16 February 2022
Greener construction – how does it work in practice?

Over the past couple of years, we’ve written extensively about the push towards a greener construction industry – which has been intensifying in line with the growing severity of the climate emergency facing our planet. But what does ‘becoming greener’ actually mean for the average construction business wanting to do their bit for the environment?

Sustainable materials

As one of the world’s largest consumers of natural resources, the construction industry has a huge role to play when it comes to choosing sustainable alternatives. Currently, the industry uses 50 billion tonnes of sand and gravel (the main components of concrete) every single year. Quite apart from the harm this causes to ecosystems such as rivers and beaches, the carbon footprint of concrete production is extremely high.

According to a recent study, however, sustainable building materials are seeing a huge surge in popularity, with slate roof tiles taking the top spot with 252% more Google searches in 2020 than in 2019. This was followed by energy saving windows (245%), rammed earth building (196%), eco-friendly insulation (179%) and cedar shingles (176%). Also on the list were a range of sustainable concrete alternatives, including ashcrete (a sustainable concrete substitute which uses fly ash as its main component and is made up of over 90% recycled materials), timbercrete (the same, but with recycled wood) and bamboo reinforced concrete (an alternative to steel reinforced structural concrete). By making just a few choice replacements, UK firms could drastically reduce their carbon footprint.

Responsible supply chains

It’s not just about the materials – it’s also where you get them from. Hence why supply chain management is at the heart of transitioning to a more sustainable business model. For example, sports giants Nike and Adidas were subject to a torrent of media outrage when it was revealed that their suppliers had been dumping toxins into rivers in China. Online fashion retailer Boohoo faced scandal after The Sunday Times reported dangerous working conditions and instances of modern slavery at its Leicester factory. In the world of construction, supply chains are complicated by the frequent practice of sub-contracting, which reduces overall transparency within the supply chain. Practical steps companies can take for a more sustainable supply chain include:

  • Working with major suppliers to map the entire supply chain network, in order to increase visibility and identify any contractors or subcontractors whose practices are unsustainable or unethical
  • Setting sustainability targets for suppliers and working with them to ensure these are met
  • Not setting unreasonable deadlines or making demands that suppliers can’t reasonably fulfil; suppliers are more likely to place undue pressure on their workers out of fear they’ll lose the contract to another supplier.

Of course, it’s not always easy to make these kinds of changes. Research from business intelligence firm the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2019 found that increased cost is the main barrier to companies moving forward supply chain sustainability plans. However, a more recent article in Investment Week suggested that companies without sustainable supply chains are likely to see their share prices drop over the next decade – so the additional cost of transitioning to a more sustainable model is likely to be offset by healthier investment in years to come.

Eco-friendly transportation and plant

Materials and suppliers aside, construction machinery is another significant contributor to the carbon footprint of a building site. Just as electric and hybrid cars have become a popular choice for the eco-conscious commuter, and are set to dominate the market once the government’s 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars takes effect, electric and hybrid construction vehicles are set to take the industry by storm in coming years.

While the upfront cost may pose a barrier to construction firms, a total cost of ownership (TCO) study from McKinsey in 2019 suggested that electric construction vehicles could cost their owners up to 20% less over their lifetime due to lower fuel and running costs. Investing in electric construction machinery and other vehicles could benefit firms from both a long-term cost and sustainability perspective.

The little things add up

There are a plethora of other steps construction firms can take in their quest to go green. From using prefabricated building techniques and offsite construction methods, to taking processes online and discouraging the use of paper for blueprints and reports, to using sustainable waste disposal methods, this blog outlines just a few of the practical steps firms can take on their way to a more sustainable business.