December 11, 2023

The UK’s green recovery and the importance of construction becoming more ecologically sound

Ibrahim Imam, co-founder of PlanRadar, explores why The UK’s green recovery hinges on the construction industry becoming more ecologically sound and how this can realistically be achieved.

In June, Boris Johnson announced a £5bn injection to accelerate construction across the country in an effort to boost economic growth and create jobs. Coined with the slogan: “Build back better, build back greener, build back faster”, the potential of investing in green infrastructure was placed at the core of the Prime Minister’s pledge.

However, despite Boris Johnson stating that he wants to pursue a “green recovery”, according to the Green Alliance, an additional £14bn is needed for the UK to achieve its target of net zero emissions by 2050. Now, as the climate change debate continues to become the focus of public and corporate agendas, policy rhetoric must be matched with tangible action and investment across the construction industry.

Despite several UK construction industry leaders making climate and biodiversity declarations, still today around 10% of the country’s CO2 emissions derive from construction activities – and this number rises to 45% if the entire built environment sector is considered.

Significant measures have already been implemented to encourage sustainable behaviours across the sector, however, this low-carbon transition needs to pick up pace if the industry is to become more ecologically sound.

For a start, encouraging sustainable working practices, including life-cycle costing and post-occupancy evaluation, as part of the initial scope of work can help to achieve more sustainable construction projects.

Also, the manufacturing of concrete accounts for around 8% of overall global CO2 emissions. Instead, the development of more sustainable materials including ‘green concrete’ and the adoption of less carbon-intensive and more environmentally efficient methods will be key to help drive forward the “green recovery”. For example, the construction company Wagners has created an ‘earth friendly concrete’ (EFC) using blast furnace slag and fly ash instead of Portland cement. Replacing 40% of cement content with these alternative materials can be up to 30 times less greenhouse-gas intensive than traditional cement-based mixes.

In addition to this, encouraging greater collaboration between all those across the supply chain, from architects and engineers to contractors and developers, will also help to significantly reduce construction waste, and now we have the digital tools to seamlessly facilitate such collaboration.

Globally, the construction industry uses around 3bn metric tons of natural resources to manufacture building materials each year, however, up to 30% of this is wasted through reworking projects, overestimates and inaccurate details.

With re-work attributing to a major cause of waste, and accounting for up to 20% of a project’s total contract amount, technological innovations that can lower miscommunication errors, reduce construction waste and eliminate rework not only help to mitigate against vast amounts of wasted materials, time and energy, but also help to make the industry more sustainable overall.

Construction project management software is one of the best tools that a construction company can invest in to tackle issues regarding ineffective organisation and miscommunication. These platforms can connect all elements of the chain to ensure that a project is delivered in an efficient and sustainable manner. For example, combined with cloud-based digital documentation and communication software, digital blueprints can be accessed by all involved parties and enable multiple companies to seamlessly communicate with each other.

Moreover, technological advances that focus on data capture and complex modelling – for example Building Information Management (BIM) systems – can now generate algorithms that optimise a building’s performance. For example, engineers will be able to stress-test different options on a digital twin including lighting, heating and ventilation, allowing the long-term environmental impacts of a structure to be assessed and modified before they are implemented.

On top of this, BIM systems can automatically detect clashes and pool technical, operational and manufacturing knowledge on projects. These capabilities not only help to eliminate the need for ad-hoc solutions and realize greater efficiencies, but they also enable designs to be value engineered – ultimately helping to lower operating costs.

On 8th December, the Government published a New Construction Playbook which sets out the role of the construction sector in the “green recovery” and details plans on how the Government will work with industry players to ensure that the sector delivers greener and more innovative solutions. This includes measures such as the use of carbon assessments to understand and minimise the polluting impact of projects alongside embedding digital technologies, including the BIM framework, to modernise industry wide practices. The aim is that the playbook will not only help to reform the construction industry, with a particular emphasis on green initiatives, but that it will also facilitate better cooperation to support the economic recovery following the pandemic.

In principle, making considerations for the entire project lifecycle and embracing digital tools should result in less carbon intensive construction processes and provide clear pathways for sustainable structure management.  As the UK strives to reduce annual carbon emissions by 68% by 2030, it’s crucial that the construction industry works to close the gap between the potential of engineered models and the execution of plans on the ground, in order for the UK’s “green recovery” to really gain momentum.

Ibrahim Imam is the co-CEO of PlanRadar, Europe’s leading ConTech SaaS solution for digital documentation & communication in construction and real estate projects. The tech is used for construction documentation, defect and task management, handovers, maintenance and more.