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Contractors could ignore sustainability during the recession – but not any longer

Martin Blower

Sustainability was not a high priority for contractors during the recession – winning the next project and keeping their businesses afloat was what mattered most. But with the economy growing again, ignoring sustainability will mean missing out on major contracts.

To many specialist contractors sustainability means cost – and cost means reduced margins. In the recent recession, those companies that considered maintaining margins, while pursuing a sustainable model, feared reduced competitiveness and the loss of business.

The trouble is, ‘construction’  for many people is quite literally a dirty word, synonymous with depletion of natural resources, waste generation and excessive emissions and that’s ignoring the less tangible issues we get hit with such as noise, disruption and conspiring to put another concrete lump on the landscape.

Recession and reduced levels of construction have not altered this perception.  As we are now emerging, albeit slowly, from recession with growing order books and far more optimism, construction will be even more under the microscope.

Sustainability credentials under scrutiny

This means the sustainability credentials of the construction sector will be under far more scrutiny too.

Where we fall short we will be held accountable, which will probably have a far greater impact on our businesses than any recession.  

Put simply, those companies that don’t embrace sustainability now will not just lose out on some contracts, they will risk losing out on all contracts as client demand, public pressure and even legislation will dictate that only ‘green’ companies will get the job.

Now I know most companies do have green policies and sustainability is on the agenda, but I think the time has come for it to start topping the agenda. 

So where do we start? I’m no expert on the matter. But I do understand that only those companies with sustainable business models and growth strategies will be in any position to capitalise and, more importantly, put any return on investment in sustainability where it matters most – the bottom line.

On the wider advice and guidance front, there are resources available from the National Specialist Contractors Council (NSCC), Construction Products Association (CPA), and dedicated organisations such as the UK Green Building Council.

However, each specialist contractor sector has its own peculiarities and needs and the piling sector is no different.

Environmental audits

The Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS) recognised the importance of sustainability and the environment long ago and took the decision to include an environmental element as part of its membership audit - a pre-requisite for membership that is regularly assessed.

The FPS also encourages the exchange of information – non-commercial obviously – on issues such as the environment and it works hard to ensure that information, help and guidance is available to those that want it. It engages with industry bodies, such as the NSCC on issues including sustainability, putting the position of the FPS forward for them to lobby at government level on our behalf.

On a more tangible basis, the FPS, working with the European Federation of Foundation Contractors (EFFC) is in the vanguard of the development and use of the innovative Carbon Calculator developed by the Deep Foundations Institute (DFI). The Carbon Calculator uses verifiable, standardised data that aims to allow the accurate benchmarking of competing project proposals, as well as allowing contractor and clients to evaluate different technical approaches to their environmental impact with respect to CO2 emissions.

This is a significant tool, as clients are increasingly demanding verifiable CO2 data so that they can evaluate the environmental impact of a proposed project and manage this around their own sustainability programmes.

Of course, there is much more to be done, but tools like the Carbon Calculator are a start. Perhaps the most important thing is dialogue and discussion that allows us to set the agenda and pace of progress for our sector and move along the ‘green’ path together. The best tool is always real-world advice and support. Though, as always, listening to advice is one thing – taking it is quite another.

Martin Blower is chairman of the Federation of Piling Specialists

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