their environmental footprint. This has to be improved and taken seriously like in other developed markets – it will be a while before companies in the UAE are on par with them.

Although there has been an increased interest in building green in the past few years, the corporate and economic benefits of sustainability are still underestimated in the region and deserve to be promoted through a considered educational program for both the construction sector and decision makers.

At Summertown Interiors, we are happy to see the UAE’s green revolution gain momentum and are confident that further change is coming as companies continue to embrace more and more green policies.

From the availability of green products, to the lack of clear regulations in green building and recycling, we do still face challenges. While efforts are made to design and construct buildings that perform better, a key area missed is how buildings are operated and maintained from a sustainable viewpoint. Additionally, more importance needs to be given to the interiors of buildings as at the moment are regulated mainly by LEED certification, not mandatory in the UAE.

Our industry has a crucial role to play in pressing for specific legislation and convincing high-end users of the benefits of green practices. We need to reinforce the collaboration between all key stakeholders for further improvement – authorities, contractors, manufacturers, engineers, architects, designers, developers, facility managers and tenants. Stakeholder involvement at every level is absolutely necessary if green building is to earn its rightful place as the industry standard.

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A look at past and future design trends in architecture and construction; how does this affect the fit out industry?

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By Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

Today, design is about more than aesthetics and functionality. It is, more than ever, about helping businesses create value. Dark, dull, monotone offices are fast becoming a thing of the past. With today’s employees spending more than 30 percent of their lives at work, building a flexible and creative environment that nurtures individual wellbeing, has a clear positive impact on a business’ bottom line. Not only are companies using office design to attract and engage the best talent in the market, they recognise the workspace is an expression of a company’s visual identity and should reflect their brand image and reputation. There are several movements driving change in the workspace and these will have an impact on the way offices will be designed and fitted-out over the next few years.

The overarching principle impacting all levels of the construction industry globally is sustainable development. We expect that in the next 15 years, with the recent adoption of the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, to see a total shift in the construction and fit-out industries towards sustainability models. New regulations will be adopted, higher standards and consumer demand will increase pressure on the industry to implement environmentally responsible practices, and awareness and understanding of green practices at all levels of the construction chain will increase. In the near future, sustainable projects will be the norm, not the exception. The green building movement has picked up in the UAE too, with sustainability being at the core of UAE’s strategic plan ‘Vision 2021’. Local contractors will have to step up their game when it comes to integrating sustainability into their processes, there will be more eco products available in the market and legislation will also tighten up.

Another important change we see happening in workplace design is the rethinking the use of space. The focus is shifting towards building facilities that will support cross-team collaboration and which allow teams to reshape the workspace to meet their evolving needs. For example, until recently open plan offices were considered the best environment for employees – encouraging collaboration, innovation and team work. Now many studies have proven that a lack of privacy negatively affects concentration levels, productivity and creativity so designers will start to create spaces that provide a perfect balance between collaboration and privacy. Many companies have yet to implement these changes, but designers, architects and workspace experts are introducing these principles into their projects. We will see more recreational areas, more spaces for individual retreat, more attention given to design elements that can have an impact on employees’ creativity, engagement and loyalty.

Technology has had a huge impact on workplace design and fit-out over the past decade, and we expect the smart building movement will pick up considerably in the next few years. Technology is shaping the way we communicate and interact with each other. Employees are increasingly more connected and mobile, switching between laptops, smartphones and tablets. Smart buildings mean that a higher degree of automation is now included in all projects. That’s why space and furniture can no longer be built the same way it was years ago. Modern, sustainable office buildings will be cost-efficient, integrating the latest technologies and mobility strategies. The space will be designed to consolidate a higher workplace density and will offer, at the same time, greater transparency and interaction. The workspace of the future will have to be efficient, sustainable and healthy, the right environment for a creative, productive and engaged workforce.

