The steps towards a more sustainable industry

Gary Danson

Gary Danson, operations director at specialist repair firm Plastic Surgeon, discusses sustainability within the construction sector

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.

Construction is one of the largest consumers of raw materials, with estimates suggesting that buildings are responsible for around 30% of greenhouse gas emissions – something that highlights the industry’s impact on the wider environment.

Consequently, and somewhat understandably, there is a focus in the sector on what can be done to drive sustainability, with plenty of conversations around it.

A key one we’ve seen in recent times, and one that’s likely to become widely embraced, is that of prefabrication. 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.

But it’s not just China where this kind of approach is happening. UK firms have looked at innovative ways to improve their construction methods. Mace, for example, has developed a £9 million ‘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.

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 offsite and in the factory, the speed of the construction process is greatly increased, with disruption to nearby businesses and residents minimised.

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 certainly a positive, at Plastic Surgeon we feel that many firms are losing sight of the basics. Doing the simple things right can have an immediate impact on their environmental footprint.

We’re firm advocates of repair over replacement (after all, it’s what we do!). 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 3,783 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.

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.