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State of sustainability: Where is UK construction now?

This year marked 10 years since the launch of the UK Green Building Council, a milestone in the development of sustainable practice in UK construction. So how well is the industry performing on sustainability, what does it do well and – most importantly – what is still left to do?

Sustainability increasingly feels like a pervasive part of the construction industry – but how embedded is it really?

This year marked the 10-year anniversary of the UK Green Building Council, which it marked by releasing a report titled: The State of Sustainability in the UK Built Environment.

The report does not contain primary research, but rather saw UKGBC gather existing pieces of evidence from within its membership and without, to try to create a picture of where the industry is performing well – and crucially, where it is not.

For example, the data shows that 22 per cent of UK carbon emissions come from the operational and embodied carbon of the built environment, and that 10 per cent of UK carbon emissions come from heating buildings alone.

Waste from construction, demolition and excavation represents 59 per cent of the UK’s total waste – demonstrating starkly that while the industry may have got better at reducing waste to landfill, it still has much to do to eliminate waste in the first place.

CN spoke to UKGBC’s chief executive to get her view on where the industry is, as well as a client, a contractor and a consultant, gathering a broad range of opinion on what needs to be done.

Construction should be proud of the strides it has made on sustainability in the last 10 years – but if we hope to meet the targets set out by government and in the Paris Agreement, there is still a great deal to do.

Martin Gettings group head of sustainability Canary Wharf Group

Martin Gettings group head of sustainability Canary Wharf Group

THE CONTRACTOR: Martin Gettings, group head of sustainability, Canary Wharf Group

I think as individual companies we all do reasonably well on sustainability, and the last 10 years has helped us understand what the issues are.

As an industry, we always have our sleeves rolled up and we’re always getting on with it, but we’re starting to realise now we can be more effective if we become more joined-up in what we do. In the last five years, there’s been more of a will and a desire to collaborate – and I don’t just mean sharing information, I mean really collaborating on projects to deliver meaningful sustainability solutions.

In the past we might all have been guilty of a bit of greenwashing, but now we’re ready to grapple with the more meaningful sustainability challenges.

I would say, though, that we still don’t have a common set of industry-agreed KPIs. We don’t even measure energy the same way from one business to another.

“We don’t want to be sitting around waiting for government. We know what we’ve got to get right, so why don’t we just do it?”

We do seem to spend a lot of time ticking boxes and complying with various metrics – and I’m not talking about BREEAM, which I’m a big fan of. Some companies are really good at reporting and hitting KPIs, but when you peel back the surface they haven’t done much.

A lot of the things we’re good at are also the things we’re bad at. If you talk about innovation, any project team is doing it on a daily basis. But I see a massive disconnect in the way we approach innovation from project level to sector level, and it’s quite unusual for organisations to come together and innovate.

We still have this belief that leadership comes from somewhere out there, either from government, a trade body or a client. We’ve got the wrong end of the stick: leadership comes from within.

We’ve always followed legislation, but legislation isn’t a place we aspire to – it’s the starting point. Yes, government has a role to set the agenda and set policies, and we’ll always support them, but we see them as being a place to start from, rather than to end at. We don’t want to be sitting around waiting for government. We know what we’ve got to get right, so why don’t we just do it?

“Sustainability is now business as usual at the top end of the sector, but is the sector doing enough to improve the ones who aren’t engaged?”

As Canary Wharf, we have an interesting position in that we are a developer and landlord, so we sit very closely with our buildings’ end-users and our tenants. While we can bang the drum [on sustainability] to our supply chain, we can’t do that to our tenants because they’re our paying customers. But we can, as custodians of the [Canary Wharf] estate, encourage tenants to get involved with common initiatives.

In my job interview, I was asked: ‘What’s the future of sustainability and your role?’ I said I’ll have embedded it so well, I won’t have a job. But I think there’s much still to be done.

Sustainability is now business as usual at the top end of the sector, but is the sector doing enough to improve the ones who aren’t engaged? Maybe not. Leadership isn’t just about how good you are, it’s about how good you make other people.

For so long now, [sustainability has been seen in] the ones who want to engage. But the ones who don’t want to engage need to be brought along, too.

If we don’t find a way to include those who don’t want to engage, we’re wasting our time, really.

