Building towards sustainable construction

The construction industry is a large contributor to climate change. Phil Holding, Managing Director at Horizon Construction, explains why and provides an overview of the complex challenges the industry faces.

The built environment and construction sector accounts for 38% of global carbon emissions and it has been estimated that globally the sector builds the equivalent of a city the size of Paris every week. This scale of construction is widely considered unsustainable for the health of our planet, without systemic change to construction methods. 

In 2019, the UK Parliament declared an Environment and Climate Change Emergency, and subsequently, the Government committed to a net-zero emissions target by 2050. Since then, all UK industries have been directed to achieve net-zero emissions by the Government’s target, and, thus, the goal of The Paris Agreement is to reduce global warming to below two degrees Celsius.

Therefore, the construction sector plays a central role in the future of our climate and environment. The major contributors to harmful carbon emissions are the construction materials used, as well as the heating, cooling, and lighting of the buildings and infrastructure.

As part of its strategy to drive change in the industry, the UK Government has introduced changes in planning, construction and taxation requirements that are focused on delivering a more sustainable environment. Hence, its responsibility is to drive decarbonisation along the entire construction chain.  Most notably, action is taken to influence:

  • the lowering carbon intensity of building materials in the production process
  • the implementation of climate-smart, low, and clean energy consumption in the use-phase of real estate and infrastructure
  • the design of more recyclable and environmentally-disposable materials, including the reuse of materials from refurbishments and in demolition phases.

The implementation of the strategic objectives creates highly complex challenges for stakeholders involved in construction projects. These include:

  • along with increased protection of the natural environment, constructed environments need to be designed with greater resilience against the effects of climate change
  • new environmentally-friendly building materials, processes and practices are typically more expensive than traditional methods; not just the cost of the materials but also the specialist resource and training to support their use
  • there isn’t yet a replacement for traditional, high-volume building products e.g. bricks and steel.  High energy resources and carbon-emitting processes are involved in their production
  • with a rush to low or zero-carbon energy sources, inadequacies in the UK energy supply infrastructure and network have been highlighted
  • the building phase in construction creates a very high demand for carbon-emitting resources such as electricity and fuel, and many natural resources such as water, sand, stone and wood
  • the scarcity of natural resources and the impact on the availability of materials have recently been highlighted by the COVID pandemic
  • the construction sector creates a high volume of waste and involves the use (and disposal) of toxic and harmful chemicals and products  
  • planning and building requirements are complex and require projects to be thoroughly assessed by skilled experts
  • developers, and their main contractors and architects, are responsible for ensuring buildings are designed with careful consideration of green building techniques, environmental impact, and long-term performance and efficiency.

As well as added complexities, incorporating new techniques, materials and processes represent significant increases in construction costs, along with the further risk of delays in projects. Any delays are proven to create insolvency issues along the supply chain. Also, for developers of smaller-scale projects, any significant change in costs can quickly lead to projects becoming prohibitive. This further demonstrates the days of a straightforward build process are long gone.

Complexities and risks aside, the transformation of the construction industry should be embraced; not just to meet the Government’s objective of net-zero, but also for mankind and to maximise this opportunity of building/rebuilding an environment we want to live in to protect our future.

To maximise efficiencies and minimise risks in a project, stakeholders should collaborate at the earliest opportunity. Therefore, developers should seek expert advice from the outset of their project to determine viability, which includes involving potential main contractors, architects, surveyors, and planning consultants. Once construction works commence, it is, again, equally important for developers to choose the right project team to instil trust, confidence and transparency throughout the process. The project team can ensure the supply chain has a common interest in achieving sustainability targets.

Last October, Horizon Construction welcomed over 70 senior industry practitioners from across the region to its annual event to discuss the challenges in new planning reforms. This type of industry participation and collaboration is important if we are going to achieve sustainable construction practices and builds.

The construction sector is being called upon to take action to manage climate change challenges and take responsibility for its direct or induced carbon emissions. It will also need to prepare for a changing environment and build resilience against the negative impacts of climate change.

For more information, contact Phil Holding.

Published in Sustain Essex, Spring 2023


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