Collaboration and legislation are key to net zero construction

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The construction industry meeting ambitious net zero targets is an essential part of ensuring the promises of COP26 are met, but it cannot be done by contractors alone, says Mark Wakeford

Wakeford is the joint managing director of Stepnell and deputy chairman of Constructing Excellence Midlands and he believes that collaboration, motivation and targeted legislation are key if the industry is to truly “go green”.

The construction industry meeting ambitious net zero targets is an essential part of ensuring the promises of COP26 are met, but it cannot be done by contractors alone.

If we’re brutally honest, the proclamations made by politicians at COP26 about the construction industry came as a surprise to nobody. From my experience, there is significant recognition across the industry that we’ve got to do something, but a lot of people have been waiting to be told exactly what to do.

‘This is a worldwide issue’

At the heart of it, there are a lot of people within the industry that have the attitude that the problem is so significant that their own business’ impact is so minute that it’s pointless until the bigger emitters make a change.

This is the wrong way of looking at the problem. This is a worldwide issue that is caused by individuals and affects individuals. Countries in themselves do not emit carbon dioxide, but the activities of their populations. Companies do emit carbon dioxide, but only through the actions and decisions taken by their managers. If this is a people problem then it is up to the people to resolve and so let’s start with our own personal carbon footprints and the footprints of our businesses that we can control or influence.

The average UK carbon footprint is 10.6 tonnes per person per year and this must drop to below three tonnes per person per year by 2030.

The average Chinese footprint is ten tonnes per person per year, so we in the UK have a little further to go than the largest CO2 emitter in the world. Looking at this on an individual basis is the only fair and reasonable way to determine priority.

‘Our industry accounts for over 40% of all UK emissions’

There is a huge amount of expertise and ability in our industry and our industry accounts for or influences over 40% of all UK emissions. The construction industry professionals of all hue must get their collective act together to advise and direct clients on the optimum holistic solutions.

My concern is that we will not move fast enough voluntarily, and that Government will legislate for net zero in construction with ill-thought through provisions that will frustrate innovation, and improvements in productivity in favour of marginal gains in carbon emissions.

Government should be legislating for the environment to encourage business and the population to flourish within a low-carbon economy. This may be through mandating a realistic price for carbon or forcing through accounting where the carbon in the economy has to be accounted for, in a similar manner to money.

These two changes will revolutionise carbon management within the economy. If government then leads the industry through procurement of low embodied and operational carbon structures then we will start to gain some real traction within the sector.

The options open to the industry are stark. Bury our collective head or run around without delivering real carbon savings and the Government will legislate to tell us what we must do – whether it is relevant or appropriate.

Our industry loses control and the incentive to provide our customers with the services that they need. Alternatively, pull together, collaborate and deliver real carbon savings ahead of Government aspirations. This option allows us to export our knowledge and to use it to best effect to provide services to a wide range of customers.

The options open to us as professionals are probably even starker. Get involved and aware of the options through training and study, or struggle with employment as these skills and knowledge become critical to a competent customer service. The same will be true for your businesses.

As carbon becomes the differentiator clients will need to hold us accountable for the carbon that their structures contain – embodied carbon – and the carbon that their structures will emit during their life – operational carbon.

Can our industry provide these guarantees and what are the mechanisms to ensure compliance and manage these risks are questions that my own company is starting to grapple with.

There are a great number of things that main contractors can do to look at their own carbon emissions, but it’s client pressure that will make the real difference. As the contractor, the main thing we have control over is the “delivery carbon” – that which is emitted as part of the build process.

It is the designer that has control over the embodied carbon in their chosen materials and the operational carbon in the manner that the building will be used, once the building is up and running. It needs to be a collaborative effort to ensure that we’re all pulling in the right direction.

Having a strategy and roadmap to get to where we need to be is critical – there’s such a large gap from where we are at the moment to where we need to get to, but targets and timescales force individuals into taking accountability.

It adds to the urgency, which is critical because urgent action is what is required and we all have to put timescales on targets if we are going to have any chance of getting them delivered.

2030 target to reach net zero

At Stepnell, we have a 2030 target to reach net zero, so significant impacts will be felt in the next couple of years if we are to achieve it. Some of these changes will be easy wins, but there will also have to be difficult conversations with clients as we try and find alternative solutions for carbon-intensive materials like concrete.

There are plenty of ideas and new technologies coming through, but it’s these sort of areas where contractors like Stepnell need to be looking at to understand the difference between options and benefit to clients.

What is important in all of this however is context and balance, and a realisation that an industry-wide, one size fits all approach isn’t the way forward. We can take modular builds as an example – for many cases, a modular solution will be quicker, competitively priced, have lower carbon content and be of good quality.

However, for care homes – which is a big part of our portfolio at Stepnell – the functionality of a modular build struggles to work as the thermal gains can be too high, so it doesn’t work for them on a practical basis.

Attitude shift needed in the construction industry

This is an attitude shift that is needed in the construction industry – our perspective of carbon, quality, cost and time becomes myopic, but if we don’t listen to our customers on functionality, we aren’t being as collaborative as we can be and results will suffer.

In dealing with our clients, I’m optimistic that the penny is starting to drop with some of the larger ones, which is causing a trickle-down effect to the smaller ones. It also helps that if the bigger clients are measuring their carbon impact then their suppliers are going to have to start measuring it too.

Full carbon accounting

My view is that Government will have to mandate full carbon accounting. There will be a “price” applied to carbon bearing materials, and when the building is handed over, there will be an embodied carbon element applied to it that the owner of the building will have an option to write off over a number of years.

It’s effectively a carbon balance sheet which I think will be brought in as the only way to get to net zero. But that view isn’t yet prevalent in our industry – after all, we collectively contribute towards nearly half of all carbon production. We absolutely need to pull our finger out and work out how we are going to reduce this.”

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