Munish Datta head of FM and Plan A Marks   Spencer

Munish Datta head of FM and Plan A Marks Spencer

THE CLIENT: Munish Datta, head of Plan A and facilities management, property group, Marks & Spencer

Sustainability is much more mainstream than it was 10 years ago and is increasingly embedded in the industry, which is becoming more efficient and lean. That’s the default position that’s emerged, because there’s a lot of efficiency to be had by taking a more sustainable approach – and that means you can build a good commercial reason to do it.

Standard stuff like LED lighting or renewables are making commercial sense, which is making businesses more cost-effective. And this is particularly important when there are other headwinds.

There are two or three other things that suggest the industry has really progressed. Local efforts around planning have pushed the agenda, particularly at a city scale like London or within local boroughs, around new development in particular. And there’s been steady client demand. There’s a market maturity, too. The supply base that construction relies on has become better at providing sustainable options.

“The use of technology to become smarter and more efficient has come on a lot in the last five years, with much more disruption still to come”

Landlords, certainly in the last 3-5 years, have come to the party, and in some cases are leading the industry. And there’s been recognition of buildings that are more sustainable – the Stirling Prize this year had a sustainability adviser to the jury.

Efficiency is a big driver for contractors. And things like BIM enable efficiency, as it allows you to predict much better how you’ll use materials before you get to site.

There are some emerging trends within the contractor base, too. They’re starting to recognise occupant impacts of [how you] design, build and operate, and the health, wellbeing and productivity angle is more important. And the use of technology to become smarter and more efficient has come on a lot in the last five years, with much more disruption still to come.

But there are obviously areas that it could be better.

I think social impacts of the industry and the people that work in it are just starting to be understood. When you look at modern slavery within the construction supply base there are some really significant risks – and it’s only in the last six months that construction has really started to wake up to some of the truths that are hidden in there

We still talk far too much about operational impacts and don’t really understand embodied impacts of carbon, water, waste, etc. The industry is very good at looking at the here and now, but it’s less good at looking up the value chain at the amount of energy that’s used to make materials that are being used on site.

“Standalone sustainability roles will not exist in 10 years’ time; they’ll be part and parcel of operational and strategic roles in businesses”

The industry is also still very focused on the short term and not the whole life of its assets – not just from a performance point of view, but from an occupant comfort and adaptability point of view.

And I don’t think the industry has fully understand how disrupted it could be by the impact of technology. Either the industry can change itself, or others will. It’s as much of an opportunity as it is a threat.

If I look at my own journey, my role also has operational responsibility for running buildings. I made that choice deliberately because I don’t think sustainability can succeed when it stands alone and you’ve got a team in the corner that’s going around preaching things to others.

I think it needs to be part of every single role in the industry – so I think by default, standalone sustainability roles will not exist in 10 years’ time; they’ll be part and parcel of operational and strategic roles in businesses.

The big challenge remains what we do with the existing estate. If we’re going to meet any of the environmental targets, we need to take a much closer look at, and take action on, existing stock. That’s really concerning.

What prevents us from doing that is that there’s still a fairly siloed, fragmented approach – I think this is a burning platform that can bring the industry together.

UK Green Building Council chief executive Julie Hirigoyen

UK Green Building Council chief executive Julie Hirigoyen

THE TRADE BODY: Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive, UKGBC

We put together our State of Sustainability report as part of our 10th anniversary, and one of the most important reasons we did it was because our members were repeatedly calling for more clear evidence of how far we’ve got and how far there is to go.

We also launched our ambitions for the next 10 years, and within that we made a clear commitment to work collaboratively with others, both within the industry and outside it, to try to collect data and continue to track our progress.

The overarching conclusion from the report is there’s still a huge amount of work to be done – and the built environment is clearly responsible for a lot of impact in carbon emissions. But there’s also a huge amount of opportunity there.

We’re calling for many more organisations to get involved with us and for those who are already involved to take bolder actions. It feels like our vision isn’t just desirable anymore, but is really achievable, and it requires a lot more urgent action for that to be experienced in practice.

“It still requires central co-ordination and leadership, and someone to challenge the organisation to go further, faster. I don’t see the role of head of sustainability disappearing”

To a large extent, businesses will do what makes business sense for them, and increasingly there is no doubt that these things are good business. If we can get that message out in clear and simple terms, we’re playing a part in ensuring more widespread adoption of sustainable principles will emerge.

But a push and a shove from those contracting will help, for sure. The tail end of the industry isn’t at the point of sustainability being ‘business as usual’ and I think it’s incumbent on all businesses to push it through their supply chain.

