The construction sector is a critical part of the UK economy. It directly employs over 2.3 million people, contributes 6% of national GVA (gross value added) and creates £2.92 of value for every £1 spent on UK construction.
These are the headline figures from a new report from the Confederation of British Industry which examines how the industry’s operating model could be put in a better position to thrive in the future.
But to what extent does improved sustainability performance rank among the sector’s priorities? And what can it do to improve?
A sector in need of change
The good news is the report says a well-performing sector can be a key contributor to the UK’s climate goals.
The problem is that it says this won’t happen without fundamental changes to its current, precarious operating model, where an imbalance of risk between clients and contractors, unhealthy procurement practices and tight finances undermine the potential for sustainability to move up the agenda.
Razor-thin profit margins prevent choosing sustainable construction options which typically come at a higher cost. The investment in new skills, technologies and research which underpins sustainable construction often falls by the wayside in order to protect profit.
The knock-on impact of this is a lack of purchasing power for firms to invest in low-carbon materials and processes, which would lead to lower overall footprints for both construction and operation of assets.
Planners and architects can build to standards like BREEAM and WELL and design in sustainability considerations – such as thermally modified timber, solar PV and rainwater harvesting measures – but it’s another thing for these to be delivered in practice.
A joined-up solution
Moving forward on sustainability and tackling the wider issues that affect the sector – such as the need for upskilling and investment in technology and efficient working practices – is unlikely to happen without government intervention and better cross-sector collaboration.
To find solutions, the CBI proposes the appointment of a Construction Secretary of State, or the tasking of a specific Cabinet Minister with responsibility for the industry. This would theoretically bring the industry together, prioritising better governance and focusing on actions which protect the long-term health of the sector protected.
The report argues that improved collaboration is key to embedding sustainability in construction projects. Looking across the full lifecycle of construction to reduce environmental impacts requires every part of the value chain – from architect to contractor – to work together to a common plan. Collaboration is also key to accurate reporting and accounting for environmental and social issues, as well as risk and opportunity management.
The bottom line
The stark conclusion of the report is that a failure to act address these issues will not only have a serious impact on the future health of the sector from a financial perspective, but it will also fail to deliver the much-needed improvements in its environmental performance.
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