15 Ways to be More Sustainable in the Construction Industry

It’s no secret that the construction industry has a problem with sustainability. 32% of all landfill waste in the UK comes from the construction and demolition of buildings, and it doesn’t stop there. Construction is directly responsible for 36% of worldwide energy usage and a staggering 40% of CO2 emissions.

But the problem doesn’t necessarily lie with sustainability itself. When surveyed in the World Green Building Trends Smart Market Report in 2018, almost 40% of UK firms stated that affordability was the greatest challenge in going green. Many fear that they will be caught between demand and higher costs for environmentally friendly projects, but the benefits outweigh the risks.

The advantages of sustainable construction

The Earth is struggling – we’re using more resources than we produce and polluting the atmosphere. As a result, we’re destroying ecosystems, creating public health risks and wasting money.

Sustainable construction aims to:

  • Use fewer raw materials and less energy to cause less pollution and waste
  • Improve the quality of life and offer customer satisfaction
  • Offer the potential to cater to a building’s future changes in use
  • Provide and support natural and social environments

However, there are also benefits for construction companies that they aren’t necessarily aware of.

The first comes in the form of corporate social responsibility. Positive PR can be a strong influence on buyer behaviour, and companies are open to more scrutiny than ever in their approach to CSR.

Sustainability in the construction industry will also save you money. While most firms think green building is more expensive, it can actually be a great way to save costs on transport, water and more.

With a rise in environmental legislation over the last 20 years, it’s also likely that getting ahead of the game (and your competitors) now will save you time and money in the long run.

This is especially true with the British government’s target of reducing CO2 emissions. The Climate Change Act 2008 committed the UK to an 80% reduction in carbon emissions relative to the levels in 1990, to be achieved by 2050. In June 2019, secondary legislation was passed that extended that target to “at least 100%”. There’s nothing to lose by going green, so why not make a start?

15 ways you can make your construction company more sustainable

1. Use electric machinery and vehicles

Almost every building site you enter will have heavy machinery that still uses fossil fuels. As a result, energy from fossil fuels used during the construction and operation of buildings accounts to around half of the UK’s total emissions.

One change you can make is to switch to electric vehicles where possible. This is a surefire way to reduce your CO2 emissions and decrease your carbon footprint. Volvo, Bobcat, JCB, Caterpillar and more have all released some battery-powered models of their machinery and vehicles, and more are set to follow.

2. Source renewable and recyclable materials

Finding materials that are good for the environment can be a headache, but it’s not impossible. Using renewable materials to create items like cigarette butt bricks is a good place to start if you can.

Insulation is a great way to do this, too. Different sustainable materials like rockwool, sheep’s wool and recycled paper are all-natural, renewable and effective. The former, made from molten stone, is supposed to save 100 times more CO2, SO2 and NO2 than is emitted during its production.

3. Build vegetation-based roofing

Going green doesn’t stop at the ground – the roofs you build can also be sustainable in ways you perhaps hadn’t considered. Green roofs are rooftops that are covered in plants, whether they be in pots or actually growing into the rooftop itself. There are two types – extensive and intensive – but neither are affected by drought or waterlogging.

In fact, there are even more benefits: they provide insulation, contribute to the improvement of urban air quality, reduce risk of fire spread between buildings and create habitats for birds and insects. Greenery also makes people feel welcome and relaxed in the buildings they live or work in, and plants and flowers raise a structure’s kerb appeal.

4. Reduce your waste

The UK construction industry produces three times more waste than all UK households. 20 million tonnes of this goes straight to landfills. Using prefabricated pieces can save money and materials because your components are made off-site and in an environment where unused wood and so on can be recycled easily. This also means that you can pay less for waste services.

5. Discard waste responsibly

When it comes to getting rid of waste, one way is to incinerate it. When disposed of safely in line with legislation, this is especially good for hazardous materials because it means that they don’t contaminate the environment. While incineration can lead to CO2 emissions, there are ways around this such as storing the gas in underground spaces. The heat created by incineration can also be used in the production of electricity or for heating water, and the resulting fly-ash can be used when making concrete.

