Sustainable environment

Sustainability and the environment: Why isn’t change happening quicker in the construction industry?

There are changes and trends that impact the construction industry all the time. From increases in prefab buildings, shortages of labour, innovations in technology to introductions of green technologies, etc., construction companies have to stay up-to-date if they want to be competitors in the future of construction. But, is change happening fast enough? What more can the industry do to change how it operates?

Drivers of change

As with many industries, technology is the most prominent driver of change for the construction industry. As well as that, we have an increase in sources of renewable energy, which is also a huge driver of change. Things like extreme weather, climate change and an increased focus on health and wellbeing mean that the future of the industry needs to be different. With all things work, health and living becoming more intertwined, the construction industry needs to design and build differently.

What challenges are there?

With buildings being higher-performing and more ‘connected’ and technological, there are huge challenges – as well as great opportunities, of course. People spend just as much time in their work environments as they do in their homes and so many people are starting to ask for healthier working spaces. This is possible to achieve if the construction industry starts designing and building places to be connected, smart and sustainable.

Nowadays, high performing buildings are expensive. The costs are justified by its energy efficiency or the increase in worker productivity but, at some point, all buildings need to be produced to such a standard. The construction industry needs to work out how to make these buildings as quickly and as cheaply as a standard, traditional building.

Why is technology such a challenge?

If we compare the construction industry to the financial industry, we see a huge disparity between their technology use. The financial sector has really embraced new technology while the built environment is slow to make progress. The biggest challenge for the built environment is making solutions that function for the current workforce, which is built of perhaps 4 or 5 generations. We need to find technological solutions that all workers believe will make jobs both better and easier and not more difficult because of having to learn something new after 30 years of doing something in the same way. A simple example is convincing a 55-year-old construction worker to use an iPad whilst out in the field instead of paper drawings.

The bigger picture

For construction and design to be sustainable, there needs to be an increase in awareness of particular environmental topics like solar photovoltaic for example. Soon, there will be a standard in place to calculate how well a roof lends itself to solar PV panels whether or not it is requested by the owner. Even if someone doesn’t specifically ask for PV panels, it doesn’t mean they’re opposed to them.

Identifying barriers and working around them

Many barriers in the construction industry come down to money. Breaking down these barriers has to start with end-users. When a building’s sustainability is important for the occupants of it i.e. the employees in a company using the space, then this will bring about change. When companies are dedicated to ensuring working environments are healthy and sustainable, they will happily pay a premium to make them that way. With these ‘desires’, the construction industry will be forced to design and build these buildings. We can already see this happening with the likes of Google, Apple and Facebook. Hopefully, with time, higher-performing buildings will be cost-competitive for all businesses, not just big enterprises.

Forecasting and adapting to change

Construction companies are being somewhat naïve if they don’t recognise that huge changes will be coming to the industry. If these companies want to stay relevant they need to be ready to adapt.

To be competitive nowadays, construction companies need to start demonstrating how environmentally friendly they are. Many new ideas and tools allow organisations to measure how well they’re doing.

Life cycle analysis

This looks at the building and its environmental impact throughout its whole life. It considers all aspects of the building from the raw materials used, its energy inputs and its environmental burdens. It accounts for everything involved in raw material extraction right through to the disposal of the building at the end of its life. This analysis is useful to designers and architects so that they can make informed decisions on the sustainability of a project.

Whole-life costing

WLC or Whole-life costing considers the cost of a building right from it being designed all the way to its disposal – including the social and environmental costs. WLC aims to improve a building’s value for money. It is, of course, difficult to project all of the maintenance and operational costs over the years as many costs are only apparent once the building becomes operational. Because of this, it is very easy to overemphasise the up-front costs and it is difficult to quantify social benefits and costs too.

Concluding thoughts

The construction industry is somewhat behind other industries when it comes to sustainable development. This is partly due to the varied workforce and also due to the cost of and demand for sustainable buildings. Hopefully, in time, we will see an increase in demand from workers for healthy work environments, which will lead to sustainable buildings becoming cheaper to design and build.