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Five years ago, I was invited to be the Sustainability Manager for the construction of Marks and Spencer’s “biggest and greenest store”, Cheshire Oaks. 

I don’t think we realised what a game changer the project was to become for M&S, its supplier partners involved in the project and the construction industry as a whole. 

Zero waste to landfill

All of the projects we complete for M&S are now zero waste to landfill. However, back in 2010 we were sending 7.5% of our construction waste to landfill, so for Cheshire Oaks we needed to ensure the waste contractor could recycle absolutely everything to be in line with M&S’ Plan A commitments. This was a significant change in our approach, only selecting waste contractors with a 100% diversion offer (which has now become a consistent strategy for all of our customers).

Responsible sourcing

Cheshire Oaks has one of the largest timber frame roof installations in the UK to have full FSC® project certification. In 2010, we were really testing the market to find FSC® products to meet all of the needs in the building, but now FSC® timber is easy to source. At Cheshire Oaks, responsible sourcing extended to measuring the levels of recycled content in the materials, certification held by product manufacturers, local suppliers and employment. We now use these metrics on all of our major projects. 

Landscape-led development

Cheshire Oaks set new standards for retail development landscaping and established the site as a long term investment in wildlife by achieving the National Wildlife Trust’s Biodiversity Benchmark. Now we approach our development projects with a ‘landscape first’ approach for several key reasons:  being able to plant trees to replace any which are lost in enabling works, mitigating the carbon emissions from the construction process and to support the future resilience of a project in the face of climate change. Ribbons of habitat-enhancing native planting is also a bonus to the local area. We believe employees perform better in a building with good quality landscaping. 

Embodied impact

The construction process at Cheshire Oaks was rigorously monitored to understand the relationship between the carbon footprint as a result of creating the building, in comparison to the carbon savings footprint over its operational lifetime. We carried out monthly checks to see which emissions had been generated from subcontractors delivering materials, getting employees to the site and from the site cabins. We learned that employees generate the biggest carbon footprint, so we now focus a lot of effort into site transport plans which encourage using public transport and bikes to get to site. We prototyped a prefabricated walling solution, which used hemp and limecrete to provide an ultralow carbon, insulating and airtight envelope. This is now a proprietary system and we are using it on another site to build a zero carbon building.

Post occupancy evaluation

Understanding how the building performed once occupied was a real revelation for us, not to mention helping to generate further peer group recognition for M&S’ Plan A team and capabilities as a retailer. We learned that natural light, good ventilation and positive messaging about sustainability made a store team happier, healthier and more likely to stay longer in post. Putting a monetary value on this benefit is complex but the results suggested that it is worthwhile in the longer term to make buildings look and feel sustainable, as well as operate efficiently. 

Looking ahead…

2020 might seem like a long way off, but if it goes as fast as creating and operating Cheshire Oaks, it will be here before we know it. What advances will the next 5 years hold? My wish list would be more zero carbon buildings, an end to waste, climate adaptive buildings, full transparency in construction materials, products and the conditions workers in the supply chain experienced, and sharing buildings with local biodiversity.  Innovative projects like Cheshire Oaks will help inspire these wishes to, hopefully, become the industry norm. 

Actually it’s not just a wish list, it’s a “to do” list – best get cracking…

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