Sector has long journey ahead on sustainability

EVERY industry from construction to packaging is currently grappling with the topic of sustainability.

From the targeting of single-use plastics and vehicle emissions through to construction waste, no stone is being left unturned in a bid to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint.

A recent report from the National Federation of Builders’ Major Contractors Group said the construction sector must be ‘transformed within a generation’ or else government environmental ambitions will fail to be met.

Project Scotland recently asked some industry stakeholders about the importance of the drive towards more sustainable solutions and what companies can do to make their businesses ‘greener’.

Andrew Robb, design manager at Lockerbie-based construction firm Robinsons, said, “In simple terms, we need to work harder to ensure that buildings and construction processes are not impacting on the environment. The building standards in Scotland are closely linked to the government’s commitment on carbon which forces clients and businesses to incorporate some of the world’s highest levels of insulation into our buildings as well as mandatory installation of renewable technologies to new homes. While this is more stick than carrot, it is a powerful driver towards targets. We find that in a remote region where off-grid heating is a major issue, well insulated properties, while having a high initial cost, will offer a return on that investment when fossil fuels increase in cost year on year.

“We always strive to design affordable, highly insulated solutions for domestic customers with a simple approach to delivering sustainable construction with an end result of excellent thermal comfort.”

Robinsons has a corporate social responsibility policy to help influence carbon footprint and encourage procurement of sustainable alternatives where possible in the supply chain. The firm’s HQ and factories are almost fully run on biomass heating and feature high insulation levels, while recycled water is used for processes. Employees are involved in beach clean and recycling initiatives, with Andrew stating there is an ‘open door’ to implementing positive changes.

“I think companies who do not recognise the huge groundswell of public opinion and concern for environmental impact should be prepared for investors, clients and employees voting with their feet when a competitor can undertake similar projects but deliver them in an energy efficient, sustainable way,” he added.

Richard Halderthay, director: brand, digital and communications at Saint-Gobain, agrees that providing solutions that can significantly reduce carbon emissions from buildings is “critical” to meeting climate and carbon commitments. 

“This is especially important for the buildings we have today that will require adaptation or modifications,” he revealed. “It’s also vital that the solutions we do provide are themselves environmentally responsible – this means thinking about the materials they use, how they are manufactured, their source, and their re-usability or adaptability at the end of life.”

Richard said the best approach companies can take is to either avoid or use less energy. “Businesses should aim to make the buildings they work in and operate as efficient as possible both to save money and avoid CO2.

“If energy is needed, alternative renewable sources should be used as much as possible and employees can be encouraged to work differently and flexibly to avoid travel costs and CO2. Businesses can think about how they can operate in a closed loop to re-use and recycle, which will help to reduce energy demand as a result. In our own business, we have since 2016 switched our entire UK electricity sourcing to a renewable source, saving more than 100,000 tonnes of CO2. We are reducing CO2 from our vehicle fleet and we are reducing our waste.”

Richard added that there is still more to do, especially around the transformation of the firm’s carbon as a result of manufacturing. “This is harder to do and will require tremendous focus – but it is critical to our goal of being net zero carbon emissions as a business by 2050.”

Richard said those businesses that fail to address the carbon challenge will ultimately be unsustainable. “It’s no longer going to be optional – business will need to change, those who do so sooner will gain the advantage.”

Jennifer Smart, business relationship manager at construction Scotland Innovation Centre (CSIC), said she has started to see a change in the industry over the past 12 months towards sustainability and circular construction, adding that you can now “feel the momentum” with high profile events such as the Scottish Resources Conference and Circular Economy Hotspot shining a light on the sector.

“With the implementation of BIM Level 2, the increased use of digital technologies and Industry 4.0, there has never been a better time for industry to start their sustainability journey,” Jennifer commented.

Jennifer Smart

“The CSIC Innovation Factory is supporting industry partners through collaborative projects that will contribute to achieving a sustainable built environment.  For example, we have a number of pieces of equipment that supports waste reduction and circular thinking: the masonry casting press can make bricks, blocks and pavers out of potentially recycled materials; our thermobonding line can make insulation from any fibrous material which could include wood fibre, factory dust waste from the textile industry or indeed old insulation; and our 3D printing capabilities and offsite manufacturing cell not only improve productivity and quality, but allows materials to be optimised to significantly reduce waste and indeed allow design for deconstruction to be considered.

“The industry does have a good recycling rate, but this is mostly for aggregates and soil, and the majority of ‘recycled’ materials are ‘down cycled’ such as wood for RDF (refuse derived fuel) or glass for aggregate.  The other good news is that the energy performance of buildings has significantly improved in recent years, though it must be remembered that building regulations are a minimum standard and they are not often voluntarily exceeded.

“There is yet to be a real step change industry-wide. Everyone understands where we need to get to on sustainable building, and consumers are demanding more sustainable products but the lack of a clear roadmap or specific procurement policy means if clients don’t specify it, then it simply doesn’t happen. Everyone across the supply chain needs to be supported to make it happen and make it the new norm.”

Jennifer stated that with the public becoming “less and less accepting” of solutions within all industries that contribute negatively to climate change, companies that don’t adapt and change will get left behind. 

“Planning, building regulations and procurement policies need to change if we are to meet the net zero carbon targets and in the future regulators may introduce financial penalties for businesses that don’t meet best practice guidelines,” she said.

Jennifer emphasised the role younger people coming into the industry can play, with younger workers often having a greater awareness of  environmental issues. “They are tech-savvy and have expectations that the industry is digitally literate,” she said. “However, according to recent research which classifies how progressed different industries are in terms of their digital uptake, the construction sector is second from the bottom, only marginally in front of agriculture and hunting, despite the huge financial prize companies could realise through the adoption of modernised digital approaches. 

“It is the older generation who are still running the show though and it is them who need to be persuaded to change the mindset from ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’ to ‘how can we drive innovation’.”