In terms of aesthetics, we see a growing demand for contemporary, minimalistic design solutions. Furniture design is encompassing the use of materials such as glass and steel, with ready-made furniture being designed to offer a much greater degree of flexibility. This means less demand for bespoke offerings, which is not bad a bad thing in our opinion. Prefabricated furniture, that allows for flexibility of configuration, ensures more consistent product quality and minimizes production time since there is no need for shop drawings, approvals, sourcing of materials or managing different lead times. This not only reduces the risk of project delays, but responds to businesses’ needs to build more with less, and at a reduced cost.

Looking ahead, we expect to see the most substantial area of “green building” growth to occur in new commercial construction, followed by institutional construction (education, healthcare, government). The role of design and fit-out industries will be to incorporate wellbeing into the workplace. We will create space, furniture and tools that will nurture employee wellbeing and will help organisations to align social, economic and environmental impact of their business with the company’s culture, creating value for all stakeholders.

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Green is not a trend, it’s a business strategy

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By Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

Our green credentials take us back well before it became ‘fashionable’ to call yourself sustainable. We were the first contractor in the UAE with an office to receive LEED Gold rating (in 2009), and have successfully executed more sustainable interior projects with 100% success rate in the UAE than any other contractor. In 2014 we received our third Dubai Chamber of Commerce CSR label; we were named Sustainable Business of the Year at the Gulf Capital Awards; and Daman Corporate Health Awards rewarded us for ‘Employee Engagement of the Year Initiative’ for our health and wellness program.

In order to become the sustainable business that we are today, we have had to learn to adapt in order to grow as we embark on our sustainable journey. In 2011, when we set up our Eco Leaders committee – a team of employees volunteering to drive the ‘green’ movement at Summertown, we thought we had the right plan in place. And our plan seemed good, but in time we realized that it didn’t deliver everything we had hoped for. It became clear we needed to expand our vision if we wanted to achieve those tangible business benefits for taking the ‘green’ path.

As a company that walks the talk, our clients, partners and the business community in general look to us for advice and knowledge when it comes to integrating sustainability. From our own experience, the most common mistake companies make when they want to embrace sustainability is having too narrow a vision: setting just a few goals and metrics for measurement, and then following those without looking at the big picture.

In our case, we realised the only way to go about being a truly sustainable business was to integrate sustainability principles into everything we do. We needed, in the same way a person does, to make a major lifestyle change that would impact everyone and everything in our business, at all levels: our people, our partners and clients, our community and our planet.

Today, sustainability is at the core of everything we do and this not only makes our employees and clients happier, but is driving our economic engine. In the last year alone we have achieved 25% revenue growth. Taking the sustainability path and integrating it into every aspect of our business has paid off: now 54% of our total business comes from sustainable fit out projects, which is one of our measures for success. Not only we are taking the sustainable path, but we inspire and convince others to do it and we have the expertise and experience to help them.

We believe it’s important to share our experience with others: our learning curve will help and encourage them to make the right choices. We hope more companies will understand that ‘going green’ is not about being ‘fashionable’. Being green is a lifestyle choice and a business strategy, one that, if done well, impacts the company’s bottom line; people will be more engaged and work better together, costs will be managed more efficiently, the company will gain credibility in the market.

Since we embarked on our CSR journey, we have reaped the benefits. We make tangible savings every day, our employees come to work with a real sense of purpose, are healthier and happier, and the results are reflected in our productivity levels, our carbon footprint and ultimately the success of our business.
And because this is that time of the year when we make resolutions, our ‘green’ journey in 2015 will have two main objectives: to take our first steps to attain LEED EBOM (Existing Buildings and Maintenance) certification, and to inspire and help other companies in the UAE to integrate sustainability into their business strategy.

Want to increase productivity? Think about indoor air quality

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By Paul Briers, Projects Director, Summertown Interiors

A healthy employee is a happy employee. Many companies now recognise employees as their most important asset. They have also realised that by focusing on employee wellness they not only improve their market reputation, but also levels of employee engagement and productivity, which positively impacts their bottom lines.

