Better design and material reuse can mitigate supply chain risks

Mat Lown is head of ESG and sustainability at TFT Consultants

Among the biggest issues currently facing the UK construction industry are the risks associated with global supply chains.

We are all aware of the contributing factors and the impact they can have on construction projects. In particular, rising development costs and potentially compromised sustainability credentials may result from international economic, political and environmental uncertainties.

Less discussed are the collaborative and measured approaches to material procurement that can mitigate those risks.

The carbon and financial costs of extraction, shipping and storage can be managed through more-resourceful approaches. Sustainable outcomes – that are also commercially viable – can be achieved by considered design and through the reuse of materials, creating a realistic ‘whole life’ approach to building products.

Measures that help to mitigate procurement risks with reuse include:

1. Encouraging greater collaboration between project teams

This extends to the procurement of materials and the reuse of materials across other projects, wherever possible. It can be achieved by adopting a holistic approach to programme management.

“Buildings can accumulate significant value over time, as the repeatable use of materials becomes better understood”

An example is Grosvenor’s Holbein Gardens, a redevelopment and one-storey extension of a 1980s office building off Sloane Square in London. It is one of the first projects in the UK to reuse steel salvaged directly from a demolition site, reducing embodied carbon and contributing to the growth of the second-hand materials market in our industry.

A number of forward-thinking demolition companies are also participating in this market, taking the lead in facilitating the reuse of materials that might have previously gone to landfill.

In addition, the growing emphasis on addressing the environmental, social and governance agenda means that consultants and contractors are working together more than ever before to agree long-term contracts for the maintenance, upgrade and reuse of products during their lifespan, including lighting, raised flooring and biophilic design elements. This has been a growing component of our own M&E team’s work in recent years.

2. Investing in a future supply chain

Leading developers and owners are taking a financial stake in key materials and suppliers to allow closer control over future supply chain issues. It means they can oversee production as well as the installation of materials.

Legal & General’s investment in modular-homes production is one example. The company now operates a dedicated 550,000-square-foot factory near Leeds, which can produce up to 3,500 properties per year. It demonstrates how businesses in our sector can take inspiration from other industries – such as aviation and automotive manufacturing – to supply much-needed homes in more efficient and sustainable ways.

3. Reducing risk by insisting on tighter standards

Project teams must be more prescriptive and accurate about specifying quantities of materials for any given project. This begins with the effective collection and maintenance of building data. The goal is to own a useful asset register that encompasses an audit of materials across portfolios with details of their state and potential for reuse.

Our industry is paying increasing attention to the concept of ‘materials passports’, which enable us to understand more fully the properties of given materials. Building Information Modelling is the obvious channel for managing this, by creating a single source of data for all aspects of a project and thereby providing a more accurate means of specifying materials through a building’s life. Initially, the model supports accurate specification and installation, then it informs future building-maintenance work and subsequently the reuse opportunities for building materials or products in future schemes.

However, as with many technologies, such models can only succeed if a project team sets it up correctly from the outset and an occupier or owner team maintains it over time.

These approaches each require varying levels of commitment. But for those willing to adopt them, commercial benefits will follow.

Materials are fast becoming an ‘alternative’ commodity in the development process, adding to the commercial real estate equation of matching building value against investments. In the longer term, the opportunity to implement and support a tightly run supply chain and a well-organised data-capture model is proving how the ‘fabric’ of buildings can accumulate significant value over time, as the repeatable use of materials becomes better understood and planned for. Such measures, if implemented in a responsible and joined-up way, will serve to lessen supply chain pressures and offer alternative solutions to meeting demand for materials, helping to build resilience against future crises.

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