Building in sustainability

The construction industry needs to work together with collaborative thinking and action if it is to be more sustainable, says James Copperwait

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The UK construction and demolition industry is reported to produce approximately 60 million tons of waste per annum* of which 91% is recovered.

The way in which construction waste is currently recorded is potentially misleading as in the majority of cases data is presented from the destination and not the source. Waste Management companies all operate with different methods of working and with differing agendas, potentially resulting in slightly incorrect data being captured.

Waste and sustainability in the industry has been a hot topic for nearly two decades now. First during Tony Blair's Labour government of 1997 to 2005, where there was a huge emphasis on construction to produce less and recycle more waste with various bodies established to assist with these goals. Spearheaded by the regional development agencies such as South East Centre for the Built Environment SECBE, The governments Waste Resource Action Programme (WRAP) and the Environment Agency, coming together to form the Pathway to Zero Waste organisation along with the Halving Waste to Landfill Initiatives, a real determination to join the dots and bring some collaboration to the construction industry, in order to incentivise the industry to produce less, reuse and recycle more and send less waste to landfill.

Ultimately what ends up as waste, begins as a resource, a product or even simpler, a raw material. Whether this be bricks, plasterboard, insulation or any of the other myriad of products that end up in skips across the land, once they have been deemed as no longer fit for purpose, by and large they are taken from site in skips with other redundant materials, which ultimately become ‘mixed’ waste, removed from site to be ‘recycled’ or landfilled in many cases.

If we go back to the beginning of a buildings lifecycle when it is designed. Waste should be a consideration at this point and can be largely designed out of a building.
Sadly this is not the case with the majority of those projects on the drawing board. 
Why? Because the architects and designers and cost consultants who work on behalf of clients, are designing and planning projects in order to satisfy their clients desires and needs and not considering the consequences of the process that is required in order to do so. In fact it is not even the builders, or construction management companies that consider what waste is going to be produced, or rather what materials are going to end up as redundant, or waste, nor is it the subcontractors, or their subcontractors. All of the components of the build process see waste as a consequence, a cost, a problem, one that someone else will deal with.

This is not unique in the construction industry, earlier this year (June 2019) the BBC ran a series of programmes investigating why waste plastics produced in the UK find their way to Malaysia and other Asian countries, as we appear unable to deal with the waste produced by our consumer appetite for single-use plastics.

In construction, it is deemed commonplace, or normal practice for contractors and subcontractors alike to allow for 10% wastage as part of their price. However, on average, 12-18% of all materials brought to construction projects, are removed as waste. This is not just due to the fact that there is a by-product or off-cuts from the production process, this is down to mismanagement of materials, poor logistical planning, poor planning and management of when and why materials are sent to site, accepted, stored, re-distributed and finally installed for the creation of the product. Other industries such as manufacturing, retail, and distribution accept that waste is ultimately inevitable in some capacity; they tend to allow for waste figures of up to 5%, so why does construction operate at 7-13% more than that?

Why doesn’t the construction industry consider how materials are going to be used in the early planning stages of a project, a formula one car is designed, manufactured, built, tested and raced in the virtual sense, long before a single piece of carbon fibre is extruded or formed, and certainly before Lewis Hamilton takes to the wheel. Construction has been talking about the implementation of BIM modelling and management and using technology to understand how buildings are designed, constructed and operated. 

However, do we really consider the materials, or better-labelled components that are required, the labour element needed to install those said components, and most importantly the logistics of how all of those components, and people are designed, produced, delivered and installed? 

The answer is probably yes, on all levels at some point, however this process is simply not connected, the planning is not a fluid and collaborative strategy, it is actually rather disjointed and isolated, due to the complex and disparate nature of the industry, its layers, its clients, consultants, project and construction managers, contractors, subcontractors, sub subcontrators, supply chains and so on. Actually, no one ever manages to connect the dots, which is why we are so inefficient, why so many companies rely entirely on the cash flows of their supply chains in order to supply, even exist and why companies like Carillion end up going bust owing so much to so many. It is why payment terms are atrocious and why hundreds if not thousands of hard working SMEs, the very bedrock of the industry and our economy, face so many sleepless nights. Or worse still, they have their livelihoods ruined by the recklessness of those that are complicit in all that is wrong with construction and why it is so very unsustainable. 

James Copperwait is CEO at Focus Group Logistics

*source 2016 DEFRA report on UK statistics on Waste;

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