By introducing sustainable construction practices, there is the opportunity to get out in front of a potential problem before it becomes all too real, says Timothy Vella.

In an age where anything can go viral at the click of a button, awareness and the call for positive action in favour of the environment have never been higher.

A common view held by the majority of Maltese citizens is that practices within the construction and development industry are in need of change, reflected in the increasing frustration felt by most people during their day-to-day business, peppering their lives with traffic, pollution, obstructions and alternative routes.

Being an island, land in Malta is one of the most finite – and precious – resources available to us. As a result, the way uses for that land are allocated is a matter which requires very delicate and precise management.

A transition in the way we are building also necessitates a shift in the framework around the construction industry. Sentiments of anger towards developers and contractors – cue the various protests held in recent months – may be justified in terms of the manner in which structures are built, but not necessarily justified in terms of where is being built. One must remember that it is not developers and contractors who decide whether or not a permit is granted on a certain piece of land. That power falls within the remit of the Planning Authority.

Economic growth is accompanied by an influx of workers, and consequently an increase in demand for housing. Our built environment is shifting to one which focuses primarily on the construction of apartments in residential terms. The demand is there, the primary issue is the way in which the supply is delivered, so to speak. Uproar at the issuing of certain permits has become a common occurrence, with more people feeling like the environment around them is being threatened, transforming homes into concrete apartment complexes, devoid of any character.

Sustainable construction involves the use of eco-friendly building materials as well as re-using materials from buildings which are no longer in use, or are to be replaced. As limestone supplies dwindle with the construction industry’s massive growth, this problem is one that is guaranteed to crop up eventually. By introducing sustainable construction practices, there is the opportunity to get out in front of a potential problem before it becomes all too real.

By establishing beforehand whether the materials to be used are recycled or may be recycled in the future, contractors take the first-step towards more environmentally friendly practices. A few changes to our homes can have significant impacts, such as the use of solar panels, efficient drainage and water filtration systems and the use of LED lighting instead of conventional, high consumption light-bulbs.

If houses reduce their energy consumption, the reliance on fossil fuels is reduced. In fact, the energy efficiency of a home is a major factor in keeping it environmentally friendly for the long-term, and the way that home is built to accommodate eco-friendly policies should have an impact on the house’s valuation. It should also be said in this context that these same practices should also apply to offices and industrial places who more often than not have extremely high consumption rates, not only family homes.

An example of this would be the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) which every home must have. This certificate serves to evaluate the energy rating of a home as well as its carbon emissions, giving it a rating from zero onwards, with zero representing the least desirable grade.

While seemingly fundamental, this EPC certificate has no weight whatsoever on the valuation of the property. A system which rewards homes with a better EPC rating would promote practices within the construction and development industry to take this rating into account for a better return on their investments.

Regulation in favour of sustainable construction would need to be backed by worthwhile initiatives and incentives to spur forward this movement. A situation in which developers and contractors are required to use newer and more expensive materials without incentives being offered in return will hardly take off the ground, let alone be sustainable. So in order to get the ball rolling on a change in practice, reward schemes can be very useful in promoting long-lasting sustainable behavior, eco-friendly policies, at least until there is a sufficient level of environmental consciousness and awareness for these incentives to not be needed, especially with a new generation of increasingly environmentally conscious home-owners on the rise.

Unfortunately, the reality of the situation today is that the greatest incentive is money, especially when dealing with big businesses and the players in the construction industry. A short-term injection of money into subsidies, incentives, bonuses and reward schemes, would reap incalculable environmental benefits in the future, not to mention the fact that families expenses on electricity consumption would be reduced in the long-run.

We are at a point where we can begin to mitigate the effects of a problem which has not yet surfaced. When it does surface, and nothing has been done to mitigate it, the effects may have evolved to a point where they are entirely irreversible.