By now, developers will be used to designers promoting opportunities to improve sustainability performance, and equally familiar with these proposals being rejected due to risk and cost concerns.
The construction industry is undergoing fundamental changes to meet societal demands for social and environmental betterments, and the money is following. ESG funds recorded inflows of $21bn (£15.4bn) in the first quarter of 2021, and major industry names, including Kingspan and Willmott Dixon, are taking out green loans with interest rates tied to environmental targets.
There is major money to be made in ‘green’ construction, but many developers bury their heads in the sand, sticking to traditional materials and procurement and demanding the design team stays in its lane, rather than challenging them to understand and manage new risks.
The question is no longer ’do developers care about carbon?’ but rather ‘do developers want to make a profit, or do they want an easy life?’
Take timber as an example. The environmental and financial wins are obvious; a tonne of steel represents more than six times as much carbon as timber. Replacing 1 sq m of ‘typical’ composite deck-floor construction with timber joists saves as much carbon dioxide as growing 600 bananas, and about 250kg of weight. Across a building, that will significantly reduce substructural costs – and that’s without skyrocketing steel prices!
Timber is a tried-and-true construction methodology with a well-developed supply chain. Timber stud walls fit exactly where you’d otherwise have Metsec or masonry, and despite perceptions, fire risk can be managed ‘traditionally’, for example with plasterboard cladding.
Perceptions about risk drive projects into high-carbon, high-cost dead ends, before desperate bolt-on attempts are made to hit funding-related sustainability targets and increase costs further.
It is possible to make money and save the planet: push the boundaries of your projects and challenge your designers to consider sustainability early; encourage them to adopt low-cost, low-complexity solutions and pretty soon your projects will be making enough money to buy you a seat on a SpaceX rocket. Your conscience can rest easy as you’ll offset that by reducing the steel on your project by 140 tonnes!
Liam Bryant is an associate at Webb Yates Engineers