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HomeExternal EnvironmentCorporate ResponsibilitySustainable development in the construction industry

Sustainable development in the construction industry

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The immense pressure on the world’s environment means that measures must be taken today to safeguard natural resources for tomorrow. This is the challenge the construction industry faces. Research by international environmental organisations like the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) suggest that humans are using natural resources at a rate of 25 – 50% greater than the planet can replenish them. People in industrialised countries like the UK consume more natural resources than the global average and the WWF suggests that we should cut our consumption by two thirds. However, cutting down our use of natural resources does not mean we need lower our standard of living, we just need to use natural resources more wisely. For example, increasing energy efficiency, reducing waste and recycling. Cutting down on the use of natural resources whilst maintaining or increasing our standard of living is the real challenge of sustainable development.

Davis Langdon & Everest and Gardiner & Theobald are two of the world’s leading Quantity Surveying practices. The role of the Quantity Surveyor in construction includes:

  • influencing key decisions relating to time, cost and quality
  • managing finances and contracts
  • managing the design, procurement and construction process.

The Quantity Surveyor is a key advisor at all stages of the property life-cycle for which there are many factors that influence it. This study will focus on just one, the issue of sustainable development – ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations to meet their own future needs’.

Balancing stakeholder aspirations

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Stakeholders are individuals or groups with a direct interest in an organisation’s performance. The Quantity Surveyor must take into account the shared expectations of all stake groups.

Today’s concern for the environment has a high public profile as public opinion, pressure groups and government legislation and regulation continue to grow. This poses a threat to organisations that do not see the opportunities and problems that may overtake them. As stakeholders in our environment, we must recognise that not only is the quality of the environment in which we live at stake, but also the future and
continued existence of mankind.

Our common future

Buildings are created with the aim of providing better environments for people to live, socialise and work in. Buildings, streets, neighbourhoods and districts make up the urban environment and should be functional as well as enhance our social well-being. Clearly, there is a limit to the availability of land and natural resources. Apart from the need to conserve other scarce and finite resources such as oil, coal and gas, the consumption of these resources is in itself damaging.

The World Commission on Environment Development published a report, Our Common Future, in 1987. By the end of 1988, this report had received public support from over 50 nations including the UK As a result The Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The summit adopted what has been termed Agenda 21, which is a comprehensive action plan for the pursuit of sustainable development into the next century. Agenda 21 called on national governments to set strategies for achieving sustainable development, which are often implemented at a local level. Achieving national targets for sustainability means acting locally to have an impact globally.

Social responsibility

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The responsibility of organisations towards the environment is now a major issue, both on a global and local basis. In 1997 the UK and other industrial countries signed a treaty in Kyoto, Japan committing themselves to reduce the effects of greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels. On a more local level, the UK government has responded by introducing a series of initiatives. A Report carried out by Lord Richard Rogers on behalf of the government, tackles the problems of urban regeneration, by recommending that 60% of new housing should be built on land which has previously been developed. These sites are known as brownfield sites. According to this Report developments should:

  • integrate with their surroundings
  • optimise access to public transport
  • use land efficiently and respect local traditions.

The costs of growth

Macroeconomics is a term that describes the study of the whole economy and the way it interacts. A key macroeconomic objective is to make the most effective use of resources in order to encourage growth. However, a growing economy is one that consumes more and growth comes with associated costs, such as depletion of the ozone layer, an increase in CFCs and the rapid consumption of finite resources.

The construction industry is a major sector of the UK’s national economy and accounts for 7.5% of Gross Domestic Product. GDP is the sum total of a country’s output over the course of a year. In 1998, the construction industry’s output was £62 billion. As an industry it employs in excess of 1.4 million people.

Sustainable construction

The construction industry needs to meet the challenge of contributing to economic growth by continuing to provide new homes, offices and shops whilst improving the quality of both the towns and the countryside. Sustainable means lasting and enduring, therefore, sustainable development is economic development that lasts. In construction, sustainability is of great importance because:

  • 50% of material resources taken from nature are construction related
  • Over 50% of national waste production comes from the construction sector
  • 40% of the energy consumption in Europe is construction related.

Quantity Surveyors can encourage the construction industry to use more recycled materials from buildings which are being demolished, such as steel beams and crushing old brick and concrete for use in new concrete. In many cases this can save money as well as reducing environmental costs.