There are various workplace initiatives taking place across the UAE to promote and support a healthier lifestyle, from offering guidance on healthy eating, sleeping, and exercise to free health check-ups. As a fit-out contractor specialised in green interiors, Summertown Interiors is encouraged to see more companies rethink the way they fit-out their offices in order to promote and support a healthier lifestyle for their employees.

There is, however, an issue which is often overlooked: indoor air quality. Although a survey by the Environment Agency Abu-Dhabi shows that people are significantly more aware of the importance of air quality, with awareness rising from seven per cent in 2013 to 90 per cent in 2014, the issue of indoor air quality goes largely unnoticed. This is most likely due to a misconception that while the air is polluted outside, we are safe once inside our homes or offices. The truth is indoor air can be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air, some alarming news considering we spend 90 per cent of our time indoors.

What exactly makes the indoor air so bad? Among the pollutants in an office are chemical emissions coming from conventional building materials, furnishings, cleaning products, paints or even office products such as printers, mould and poor ventilation. The latter is particularly relevant to the UAE, where access to fresh outdoor air is not possible most of the year, making us dependent on air conditioning systems.

Having the right ventilation system design at the time of construction and, an operation and maintenance policy that is adhered to, will help to monitor supply of fresh air. At Summertown’s LEED Gold certified showroom, sensors have been installed in closed meeting areas to ensure fresh air is pumped in when carbon dioxide levels are high. In this way, we have been able to provide 30% more fresh air in our offices than ASHRAE standards.

To improve air quality, the countless toxins found in our indoor environment—such as formaldehyde, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), trichloroethylene, carbon monoxide and benzene, to name just a few—must be reduced as much as possible. Besides having a proper ventilation system, this can be done by using green certified fit-out products and materials with low or no VOC levels, proper housekeeping, and by making sure the office occupancy quote does not exceed standards in workspace design.

Adding office plants has long been a solution for improving indoor air quality and recently we have seen an increase interest in adding green walls, which are panels of plants grown vertically using hydroponics on structures that can be either free-standing or attached to walls. Not only does this improve air quality, it also provides a visual break, which studies suggest stimulates mental alertness for its occupants.

The role of bespoke in interior design

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By Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

I recently attended a panel discussion at Design Days Dubai on the role and value of bespoke in interior design. The panel included members from Capsule Art, Pallavi Dean Interiors and the UK Crafts Council, and the main focus of the discussion related to commissioning bespoke art for interior design projects.
Bespoke is a subject that is close to my heart, not only because Summertown Interiors recently commissioned bespoke art for our office from Mawaheb, a local art studio for adults with special needs, but also because of the highly personalised service that we offer our clients, particularly for green fit-out projects. A number of points raised during the talk resonated with Summertown’s business, and I left with the impression that from a designer’s point of view there are many similarities between convincing a client to commission a piece of art and convincing them to opt for a green fit-out.

It was agreed that there is a common misconception that commissioning bespoke art is a risk, whereas buying something that is ready-made and tangible is a safe option. The opposite is in fact true. A bespoke piece of art or furniture is personalised – it has been created to be just right for the client and to fit their brief as closely as possible.

The same can be said for a green fit-out. When looking at ways to reduce waste and carbon emissions while creating a healthier workspace, the designer and contractor take must take into account the individual behaviour of the occupants, paying close attention to the workspace and maximizing it to the full.  Green fit-outs, particularly retro fit projects, also encompass a number of creative resourceful solutions that are bespoke through the reuse of existing materials. For example, in one of our projects The Change Initiative, we removed the marble flooring and reused it in the kitchen, and reused wooden flooring to make the wooden wall paneling.

Another point raised during the talk was that clients felt commissioning art was expensive. This is also a main factor that is considered when it comes to a green fit-out. A green fit-out costs only marginally more than one that is not – approx. 1-2% for a project that is certified at the lower level, and up to a 20% increase for the higher rating; ‘going green’, however, delivers major benefits in the long run due to operational cost savings for the building occupants.

