It is now six years since the Government published its strategy to promote sustainable construction - "Building a Better Quality of Life". The RICS (Royal Institute for Chartered Surveyors) asked quantity surveyors to assess how well the industry has progressed in becoming more energy efficient and socially or environmentally responsible.

Isabel McAllister, associate director of sustainability at Cyril Sweett, summed up the findings of the survey. On the question of energy use, the construction industry seems to be performing poorly in minimising the use of energy during the building process as well as energy consumed in the transportation of materials. She said, "A big change here is that materials are often coming from much further away. The rise of a global market has worked against reducing energy costs relating to the transportation of materials. Whereas slate may have been delivered to site from Wales or Cornwall, it might now come from Spain or China.

There is also a potential conflict between trying to achieve high thermal mass, and not increasing the embodied energy (i.e. the energy used to extract, produce and transport) of the construction materials.

As operational energy consumption reduces (as a result of e.g improved Part L Building Regulations), embodied energy is becoming of greater significance". However, the surveyors agreed that one aspect of sustainable construction where some progress has been made is in the minimisation of waste produced during building works and also the waste generated during the use of a building and the after-life.

McAllister commented, "Giant steps have been taken in the area of waste in construction. The growth of waste measurement has played a big role. Many of the large developer/contractor companies now have highly developed systems of measuring waste per unit, whether that be per house built or per 1000 square metres.

Of course the main driver is cost efficiency but there are also useful PR/CSR reporting spin offs. Enlightened firms are trying to design out waste by removing packaging before delivery, though this must often be done at the last moment to minimise on-site breakages.

The Waste and Recycling Action Programme (WRAP) recommends that 10% (by value) of any new building should be made of recycled materials. For example, if you are using a concrete frame to build an office, that frame should comprise at least 10% recycled material (e.g. recycled aggregate or cement replacement) - if not, this 10% can be gained elsewhere in the building. This has brought about healthy competition amongst manufacturers to bring the most attractive 'green' building products to market."

However, there are obstacles which see the government's own agenda conflicting with local government practice. For example, to crush and screen waste on a site requires a waste management licence from the local authority. These are not readily granted as concrete crushers create huge amounts of noise, dust and disturbance for the local community. In addition, should a contractor wish to import materials that are classified as waste (e.g. graded aggregate or cement replacements such as Pulverised Fuel Ash) the site also requires a waste management licence.

Encouragingly, according to the RICS survey, it seems that the area where the most progress has been made is that of designing buildings to minimise the use of energy and re-using/refurbishing existing buildings to meet the needs of clients rather than resorting to new build.