The response of the construction industry

As a result of becoming more aware of the sustainable agenda the construction industry has developed a code of practice, which has been adopted by all those involved in the property life-cycle. Criteria within the code of practice state that the construction industry should not:

  • cause unnecessary damage to the natural environment or consume a disproportionate amount of energy during construction, use or disposal
  • use materials from threatened species or environments
  • endanger the health of occupants or any other parties.

However, the construction industry, in commissioning, constructing or operating should:

  • enhance living, working and leisure environments
  • consume minimum energy over their life-cycle
  • generate minimum waste over their life-cycle
  • use renewable resources wherever possible.
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Rather than increasing the complexity of the built environment to achieve the above criteria, greater initial care and planning, more attention to the environmental impact of material and energy supplies and a more focussed approach to the genuine needs of organisations and users are what Quantity Surveyors must focus upon. Buildings today cannot simply be constructed in isolation, but thought must be given to the wider environment and work in collaboration with the transport infrastructure and the local community. It is not simply desirable, but essential to reduce the environmental impact of emissions that result from either constructing or occupying buildings. However, some of the available solutions, such as solar energy systems are still very expensive and as yet, are not widely used in buildings. What is needed is to find a balance between environmental saving and capital cost. This is called the environmental equation. The challenge to the property industry, owners and users is to produce buildings that are usable and flexible, require less energy to construct and consume less energy in their daily use.

The role of the quantity surveyor in sustainable construction

The Ten Commandments

In order to balance the economic equation of sustainability and affordability at a practical level, the Quantity Surveyor can follow what has been called The Ten Commandments for sustainability in design and construction. They are:

  1. Re-use existing buildings: Re-using existing buildings reduces costs and is quicker.
  2. Design For minimum waste: Make designs simple and with re-use in mind.
  3. Aim for lean construction: Avoid over specification and use pre-assembly and repetitive components wherever possible.
  4. Minimise energy in construction: Use minimum quantities and avoid energy intensive materials like aluminium and cement.
  5. Minimise energy in use: Make the best use of the natural environment. For example, open and close windows, rather than use air conditioning.
  6. Don’t pollute: Dispose of waste and discharges sensibly. Make efficient use of the existing transport infrastructure.
  7. Preserve and enhance biodiversity: Protect the natural habitat.
  8. Conserve water resources: Recycle rain and wastewater.
  9. Respect people: Build community relations and provide public information. Look after staff with regard to Health and Safety.
  10. Set targets: Targets should be set for the reduction of energy used, embodied energy, transport and waste. Setting targets is also a way of measuring achievements.

Working to these commandments goes a long way toward achieving sustainability in construction, but requires commitment from everyone involved. Even small savings in each area of the ten commandments can result in huge energy savings. For example, a 15% increase in initial building costs can result in a 5% per year saving in running costs. Most businesses in all market sectors now have an environmental policy and hence a part to play. A company that builds for its own occupation will consider higher expenditure at the outset for lower energy bills tomorrow. Occupiers are beginning to influence the initial specification of buildings by setting briefs that reflect the goal of sustainable development.

The role of the Quantity surveyor in sustainable construction

The Quantity Surveyor is integral to the property life-cycle and can influence other sectors of the property industry. However, all sectors of the industry need to be committed to the concept of sustainable development if it is to be implemented successfully. The property industry as a whole needs to:

  • increase awareness of social responsibility
  • increase awareness of sustainable construction
  • gain greater levels of commitment to The Ten Commandments
  • continue to develop technology that can make currently expensive sustainable methods more economically viable in the future
  • be prepared to pay more now for less later
  • aim for every development to be constructed using measured sustainable methods.

A key element in this process is matching the procurement of materials to the objectives of stakeholders such as occupiers who are concerned about the sustainability of the components that make up their property. Supported by stakeholders, the Quantity Surveyor is very influential at all stages of the property cycle throughout the property supply chain.


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Sustainable construction is about much more than the fabric of the built environment. Buildings and the social, commercial and transport infrastructures around them must be constructed in ways that are sustainable in environmental and economic terms. They must also be sustainable in social terms and add value to the quality of life for the individual and the community, as well as sustainable in their own economic terms.

All sectors of the property life-cycle can make a contribution to achieving progress in all strands of sustainable development. There are many issues and challenges posed for all of those involved. The areas touched are many and include financial and regulatory measures, education and training, research and local action.
The Quantity Surveyor’s role is fundamental. Above all, buildings must be affordable and constructed at an economic cost which people are prepared to pay. Sustainable development is absolutely vital, but must be balanced against longer-term economic issues. These are the challenges faced by the Quantity Surveyor today in constructing our common future.

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