Making the sustainable switch

With sustainability high on the corporate agenda, many construction businesses are looking at ways to reduce their carbon footprint by choosing greener building materials, some even made from waste carbon dioxide. But could they be doing more?

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Jacqueline Hughes

is a Senior Risk Analyst at risk management consultancy, Equib. She specialises in advising organisations on how to manage risk when financing or delivering large-scale infrastructure programmes.

From start-ups turning construction waste into bricks to businesses engineering wood for optimum carbon storage, the world of sustainable building materials is growing at a rapid pace. However, for a sector used to tight operating margins, cost considerations still sometimes take priority.

Many industry experts believe that fiscal incentives are needed to accelerate change in the sector, encouraging contractors to make use of the eco-friendly alternatives that now exist.

While solving the issue of climate change is an inherently global problem, it’s something the UK can’t afford to ignore when considering the risks posed to large-scale construction and infrastructure programmes. With global heating causing more intense rainfall and a continued rise in sea levels, more investment is urgently needed to ensure structures are built to last and aren’t exacerbating environmental risks.

In order to ensure these risks are properly managed, project managers should have a clear understanding of what they are aiming to achieve and the fundamental requirements of the programme. Having an appreciation of what sustainability means within the context of the programme is crucial – for example, does it refer to the longevity of the building, its environmental impact or both?

Before deciding to prioritise sustainability, a cost-benefit analysis should be carried out at an early stage, taking account of the environmental impact of any suggested product switches. While they may have long-term benefits, eco-friendly materials are often more expensive and, in some cases, they may not provide enough benefit to justify the outlay. However, it is worth bearing in mind that landowners and clients are beginning to factor sustainability benefits into the bidding process for projects. As corporate social responsibility gains traction, developers and main contractors keen to do their bit for the environment may find themselves more likely to win work.

To aid decision-making, project managers must ensure that stakeholders understand the whole-life cost of each specified material, as well as any risk factors and the benefits it might bring to the environment. When setting objectives for the project, for example, each individual risk factor should be considered, including those associated with climatic uncertainties such as fluctuating temperatures. To avoid introducing materials that increase risk, project managers should take each risk into account and propose a specific mitigation strategy. By planning ahead in this way, designs can be amended at an early stage, whereas later on, the cost of any re-works or remediation further down the line could be significant, as well as disruptive.

While a commitment to use sustainable materials is a positive step forward, such decisions could have far-reaching consequences, and it is important that these are considered fully at the outset. While sustainable materials such as timber are well-suited to housing, they would not support the structural load of a skyscraper, for example. In some instances, it may make sense to specify the use of a more robust material, as opposed to something more sustainable, to improve the structure’s resilience to the effects of climate change post-completion. In other instances, it may be possible to find a compromise by choosing durable materials made from waste products.

The ‘Absolute Zero’ report, published at the end of last year by researchers from a group of UK-based universities, highlighted the wastefulness of current methods of construction and the environmental impact of many commonly-used building materials. The report states that the industry uses half of all steel and cement produced globally and is responsible for 30% of its carbon emissions. If the UK is to stand a chance of achieving its target to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, this will need to be addressed by the industry as a whole. Among the key changes required is a commitment to avoid over-specification and over-design, at the same time as ensuring structural optimisation and finding ways to re-use waste materials.

When sourcing products, environmental impacts and risk factors associated with transporting them to site should also be taken into account. For example, it may well be more environmentally friendly to use by-products from local construction projects, quarry wastage and other industries, than to import ‘sustainable’ materials from further afield.

Whilst this attitude of ‘use more; emit less’ is great in theory, the risks associated with using sustainable materials must be weighed up carefully. By prioritising environmental considerations at the design stage, project managers can effectively de-risk sustainable construction projects and infrastructure programmes, while delivering benefits that stand the test of time.

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