Again we see a similarity with original art work in that green design really comes into its own as time passes. Landlords will see their building appreciate in value as the benefits of the project start to be felt. We estimate that ROI for a green project is between 1 and 8 years, depending on the size and scale of a project.
The talk ended on a positive note – the design industry in Dubai is one of the most exciting in the world. UAE projects want to push the boundaries and be the biggest and the best. For everyone in the industry this is great news. Once clients understand the role of bespoke, green, and customisation, and value their many benefits, we will start to see some major developments in the industry and, knowing the UAE, it will happen sooner than we think.

A Healthy Resolution

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January has always typically been a month of health and wellness. Millions start the New Year on a new diet and with high hopes to follow a healthier lifestyle. Unfortunately these good intentions are often short-lived. Old habits are hard to break. However, help is at hand, and it comes in the surprising form of your employers.

With the planned roll-out of a mandatory health insurance scheme for all companies in Dubai at the start of this year, and following recent reports placing Dubai in the top 10 countries in the world for diabetes and other lifestyle diseases such as hypertension, we are seeing a prominent trend emerging in the region to incorporate health and wellness into the workplace.  With the objective of promoting healthier living habits and general wellbeing among the workforce, companies are rethinking how they fit-out their offices and reviewing HR practises and incentives.

We are seeing an increase in the use of natural light in a number of projects. This not only saves money on energy bills, but is also one component of occupant health affecting productivity and both physical and mental health. The important role that natural light plays in boosting morale and wellbeing among the workforce has resulted in the incorporation of large picture windows and open terraces that enhance natural light in the office and communal areas. This can reduce a number of physical effects such as eye fatigue and headaches.

We are also seeing a number of projects with Green Walls–panels of plants, grown vertically using hydroponics on structures that can be either free-standing or attached to walls. With countless toxins found in our indoor environment, such as formaldehyde, VOCs, trichloroethylene, carbon monoxide and benzene, to name just a few, adding office plants has long been a solution for improving indoor air quality. Green walls do just that, but on a much bigger scale. Not only does this improve air quality, it also provides a visual break, which studies suggest stimulates mental alertness.

It is not just the mind and soul that is benefitting from this trend, but also the body. Companies are now actively promoting a healthier lifestyle in the workplace – from installation of employee gyms to providing advice for employees on nutrition and diet and provision of healthier food options for staff.  At Summertown we run a monthly initiative including free to attend seminars, healthy snacks, and team events such as the recent Dubai Standard Chartered Marathon where more than 40 employees and their family members took part in the 10km and 3km to raise money for charity.

With so much help at hand to support an active lifestyle, it looks like 2014 is the year that your healthy resolution is here to stay.

The Evolution of Office Design

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I am sure by now you would have heard the somewhat alarming statistic that over 30 per cent of our life will be spent at work. We all know that colleagues can become like family and equally the office can become a second home.  Employers are increasingly aware of the importance of providing employees with a workplace that they look forward to coming to everyday – this not only applies to the people they work with but the environment that they are in. It has been proven that the built environment can not only inspire but also relieve and heal as with the case of Maggie Cancer Care Centres, for example, in the United Kingdom. Office design also plays an important role in ensuring that you get the best from your employees, and its evolution over the years has developed to reflect this.

We have witnessed a marked shift in the way offices are designed; the market has moved away from fixed bespoke joinery items in favour of more flexible off-the-shelf furniture. In order to meet the demands of a mobile workforce, companies are choosing open plan, activity-based layouts to facilitate a more collaborative approach to work and personal accountability.

Workplaces today increasingly reflect this requirement for transparency where solid wooden doors and partitions have been replaced with glazing set in aluminium or steel frames. Also, long shared desks with mobile pedestals are increasingly replacing single workstations.  Efficient use of office furniture increases maximizes available floor space and provides opportunities to introduce breakout areas where staff can gather and collaborate, an important requirement among the millennial generation.

Along with an open plan office deign, we are also seeing an increasing awareness of environmental concerns such as recycling stations and energy saving lighting. This is for several reasons including cost savings, enhancing the company’s image, and of course saving the earth!

