Sustainability and Construction companies: What does the future hold?
Sustainability and construction companies have not always been a comfortable combination. 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions are generated by the built environment. Plus, the construction sector consumes around a third of the world’s natural resources. These are challenging statistics to overcome to make the construction sector more sustainable. However, this level of impact offers the opportunity to make a huge change if solutions can be found. As the focus of construction is increasingly sustainability-focused, what does the future hold for the industry?
More remote working for a more sustainable sector
One recent survey of 20,000 construction employees found that half had never experienced working from home in their roles before the pandemic began. In fact, in many fields of construction this has never even been considered as an option. COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the way that we live and work, and one of the more positive outcomes has been demonstrating just how quickly and easily businesses can move to a remote working model – including those in the construction sector.
Remote working supports many of the foundations of green project delivery, including reducing office space emissions and cutting down on the use of transport. There is an increasing volume of technology out there supporting a transition to more remote working for a greener future. This includes digital twin technology, cloud based collaboration tools that make life easier for project managers and virtual reality tech and drones that offer a real time view of real world assets. There could also be a skills gap advantage in attracting people into the sector who want to work more flexibly.
Changing the way projects are handled on site
How sustainable the construction companies can be is going to be heavily influenced by on-site practices. These are a few ways in which change could bring some serious transformation:
- Moving away from unsustainable materials. Concrete has been a go to for the construction industry for decades. However, it’s also one of the most carbon-emitting materials out there. Finding alternatives to concrete could make a big difference to sustainability industry-wide, whether that is greater use of bamboo or sustainably sourced timber.
- Streamlining operations on site. The focus here is going to be on minimising emissions and waste, for example using water dust control systems and more energy efficient equipment. Different construction techniques could also have a big impact, such as prefabricated construction where components are created in a factory environment where it’s easier to control waste etc.
- More robust recycling. This could be ensuring that recyclable waste ends up in the right place or simply passing on unwanted materials and/or equipment so that it can continue to be used rather than ending up in landfill.
- Changing the way that organisations view the importance of sustainability is also going to be crucial. Taking steps to embed sustainability across the business culture will ensure that everyone in the workforce is always looking for opportunities to make improvements where eco considerations are concerned.
Reevaluating the processes involved
There is something of an overhaul taking place in construction and this is not entirely self-driven. Obligations in the Paris Agreement are being prioritised by the government and this has meant that businesses in construction need to be more focused on how to reach net carbon zero. At the moment, the first challenge is around climate disclosure requirements, with 50% of construction businesses in the UK obliged to report by 2022. With this in mind there are two key ways that processes could evolve to help improve sustainability in construction overall:
- Innovating the systems that are already in place. None of this is rocket science – this simply involves bringing together all the current intelligence on alternative materials, better use of natural resources and energy efficiency as well as available technology and applying this to existing systems to make them more sustainable.
- Building design. By 2050 building carbon emissions should be at least 80% lower than they are today, according to the Paris Agreement. There are many ways that this focus can drive change in current building design, from retrofitting programmes to the use of 3D and robotics, as well as working more with AI to ensure that ideas and objectives around sustainability are being incorporated at every stage of building design.
Sustainability in action: the example of renewable energy in purpose built student accommodation
Unite is the largest provider of purpose built student accommodation in the whole of the UK. Unite recently agreed a deal with energy provider NPower whereby a fifth of Unite’s annual electricity supply is going to come from windpower over the next five years. Unite is clearly leading the way in showing how the targets that have been set in the Paris Agreement need to be incorporated by business in the real world. The organisation has set a goal of being net carbon neutral by 2030 and many other enterprises are going to need to follow suit if the targets for industry are going to be met.
Unite is using Power Purchase Agreements, which make it possible for corporate customers to buy renewable energy and have more certainty when it comes to price. They also have another positive impact, providing finance for enterprises that are looking to expand into renewable energy, thereby increasing the size of the industry as a whole. The energy for Unite will come from Galawhistle Wind Farm in Scotland. Given that purpose built student accommodation is one of the fastest growing areas in construction this is a huge step forward for those who want to see the industry make genuine commitments to sustainability. Unite is setting an example that could drive others to do the same.
When it comes to sustainability there is no doubt that the construction sector has a lot of work to do. Currently, it is a huge consumer of natural resources and has a negative record on waste and emissions. However, change is possible and businesses like Unite are demonstrating how quickly and easily this can be put in place when the commitment to sustainability is there.