Sustainability is an increasing area of concern across the globe with
pressure rising from consumers to ensure the businesses they work with are doing what they can for the environment.
Climate change, the finite nature of resources, government regulation, and
especially consumer demand all fall into the mix when considering how
construction firms need to adapt to these crises.
Do you have a strategy when it comes to sustainability? We've put together
some key points below to help you begin, or continue, your journey on the
path to a more sustainable future.
Sustainability in UK construction
The construction industry has a huge environmental impact, from energy use, to emissions to waste. Equipment often relies heavily on fossil fuels, and fabrication and shipping of materials are responsible for a large amount of carbon emissions.
According to the UK designing buildings Wiki:
- 45% of total UK carbon emissions (27% from domestic buildings and 18% from non-domestic) come from built construction.
- 72% of domestic emissions arise from space heating and the provision of hot water.
- 32% of landfill waste comes from the construction and demolition of buildings.
- 13% of products delivered to construction sites are sent directly to landfill without being used.
The 2018 Smart Market World Green Building Trends report showed that the UK has a moderate level of green building activity and around 40% of construction firms expect the majority of their projects to be green by 2021. Client demands were rated as the most important trigger for sustainable construction practices, closely followed by environmental regulations. Many anticipate that regulations will become tighter around sustainable practices in future.
There are some real challenges or barriers for construction firms that are interested in taking a sustainable approach, too. One is that there is still overall a lack of market demand, while first costs to enter the scene are perceived to be high. Almost 40% of UK firms surveyed reported that affordability was their greatest challenge for adopting sustainable practices. Meanwhile, 34% reported client demand for sustainable construction practices, so firms are often caught in the space between demand and cost.
While some legislative initiatives for sustainable practices were dialed back after the 2008 financial crisis, there are still a number of laws in play. UK ratification of the Paris Accord in 2016 is one, while as yet, any impacts due to Brexit are unknown.
Why construction companies should invest in sustainability
Given that there are some notable challenges, why should construction companies invest in sustainability?
One lens to examine it through is that of responsibility. The UK is set on achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and in order to achieve this, everyone needs to play their part. It is expected that as requirements to achieve carbon neutrality become more stringent, fines may be levied and reputational damage may occur to any offending companies.
So, there is a good argument for being “one of the good guys.” There have already been well-publicised cases where construction firms have faced public fallout for practices that polluted or were far from sustainable. Taking up sustainable practices tells the public that you are responsible and that you’re mindful of the environment.
With that being said, there are increasing expectations from various stakeholders that construction firms will do their best to work sustainably. Population growth and urbanisation have helped to push demand for construction (in the UK and worldwide), so there’s also a school of thought that says “hey, you’re benefiting from this so you should do what you can to reduce environmental impacts.”
The construction sector has experienced labour shortages in recent years, particularly pre-pandemic. There’s a suggestion that going green could be beneficial to companies from the perspective of attracting new generations of workers. Social and environmental practices are often key considerations when people look for employment, so this could be something that helps you to stand out above other employers.
Client demand also has to be a factor. While green building has been at a “moderate” level in the UK, market penetration has been growing and is expected to continue. For example, companies or organisations in need of office space are becoming more aware of the impacts of healthy buildings on staff wellbeing and productivity. There’s a sense of needing to invest more now to see a return later.
Finally, you could look at moving into sustainability as a pre-emptive action so that your company is prepared for any future legislative changes. It is expected that changes to building codes and bylaws over the next few decades will put heavy focus on environmental stewardship and safety standards. The social and environmental impacts of construction are already well and truly under the microscope, so we can expect changes to come.
Consumer demand for sustainability
Construction is already seeing some increase in consumer demand for sustainability, and this is following a wider pattern of consumer awareness. For example, in one survey, more than 80% of respondents rated that it was “important” or “very important” that companies design environmentally conscious products. In construction, this is spilling into how materials are sourced, manufactured and packaged.
From that same study, researchers said 72% of respondents reported that they were actively buying more environmentally friendly products than they did five years ago, while 81% said they expected to buy even more over the next five years. People are more savvy and they’re asking more questions about the products and services they consume.
Within construction we’re also seeing company or public sector policy come into the building equation. For example, local councils across the UK have green policies in place for the construction or refurbishment of their resources. Many companies have adopted “triple bottom line” or similar approaches, including a requirement for sustainable construction.
While consumer demand is leaning more heavily toward sustainable choices across a spectrum of products and services, another study found that the cost of those products and services is a primary barrier to purchase. Almost 66% of those surveyed said cost was an impediment, however, almost 95% said they were willing to pay more for eco-friendly products. For those in construction, this does suggest there is a sweet spot there somewhere. People do expect to pay more, so finding the right balance is key.
Remote working and sustainability
“We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” - Anne Marie Bonneau
The quote above is something that those in the construction sector should consider. Besides following any regulatory requirements, “doing sustainability” isn’t an all or nothing game. There are small steps that you can take and each one adds up, especially when you consider it as a community contribution.
Remote working is just one of those and it has definitely been topical lately. Many of our electrical estimating clients have moved to an entirely remote environment, while others in the construction sector have found all sorts of ways to do critical tasks remotely.
While a lot of the current remote solutions came out of necessity during the pandemic, there are ongoing benefits that make it worthwhile considering whether you sustain remote work. One of those is sustainability. Through remote work, you’re removing commuter traffic from the road and reducing energy consumption. When people work from home they often reduce waste by consuming less packaged foods or drinks.
As an additional benefit, when the right cloud-based tools are in place, remote workers can reduce paper consumption from print-outs as well. They can share their work without having to drive to another site to do so.
While obviously your construction crews can’t work from home, there are usually plenty of other team members whose work could be done remotely. It’s worth considering as a contribution to sustainability.
The construction industry is in a position to be a big driver for social change and a cleaner environmental footprint. Growing populations have increased demand for construction, so how we move forward has considerable influence.
Demand is certainly growing for sustainable construction practices, although costs are a barrier to both the companies and the customers. It’s an area where there is room to find common ground though, as consumers understand that sustainable choices often cost more and have expressed a willingness to pay more.
Lastly, we can expect that sustainability will be a driving force in construction policy heading into the future. If not at a national level, local bylaws are often prescribing adherence to green practices. There could well be a time on the horizon where those who don’t make moves for sustainability get left behind.