How to Become a More Sustainable Company in Construction
The UK's construction industry is a world leader in architecture, design and engineering. UK companies are in demand to work on major projects all over the world, and the sector is expanding, with global growth of 70% expected by 2025. However, the industry needs to change urgently if it is to play its part in achieving the government's twin objectives of net-zero by 2050 and sustainable construction by 2025.
Construction is historically one of the worst polluting industries, but UK companies are pioneers in sustainable construction solutions. The government's 'Construction 2025' strategy was drawn up in collaboration with the industry to further the cause of sustainability. Some of its aims are: to reduce the costs of construction and of whole-life operation by 33%, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50%, to deliver projects in half the time, and to reduce the import-export trade gap in construction products by 50%.
These are ambitious targets but they are eminently achievable if every member of the industry pursues them with positivity and commitment. What, then, can an individual company do?
Build Space recently hosted a webinar, 'Hard Hats Chat: Women in MMC', which proved to be a very productive airing of innovative ideas. One of the speakers, offsite construction expert Emily King, had this to say about the need to switch to alternative materials: "Because we're moving into a different way of building, we need to move away from saying 'you must use concrete' for example. This product change is something that plays into net-zero as well. We have to build the trust with a client that if they specify a performance, we will adhere to it."
Moving to sustainable products will play a huge part in the transformation of the industry. Here are a few examples of materials every business should start to use:
- Wood from managed forests is a renewable resource and it takes very little energy to turn it into a building material.
- Recyclables, primarily plastic, are extremely versatile. The world is overflowing with redundant plastic so it is easy to come by and can now be used as a replacement for concrete.
- Sustainable concrete is an innovation which can take the place of the environmentally harmful traditional kind, responsible for 5% of global carbon emissions. Using low carbon concrete can reduce emissions by 70%.
- Bricks are another material which are heavily polluting in their production but since 2010, far greener ways have been developed to manufacture bricks from untreated clay or even wool, which are every bit as strong as the traditional kind.
- Straw can be used for insulation instead of plaster or concrete, and is also cheaper.
In addition to thinking about what products and materials you use, you should also think about where they come from. Quite apart from the financial costs of transporting construction materials from a factory at the other end of the country or even abroad, there is the important question of the environmental cost. You should make every effort to find local suppliers whose operations are sustainable and environmentally responsible.
Modern Methods of Construction
One of the most significant advances in the reduction of emissions, energy use and waste is the growing popularity of modular construction. Virtually all the components of a building are manufactured offsite, quickly and relatively cleanly, then moved onsite where they are assembled in a fraction of the time taken by traditional construction methods. Production is precise, which keeps waste to a minimum, and the much shorter assembly process minimises the impact on the local area. Even if you are unable to switch fully to this method, it will be possible to adopt significant elements of it.
At our webinar, another expert, Hiba Ali, noted: "Sustainability is a hot topic not only nationally but globally, and MMC is undoubtedly a sustainable step forward. I'm genuinely breath-taken by the technology and how cohesive the process is."
It is not just the manufacture and assembly processes which make MMC so attractive. Its benefits extend to the materials which can be used. Although pre-cast concrete is still popular, it is produced in much less harmful ways, while other materials such as wood, glass, steel and recyclables are ideal for modular building.
Traditional construction methods involve intensive use of material and energy while producing heavy emissions and high levels of waste. Modular construction, in combination with the other sustainable building practices we've discussed, can make the difference between hitting those essential targets and missing them, with all the fear and uncertainty that would bring.
No one expects architects, designers and construction teams to have anything like a thorough knowledge of sustainability so it makes sense to engage experts including environmental advisors and engineers. These are experienced professionals who can offer new strategies, re-evaluate supply chains, develop operational improvements, implement industry best practice and ensure compliance with all environmental regulations.
The ideal is to hire a full-time sustainability expert but many companies will not have the resources to spare in which case it is perfectly feasible to engage sustainability consultants. Either way, this not only enables you more effectively to pursue these targets, but it also demonstrates to the industry, the market and the media that you are taking the responsibility seriously.
Turning your company into a sustainable one requires the will to change and the imagination to recognise opportunities within necessity. Even if your first efforts are only tentative, they will be worthwhile and eventually, you should be ready to make the transition complete.