Sustainability is certainly more central to business strategy now, which I’d argue it has to be. There’s real progress for companies trying to embed it as part of their core business. That’s quite encouraging as long as it’s genuinely properly embedded, and it requires a mature strategy to do that.

I definitely think it still requires central co-ordination and leadership, and someone to challenge the organisation to go further, faster. I don’t see the role of head of sustainability disappearing.

“We have had a fairly unconstructive few years – but I do now feel quite optimistic as we have the Clean Growth Strategy”

That role can mean quite different things to different organisations. They can be C-suite or middle management, and there’s quite a big difference in terms of leadership, authority or responsibility. More corporates are going towards C-suite, as they can influence the whole business strategy. It’s also fairly crucial that we have good regulation to set a level playing field, and I would almost see that as a platform from which best practice needs to excel.

We have had a fairly unconstructive few years – but I do now feel quite optimistic as we have the Clean Growth Strategy, which is more ambitious than we perhaps expected it to be. We were pleased to see commitments to long-term trajectories to bring standards up over time, which is what will give the industry the confidence it needs.

For us, sustainability needs to be second nature for everyone, rather than the preserve of a few committed, enlightened businesses. It’s no longer about what good looks like and how we get there – we’ve increasingly got evidence of that. It’s about how we massively accelerate the adoption of sustainability across the industry, baking this into every single project and scheme.

Whichever way you cut it, this industry is still responsible for a big slug of carbon emissions.

Helen Newman Tuffin Ferraby Taylor

Helen Newman Tuffin Ferraby Taylor

THE CONSULTANT: Helen Newman, technical partner, sustainability & wellbeing, Tuffin Ferraby Taylor

I think there has been a lot of improvement in areas such as energy efficiency over the last 10 years, but there is still a lag in actual building performance.

There’s still a skills gap with contractors, especially with smaller-scale contractors, and making sure that buildings are built as they’re supposed to be. That’s where we do need government policy to address that policy gap, so the whole industry comes with us, not just large-scale developments.

I don’t think regulations are good enough. The great thing that UKGBC does is bring together a lot of leaders in the industry and provides them with a platform to share, and a voice for lobbying relevant politicians. But unfortunately I don’t think politicians are going to respond any time soon.

The mayor of London is great in setting a strategy and providing more justification for those developers who are working in London. But without government policy, some developers won’t see the need to go beyond minimums. This means we’ll struggle to meet our Paris commitments or deliver a step-change in carbon performance beyond that push.

“I think sustainability has become business as usual. People see that planning policies around the country require consideration of the basics”

There are some very forward-thinking clients who we’re very lucky to work with, like the Crown Estate, Derwent, British Land, Argent – they get it and see there’s value in delivering not just sustainable buildings, but a whole campus, so they are attracting the right tenants, who in turn attract the right employees.

But there are a lot of developers out there who can’t necessarily realise that value, as they don’t hold on to the assets in the same way as some of those landlord-developers – so there’s a broad range of performance on sustainability.

I think sustainability has become business as usual. People see that planning policies around the country require consideration of the basics.

But business as usual constantly changes. Water and energy efficiency, good construction site practices [are business as usual now] – but clients are pushing on social sustainability, making sure their supply chain has apprenticeships, living wage – that will become business as usual in four or five years’ time.

Social sustainability and what people are doing in that space is going to become more and more important, as environmental practices become more commonplace.

“I think there’s still a massive role for sustainability professionals and their roles are getting more complex”

I’ll be really candid: five years ago, I thought everyone would be doing sustainability by now and I wouldn’t have a job as a consultant. I do ask myself the question of whether I’ll have a role [in future].

But people still struggle with the most basic sustainability requirements. When these get pushed down to the small projects, it’s those small-scale contractors and project managers that don’t have the skills and need help.

So I think there’s still a massive role for sustainability professionals and their roles are getting more complex. Perhaps they’ve had success in environmental sustainability, but now they’re looking at innovation, or behavioural change, or social sustainability.

I don’t think it’s going anywhere, but it will evolve. You know, 10 years ago we weren’t talking about wellbeing – now everyone is.

There’s always something new and that sustainability role generally picks up on those issues.

Are you the Environmental Contractor of the Year?

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For more information on how to enter, visit the CN Awards website or contact George Thornton.

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