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Reach for the spade…

This article by Andrew Pears first appeared in NFB Newsline

Change never comes easily to the Construction Industry. That is not surprising. The lumbering apparatus we use to make the journey from building vision to building reality is like an engine from the steam age. Heavy, ponderous procedures and complex processes that are slowly fired in to life and once up to pressure thunder down the project railroad with a life and momentum of their own. I have spent my working life amazed by this extraordinary machine, the journeys it makes and the places it reaches.

It is a brave person who takes on the challenge of changing this beast. Well intentioned consultations have tried. They rewrite the operating manual. And there it sits, on the top shelf in the office where we put it two days after the special delivery. We had a curious look once, and then continued with our own tried and tested methods, the reliable products of experience.

Governments have tried. They tell us how many people to have on the footplate, tax the coal, and make us put filters on the smokestack. We mutter some noises of objection, wait until the last possible moment, shrug, adopt the new measures, and return to the old ways as soon as possible. We even occasionally try ourselves. And after a thorough reflection on the extraordinary business risks that constitute conventional construction abandon the struggle all together and head down a new path.

But for those that remain, loyally stoking the boilers of the gargantuan, fundamental change is on the horizon. The new agenda is the environment, and negative impact of building. The world is starting to take seriously the obligation on a thinking society to build for the current generation without threatening the livelihood of future ones; to build sustainabily. And a quick look at our industry leaves no one in doubt that we are a seriously guilty transgressor. To add 273 million tonnes to the built environment requires 420 million tonnes of initial resources. And 13 million tonnes of building products delivered to site each year are sent away unused. This ratio of resource used and final output achieved puts us on par with a supermarket fresh produce counter where one third of fresh produce is thrown away without ever being used.

To continue the train metaphor our steam engine is too polluting, too noisy, and far too resource inefficient to be allowed to continue.  If we do not realise this, others do. And this time they will not rewrite the manual, or alter the fuel specification, but tear up the rails. We can see this as landfill regulations will raise tax to £35 per tonne and require pre-treatment of all waste. Hazardous Waste regulations that apply asbestos style precautions on the disposal of an increasing range of building products, and the stringent demands of the new part L of the building regulations.

So what can we do? The traditional building response is to wait until the stick is so irrevocably posed to strike that we grudgingly and haphazardly make an appropriate effort to just embrace the new agenda. 

But let us take stock. Who actually delivers the new environmental agenda demanded by Government and increasing public opinion? Who builds the new high efficiency power stations, the tidal barriers, the high insulation houses, and the naturally vented offices? Who builds the roads, hospitals, and schools and repairs and maintains the houses and offices that are part of modern life? And who runs an industry that is a major backbone to the countries economy with an output of 8% of GDP and employs 1 in 10 working people? We do. We should be able to take a dynamic lead in influencing opinion and demonstrating to all how a world class industry like ours can meet the sustainability challenge in a sustainable way; that we realise the steam age has had its day for us as well as for the rest of the world; that we can ourselves design and use new lighter and more efficient means to procure and deliver the construction product.

Sustainable construction is not a problem for others; for Europe, or government or clients; it is a challenge and a major opportunity for the construction industry now. In a low margin high risk business it makes no sense to waste as we do, or to build without any concern for future generations. To tackle the sustainability agenda is a unique chance to grasp a key issue in 21st century business before it is forced on us, and take a proactive lead in demonstrating a new and responsible approach to construction. We must not reach for the spade to simply shovel more coal, or dig a hole to put our heads in, but to start the foundations for a new and sustainable industry.

Andrew Pears is Director of Towerlace Ltd and Kotuku, an environmental organization focused on the Construction Industry


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