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the long-term environmental impact of construction projects.



In 2021, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) identified that over 60% [1] of British consumers believed that businesses should do more to reduce their environmental impact, while 40% want businesses to be held accountable to their climate change targets. We know that pressure will only continue to build as the government strives to achieve its challenging Net Zero By 2050 climate change targets [2] but today, we explore the benefits of adopting a more holistic approach to sustainability in the construction industry.

The cost of construction

Construction companies operating in the UK are in fierce competition to win contracts. This means that they need to price their bids competitively, work in an innovative manner and deliver high quality results on every project in order to build or maintain their business' reputation. 

Yet this competition means that, on an ever increasing basis, profits are being squeezed and remaining viable becomes more challenging. Although the pre-tax profit margins of the UK's hundred largest construction companies sit at between 2-3%, for the ten largest Tier 1 contractors, this profit margin is currently at an unsustainable -0.5% [2].

This tight margin is a clear indicator of the challenges faced by companies wanting to deliver carbon efficiencies yet often being forced into the use of traditional building techniques in a bid to save money without compromising on timescales or quality. 

In many situations, it is possible to reduce costs and increase profit margins through the use of modern building techniques. Modern methods of construction can reduce the environmental impact of builds, through reduced groundwork, fewer vehicles on site, a shorter timescale to complete and reduced pollution. 

These modern methods can also improve quality control and require a smaller workforce, again saving money. Construction companies wishing to employ techniques such as these on their builds should ensure that they emphasise the social and environmental benefits in their bids.

Minimising environmental impact throughout a project's lifecycle

Taking a holistic approach to sustainability in construction requires companies to consider the social, political, environmental, legal, technological and economic factors associated with the projects that they run, across the whole of their life cycles.

Concept

Right from the bid phase, they need to determine the most efficient and cost effective manner of delivering in accordance with the brief. They should identify what existing infrastructure is suitable for repurposing, and where demolition is essential, look to reuse existing materials insofar as is possible. 

They should identify a supply chain whose values align with their own to ensure that a consistent approach to sustainability is maintained throughout the entire delivery of the project, consider ways in which energy efficiency measures can be incorporated into the finished product and define the social benefits that the building can offer to the local community.

Build

The build phase has arguably the greatest environmental impact. From the use of raw materials, ground disturbance, increased local noise and dust pollution resulting from the build, extra water use and the need to remove and dispose of waste, every element of has an impact on the environment [3].

Minimising this impact requires thorough planning prior to breaking ground. Consideration must be given to reusing existing infrastructure and resources, and where new raw materials are required, wastage through over-ordering or careless treatment must be avoided. Processes and management plans for safe and efficient operation of machinery must be followed to avoid emitting unnecessary and harmful exhaust fumes. 

Wherever possible, waste materials and packaging should be recycled, which may require sites to separate waste at source.

Evaluation

Evaluating the success of a project should include the extent to which planned sustainability measures were achieved. Where shortfalls are identified, the root cause must be investigated in order that process changes can be applied for future projects to prevent a foreseeable issue from recurring. 

Potential consequences of non-accountability

Removing accountability from construction companies would require an independent assessment of their compliance with carbon reduction strategies to be conducted by a third party or regulatory body. This would remove the ability of businesses to be agile in the way in which they achieve these strategies and could have an adverse effect on their costs, particularly if financial penalties are applied for non-compliance. This could serve to drive smaller companies out of the market whilst larger companies would be more inclined to increase costs to compensate. 

By allowing companies to hold themselves accountable, setting targets and reporting progress against them, they can take a proactive approach to sustainability which considers all aspects of their business operation, from supply chain management to waste management. By holding a mirror to their full breadth of corporate activities, they can employ targeted measures to increase profit margins whilst reducing their carbon footprint. 

Build Space support

We welcome contact from construction businesses that are looking to achieve carbon efficiencies. We can supply talented project professionals to support you in implementing tailored strategies which will enable you to meet your targets without adversely impacting business operations or cost.

Resources:

[1] https://wrap.org.uk/media-centre/press-releases/six-ten-consumers-think-uk-businesses-need-act-now-climate-change 
[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/net-zero-strategy 
[3] https://www.safetystratus.com/blog/environmental-concerns-for-construction-projects/#:~:text=Every%20stage%20of%20any%20construction,as%20waste%20removal%20and%20disposal.

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