Is it because there have been too many mistakes being made for too long, or is there simply too much pressure on gigantic organisations now to be more sustainable?
Have the mistakes of the past been reversed, or are we setting the course for a new and brighter future? Whatever the reason, the construction industry is becoming more responsible and sustainable. It’s time for us to explore this sustainable makeover.
Twelve months of change
At the start of April, 2018, edie.net launched their report, ‘Sector Insight: The State of Sustainability in Construction’, and in doing so revealed some very interesting data and information about how constructors are embracing culture change. One of the most striking pieces of information was that of how many businesses (from those interviewed) were increasing their sustainable activities, with 57% saying they were, and 43% recording no change. None of those interviewed said that their employers were becoming less sustainable.
The large leading the way
Like in most systems, there is a top-down hierarchy in the construction sector, much like governments, businesses and even the food chain. However, when it comes to sustainability, there are signs that the potential for sustainable policies, decisions and activities hangs largely on the available budget. We are faced with the very modern issue that protecting planet Earth can be a bit costly, and so the large companies are trialling ideas and technology first, with successful ideas being adopted by gradually smaller companies.
The pressure on the top of the hierarchy to make this change usually comes from the employees and the customers, and the larger or more well-known the business, the easier it is to have a snowball effect with campaigning that results in corporations forcing sustainable decisions.
It was found that 63% of construction businesses with more than 500 employees have increased their sustainability performance, either through the budget, commitment or results.
The small are falling behind
For smaller businesses, 56% responded that there were no changes to their sustainability policies, performance or commitment. The issue here is budget, as 42% of the small or medium businesses questioned had less than £20k per year available for sustainable activities.
Where is this money being spent? Well, according to the report, energy-efficiency upgrades, waste management and resource-efficiency measures, and sustainable product design and innovation were the top three areas.
Encourage SMEs to follow the steps of the big boys
In a time where resource constraints are present, skills shortages are on the minds of construction industry recruiters, and staggering population growth means that the demand for construction will keep on growing, surely the industry is ripe for change. If sustainability in construction is the low-hanging fruit that we believe it is, why are SMEs in the sector not seeing that? Perhaps it’s because of two things – results, and uncertainty.
What we know from our customers in construction is that one good year may be followed by one terrible year, and one disaster can expose major vulnerabilities in the business model. However, we work with construction businesses who do care about the environment and sustainability, and they are benefitting from expanding their budget and taking greater action. Their resources go further, their expenditures are lower, their eco-friendly policies open them up to a new customer-base and audience, their shareholders and employees take more pride in their work, and there is measurable social good that strengthens their reputation.
It’s a win-win-win-win-win.
Density vs Sprawl
While we can’t tell the construction industry what to do – it’s not our aim at all anyhow – we can support those who want to make positive sustainability changes. It all goes much further than increasing their recycling rates and taking care of hazardous materials; culture change is the real solution here.
If you can change the culture of a market leader, you can change whole industry, even the construction industry, and through that change, you may also find that society and urban design change drastically as a result. We already know that innovation in design is one of the most popular budget spends for this industry. What we don’t know, is whether we will see the construction industry build up, or out, density, or sprawl.
If we want the whole industry to be more sustainable, the people using the buildings must be considered. Compact urban environments promote walking, cycling and public transport, with more employment and better services, in theory. Often the reality is heavy pollution, traffic congestion, crowding, lack of service availability, energy inefficiency and housing shortages.
Recent research from Dr Anthony Wong and Dr Peng Du, Executive Director and China Office Director, and Academic Coordinator, respectively of the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH).
Forcing a sustainable makeover
If the construction industry in the UK wants to force a sustainable makeover, working with city design is something that can make a huge difference to the environment, as Wong and Du found out. They spent two years studying Downtown High-Rise vs Suburban Low-Rise living, researching data from more than 500 families who participated.
It was found that those living the high-rise lifestyle used 73% less water, less than 10% as many separate car journeys, and walked or cycled more than three times as much. However, they used 27% more electricity, and 72% more energy was required per person to build their high-rise home. Surprisingly, there were actually more car owners than their suburban equivalents.
High-rise buildings presented more issues than suburban, with their design making it hard for individuals to make sustainability decisions, like HVAC improvements or renewable energy installations. One area that high-rise did win was on lower land costs (per resident), but as a result of living vertically, community connection is much lower and cases of friction are much higher.
Overall, the data leans towards the idea that sprawl is actually better than density, due to several reasons; instead of one city centre, you can have many centric points; adaptability of suburban homes is much greater, allowing for sustainability hardware to be installed (like solar panels); sprawl gives an opportunity to do things better from fresh, whereas high-rise is generally constructing in an already densely populated area and must adapt to harsher environments.
What can we make of this information?
The large construction companies are leading the way – they are expanding budgets, thinking about materials, innovating design and architecture, considering density vs sprawl, encouraging progression and acting intelligently. Ok, not all of them, but those early adopters of the sustainability principle who work with green architects and heavily vet their supply chain are ultimately going to be the great victors here. The sooner the SMEs take note and follow in their footsteps, the better for everyone involved.
If your construction operation wishes to be more sustainable, get in touch with Enviro Waste and see what we can do to support you.