Gary Danson discusses the steps that can be taken towards a more sustainable construction industry

Sustainability within the construction industry is becoming ever more pressing. Contractors are increasingly obliged to take it into account when delivering on projects, something that’s driven by Government expectations and amplified public scrutiny. Operators across the full spectrum of business – not just construction – are expected to do what they can to use sustainable, environmentally friendly methods.

Given that construction is one of the largest consumers of raw materials, with estimates suggesting that buildings are responsible for around 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions – something that highlights the industry’s impact on the wider environment – it’s not all that surprising that there’s a focus within the sector on what can be done to drive sustainability.

Consequently then, there are plenty of conversations around the potential solutions on offer.

Going modular
A key topic we’ve seen in recent times, and one that’s likely to become ever more widely embraced, is that of prefabrication. On a global level, China is leading the way here, using prefabricated materials to create finished structures in record time – having built a 57-storey ‘Mini Sky City’ in an astonishing 19 days in 2015.

However, it’s not just China where this kind of approach is being seen. UK firms have also been looking at innovative ways to improve their construction methods. Mace, for example, has developed a £9m ‘jumping factory’ for creating high rise buildings, which sees a floor a week completed before moving on to the next – a process that facilitates the use of offsite and modular construction.

Modular construction sees ‘modules’ created in a factory setting – where all of the necessary components are constructed and assembled into one entity before being transported to the appropriate site.

Repair, don’t replace
A prime example of modular construction in action can be found in London. Apex House, a 29-storey project, was created from 679 factory-built modules, providing 560 student rooms. With the modules resembling shipping containers, they’re already fully kitted out with a kitchen, bathroom and the necessary electrics and light fittings. With all of this done off site and in the factory, the speed of the construction process is greatly increased, with disruption to nearby businesses and residents minimised.

The process involves transporting the modules to site via lorry and then using a tower crane to lift them into position – something that can take as little as ten minutes per module. In these instances, project timeframes can be as much as half that of a concrete or steel-framed equivalent. The levels of noise and dust for nearby businesses and residents then, is greatly reduced.

But why is this gaining in popularity from a sustainability point of view? Prefabricated materials tend to use a lot less energy in their creation as well as allowing for fewer mistakes when doing so, thanks to the controlled environment in which they’re constructed. Over time, this can have a considerable impact on energy consumption, with construction firms potentially racking up large energy savings.

Another element for the popularity of prefabrication relates to material longevity. Regulations relating to the lifespan of buildings are starting to be enforced, with those surpassing the limit (50 years according to the EU, for example) needing to be removed. Pre-fabricated materials are easier to retrieve (and re-use) in this instance, so the industry is certainly planning for a more sustainable future in this regard.

But while this innovation and forward thinking is great for the industry and undoubtedly a positive, it’s important that firms don’t lose sight of the basics. Doing the simple things right can have an immediate impact on their environmental footprint.

For example, we’re firm advocates of repair over replacement. The amount of waste material that heads to landfill following onsite mishaps is eye wateringly high. While we don’t have figures to hand to illustrate that, what we do have is that we, as a business, were able to save 3783 tonnes of waste going to landfill in 2018; the equivalent of 299 double-decker buses. Considering we’re just one repair firm, holding our savings up against the size of the sector within which we work should give you an idea of the vast scale of construction waste that’s generated annually.

Sustainability vision
Innovation is essential in an ever-changing world and it’s imperative that construction firms do what they can to further their capabilities. However, focusing on the fundamentals at hand can facilitate immediate improvement, and it’s something we’d urge all construction firms to consider when looking to address their sustainability credentials.

Some of this can be done at the planning stage – where a project-specific environmental plan can be outlined and adhered too, detailing micro and macro objectives to make it easier to abide by the wider sustainability vision.

Much of it is also dependent on education at site level. Often, 17in the case of replacement over repair, it’s easier to simply choose to write an item off, rip it out and arrange for a replacement, without thinking about the wider consequences of what that decision entails. Operatives on site may not recognise the long-term benefits of choosing to repair something – not just economically for the developer, but also the longstanding effect on the environment.

By looking to drive a culture of repair within the confines of wider sustainability initiatives, the industry can go some way towards reducing its footprint.

Gary Danson is Operations Director at Plastic Surgeon. Plastic Surgeon is the UK’s largest surface repair and fine finishing specialist, repairing damaged surfaces for all major housebuilders and construction companies.

For over 20 years, it has been using its specialist skills to rectify damage caused during the course of busy construction projects.

For more information, please see www.plastic-surgeon.co.uk