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Karen Fletcher looks at how sustainability is now seen as a ‘must have’

Sometimes, a common enemy can push together otherwise adversarial groups.

A panel discussion at a recent construction event makes me wonder if the climate emergency could be what finally unites the construction industry.

At the London Build 2022 exhibition in November, a panel of main contractors and suppliers showed that the demand for low-carbon buildings is driving communication and cooperation.

The big push is data sharing. There is no way to calculate the embodied and operational carbon of a building unless everyone along the supply chain is open and honest about their carbon figures.

The construction industry is taking the issue of sustainability very seriously indeed

Karen Fletcher Rocket Karen Fletcher Content Director for Rocket Content

Details, details, details

There is a growing focus on the whole life carbon of buildings, mostly from clients and corporate occupiers.

But if you want to calculate the carbon in any building, you need a lot of data – from the embodied carbon of the installed products to site delivery mileage and even how far your installers are travelling.

It’s all about the details.

One panellist was Skanska’s Head of Environment, Alison Davis, who explained that the developer is refining its carbon forecasting for itself and its customers.

But there is a challenge in digging out carbon data along the supply line. Davis noted that communication is key to getting the whole picture: “Sustainability is about sharing knowledge. It’s not about what data on carbon is ‘mine’ or ‘yours’.”

This even goes as far as the embodied carbon and energy use of tools.

HSS Tool Hire Procurement and Marketing Director Dave Raywood said: “We are in the process of where our carbon footprint is today, which is about collecting data. We know that using one of our tools accounts for around one-tenth of its total carbon emissions.”

Suppliers and sub-contractors along the supply chain can expect to be involved in far more carbon and energy use discussions.

As Mr Raywood highlighted, HSS’s focus on ESG (environment, sustainability and governance issues) comes from the board level. “We are engaging with our supply chain more, and our supplier questionnaire is now very much about ESG.”

Sustainability is a ‘must-have’

Sustainability used to be regarded as a ‘nice-to-have’ for construction projects. But increasingly, that’s not the case.The industry is taking this issue very seriously indeed.

Panellist Romain Richli, Head of Environment and Sustainability for Bouygues UK, said that ESG factors were already influencing the organisation’s decisions to take on clients: “We ask ourselves, is this job going to contribute to our reduction targets and social value? If there are other jobs (that will support our targets) we will take those.”

Early adoption of innovative, low-carbon technology is another hurdle in the risk-averse construction industry. But this is also now being recognised and addressed.

Dr Zainab Dangana, Head of Sustainable Technology at Wates Group, explained how they are helping: “Too often innovative products die off because we need early adopters to give suppliers a chance. So we set up the Wates Innovation Network. We find products and solutions and help to bring the suppliers together with end-users.”

A sea change in attitudes

One panel discussion doesn’t necessarily signal a fundamental change in an industry as big as construction. But the fact that large contractors are talking openly and seriously about how ESG factors are now embedded in their business strategies signals a sea change in attitudes.

This is a significant point because smaller suppliers may have thought that low-carbon buildings were for the architects and consultants to worry about.

Now that the search is on for carbon data at a granular level, every supplier needs to be ready to answer these essential questions.

Early adopters will be best placed to succeed in the low-carbon construction future.

Karen Fletcher is former editor of CIBSE Journal and Modern Building Services