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Sustainability in construction

Oliver Smith

Sustainability in construction; creating greener buildings

Sustainability is becoming more and more important for businesses within the construction industry, driven by higher expectations from both clients and the public. There has been a steep increase in concern and attention for environmental issues, not just with sustainability professionals, but now across all professions working in construction.

It is highly motivating to see an industry change and evolve for the better. Business as usual is no longer acceptable. No doubt the unprecedented number of recent environmental disasters, such as the devastating fires in Australia, have brought the issue of an unsustainable world to the forefront of public consciousness and how we must all play a part in helping our planet.

How we will achieve a sustainable world is a contentious and confusing issue to navigate let alone implement. There are many schools of thought, along with a bewildering array of competing environmental tools, methodologies and standards that can easily overwhelm. To help simplify, we are taking a look at what’s available to businesses within the construction industry to help them achieve a sustainable future, starting with green buildings and the certification standards used to measure them.

For a building to be green, it must meet a range of different requirements such as:

  • The use of non-toxic, ethical and sustainable materials in its construction

  • The use of renewal energy i.e. the installation of solar panels

  • Consideration for occupiers of the building  i.e. the use of non-toxic materials that don’t create lasting health problems for the residents

  • Ensuring the design is in-keeping with the community and environment


There are several different certification schemes, such as BREEAM and LEED, that solidify these requirements and hold construction teams accountable in the process of constructing a green building.

In a nutshell, it comes down to using sustainable construction practices and materials as well as ensuring the building can operate sustainably throughout its lifetime.

When you dig a little deeper into the benefits of green buildings it becomes evident that the rewards are reaped by all those involved, from the designers through to the occupiers.

The business case

It’s all well and good to want to be a pioneer of sustainable construction but when it comes down to the commercial reality it can be tricky to achieve. Without a strong business case for green buildings it isn’t often feasible for construction companies to make it a priority.

In recent years, it has been consistently reported that green buildings deliver savings in operating costs, have shorter payback periods, and an increased asset value. A growing number of building owners are seeing as much as a 10 percent increase in green building asset value. This alone provides an incentive for developers and investors to seriously explore green buildings for their future projects.

As construction technology has matured and the supply chain for green construction materials has strengthened and become more accessible, the design and construction costs of green buildings have significantly reduced. These two factors alone make a strong business case for construction companies to further explore green buildings as part of their project portfolios and future work.


In the UK construction industry, the available workforce is becoming a problem. The total number of workers over 60 has significantly increased and there has been a huge reduction in construction workers under the age of 30. The question that needs answering is, how do we incentivise more young professionals to pursue a career in construction and build upon generations of knowledge and skill?

In the younger generation, there has been a massive shift in values. The world’s youth is demanding change towards sustainable ways of working, and rightly so when you see the devastating impact on the planet. The climate has to be a priority as a value to attract and allow employees to feel aligned with their employer. It would be naive to think that this generation will abandon these values as they move into the workforce just for the sake of a pay cheque; here lies the problem for most big organisations, including construction companies.

No organisation can avoid value shifts and yet this has been the case for many years now. Perhaps they could get by in the short term however that time has passed and the public opinion has changed. If the construction industry wants to recruit a new wave of skilled and motivated workers, it is going to have to adapt to the shift in values across the younger generation.

By shifting corporate priorities to sustainability over profit, or at least in harmony with profit, construction companies can obtain a significant upper hand in capturing a talented workforce, public support and backing – which of course, in turn, will create more sustainable organisations.

Construction safety and well-being

As mentioned in the introduction to this article, green buildings take into account the construction methods and materials sourced for the building as well as the operational efficiency throughout its lifetime. However, green buildings are holistic and should therefore meet standards for protecting the health and well-being of the occupants of the building as well. By taking this approach in the planning and design stages, the idea of health and well-being can be infused in the whole construction process, helping to keep the construction workers healthy and safe throughout the construction phase.

With certifications such as the WELL Standard, building occupants health and well-being is quantified and measured to ensure the building accommodates the occupants in a healthy way. When constructing green buildings that meet this standard, construction workers are required to use materials that won’t pose a risk to the occupants of the building throughout its lifetime. Consequently, this results in a healthier environment for the workers as they are less exposed to hazardous pollutants than they otherwise might be.

Additionally, green buildings take a new form of construction that requires new technology and materials. Due to this uncharted territory, safety measure and reviews are much more likely to be implemented on a more frequent basis to ensure worker safety. Sometimes, uncertainty breeds safety and caution whereas familiarity in the process can result in unnecessary risk and ignorance.

The environment

This leaves us with the final point. The energy savings from green buildings are substantial, both in the design and construction stage as well as throughout its lifetime.

LEED certified buildings use fewer resources and minimise annual waste production compared to more traditional buildings.  To date, LEED certified buildings have diverted more than 80 million tons of waste from landfills.

In a review of 22 LEED-certified buildings, it was found that the carbon emissions for these were 34 percent lower than non-certified buildings and the energy consumption throughout the building’s lifetime was reduced by 25 percent. Furthermore, throughout its lifespan, a green building substantially reduces the strain on the local shared resources. As populations increase, particularly in population dense areas, the strain on the local resources increases. The greener the buildings that exist in the surrounding area, the lighter the pressure on these resources. Not to mention benefits such as green roofs which can offer unique and space efficient areas for communities to enjoy as well as the environmental benefits.

An example

Northstowe have been pioneers in creating greener buildings and developments. Including a recent project in South Cambridgeshire where they will be erecting 406 modular homes which will be factory built to the buyers specification – they have over 70 different configurations to pick from, all of which are using modern materials and will create environments to suit them, the community and world around them.

How to start

As with the majority of complex practices in construction, collaboration and knowledge sharing is key for the successfully construction of green buildings. However, the construction industry is notorious for establishing information silos across projects and organisations, therefore relying heavily on the readily accessible knowledge within any given project team. This severely restricts teams from exploring new ideas and can impair companies from taking on green building projects that require a specific set of knowledge and information.

As the industry starts shifting to more digital platforms, this problem will slowly but surely start to resolve. However, green buildings require a great deal of new technology that many construction teams aren’t used. For that reason, it’s important to take an active role in communicating across teams and organisations, sharing the things you have learned, and enabling other teams to design and build more green buildings moving into the future. As we now know, this will benefit all stakeholders involved.

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Sustainability in construction

Sustainability in construction
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