6. Use MMC

Modern methods of construction, or MMC, are a great way to be more sustainable in the construction industry, and they’ll probably save you money. You’ll end up with faster construction, improved delivery times and fewer budget overruns.

There are many ways you can implement MMC in your projects, like ready-made walls, floors and roofs that are produced in a factory and transported to sites. Modular construction is a similar process but involves the production of ready-made rooms, or pods, that are combined to form a whole building. This can save up to 52% of the waste you’d create by using traditional methods.

Carol Massay, Head of Construction at The Access Group, says that modular construction will ensure more efficient deliveries, and that is certainly the case.

7. Save water

We all know that construction sites use a considerable amount of water. One of the simplest solutions here is to use more durable service pipes to reduce leakages and repair any faulty pipes as soon as possible.

It’s definitely worth monitoring your water consumption, perhaps with submeters, and using pressure-reducing valves to reduce excessive flow in toilets. Some companies also use recycled or greywater for washing vehicles.

8. Save energy

A lot of the time, being sustainable also makes projects more cost-effective. That’s certainly the case when it comes to saving energy on construction sites. But how can it be done?

Not letting vehicles idle is one way. Use mains electricity where you can, and use LED and lower wattage lamps. Energy-efficient equipment will also save you a considerable amount of money while decreasing emissions and helping the environment.

9. Use cloud-based software

Perhaps one of the easiest changes you can make is switching from paper to cloud-based software to manage employees. This can then be used for timesheets and HR functions like holidays and absence to avoid paper forms.

But that’s not where the benefits of the cloud end – apps and APIs can also be used to manage supply chains and plant assets, as well as providing real-time reports on budget, time, procurement and more.

10. Adopt smart technology

With the continuing advancement of new technologies, there are always new ways to improve efficiency while making your company more sustainable. ERP software has made leaps and bounds in recent years, and can now be accessed on a range of devices; mobile, tablet and PC. Just In Time technology has made the supply chain much more efficient, only ordering in stock as and when it is needed – avoiding excess waste and improving cashflow and inventory levels.

11. Upskill your employees

A lot of sub-contractors use the methods they were trained in. Update their training with new information and techniques that they can use in their projects. A bonus here is that you’ll improve job satisfaction and business productivity.

12. Bring in a specialist

Expert advice is an undervalued tool and the earlier you can bring an environmental specialist in, the better. An independent adviser will help with high-level decisions, and they can advise you on environmental impact assessments and more.

13. Consider local wildlife

Wherever you’re building, there will be wildlife that you will need to take into consideration. Where possible, you should implement an ongoing landscape management plan to monitor any potential problems and put a site waste management plan in place to minimise traffic movements and potential pollution.

Be especially mindful during mating or hatching seasons, and avoid the use of heavy machinery close to habitats or breeding areas. If you can, don’t disturb or displace wildlife unless you have an agreement to move animals to a similar area.

Make sure to protect established trees and wooded areas, and commission expert advice, if any endangered species are found nearby – killing great crested newts, can lead to fines of up to £5,000 per newt and six months in prison.

14. Consider future use

When it comes to designing and constructing your buildings, think about what they could be used for in the future and if any of your materials could be reused in the process. This circular economy is a good way for the construction industry to become more sustainable, but it also improves the quality of your buildings because they have to be more robust.

15. Set targets

How do you know if you’re becoming more sustainable if you don’t measure anything? Set goals for your company or construction sites and figure out how you’re going to meet them.

You can also look into rating schemes like the Civil Engineering Environmental Quality Assessment and Award Scheme (CEEQUAL) or the Building Research Establishment Environmental Method (BREEAM). Working towards the higher ratings is a surefire way to make your company more sustainable.

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