Gone are the days of dark, monotone offices – office design is now considered an essential part of an organisation’s image and brand. It is the ‘face’ of a company and is often a critical factor in recruiting and retaining talent. Given that the future of this trend is focused on making employees lives that much more enjoyable at work, this is good news for 30 per cent of all our lives!

Don’t just be environmentally friendly – keep that practice going!

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By Shakeela Moosa, General Manager – Operations, Summertown Interiors

We recently shared a post on our new integrated CSR strategy and the benefits we are already seeing as part of implementing this approach. What has really got us motivated lately are results of some basic measures we implemented to reduce our water consumption at our Jebel Ali headquarters.

Let’s go back to how this started. Earlier this year, we implemented a ‘green’ audit which involved assessing our consumption levels in six chief areas – water, electricity, fuel, general waste, sewage and paper. The audit is an ongoing process, and our initial results were quite a surprise.. Despite operating in a LEED Gold-certified office, we discovered that our water consumption levels were higher than expected – each employee consumed an average of 178 litres of water per day!

We had a few brainstorming sessions with our team on what measures could help us reduce our water consumption. The team first identified seven ‘water zones’ across the office premises – areas that were using up a large amount of the total water consumed in the company. They installed a sub-meter on our main water line to monitor consumption by each zone and found that a large amount of water was being supplied to the garden area. A further evaluation showed that re-landscaping this area could decrease consumption by a massive 4,700 litres per day and, if this happened, would mean annual savings of at least AED 15,000 in operational costs.

The landscaping project began in May and will finish after the summer but the financial benefits of this are already going beyond what we estimated. Our overall water consumption from May to July reduced by 58% compared to the same time last year and we’ve already managed to save AED 8,000 in these three months!

The measures we’ve implemented are by no means expensive or complicated to apply, but have completely proved to be worth our team’s time and energy. It is not only encouraging to see a massive drop in our expenses, but to be conserving a very important natural resource, albeit in small ways!

Constructing a green office is a great way to be environmentally-friendly, but is certainly not enough. Monitoring and continuous improvement are critical if you want to remain committed to your green cause. An article I recently came across by Neutral Fuels CEO Karl Fielder also provides a great example of sustaining your ‘green’ efforts.

Are we ready to welcome the green building regulations?

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By Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

The Green Building regulations, first established by the Dubai Municipality in 2008, will finally be made mandatory for the private sector in early 2014. While this is a welcome introduction in the UAE’s sustainability charter, are we, as an industry, ready yet? Have we educated ourselves enough? Are we prepared for certain changes and uncertain expectations?

Preparation is key if you want to adapt to change quickly and effectively, whether within an organisation or within the industry. Here are a few things we all can and should work on:

1)  Familiarise yourself with the rules: why wait for the regulations to actually come into effect? Let’s use the time to familiarise ourselves and our teams with the rules and project how these will impact our current processes. Use web materials shared by the Dubai Municipality, hear from experts, discuss potential changes with your industry peers and, if you are a developer, find yourself a trusted consultant who can give you the best advice. Organisers of The Big 5 convened a webinar last week in which representatives of the Dubai Municipality presented crucial information about the upcoming regulations and answered questions from attendees.

2)   Define roles and responsibilities: this is something you should do long before regulations actually come into effect to avoid making sudden changes to business processes later. It may involve ironing out both internal and external processes, whether it is deciding who will look after new documentation procedures, who will manage product certifications or how much of the regulation responsibility will be shared by your partners. At Summertown, we’ve learnt that the best way to run a project is to get our employees involved right from the beginning. Form an internal taskforce who will be responsible to both allocate and manage the achievement of environmental goals – this will ensure their ownership and commitment to the task from the very beginning.

3)   Understand that change requires a shift in mind set too – the industry has been asking for mandatory regulation of sustainable building practices for a long time now. However, as this comes into effect, we should not start believing that this is the be all and end all. Regulation is only one step in the right direction for making our community and environment more sustainable for future generations. All of us and, particularly, the design and construction industry, have a civic duty to reduce our environmental footprint. While regulation will ensure better green compliance, sustainability should be a voluntary code we should all practice without further delay.