Supply chain communication is key to carbon action

Early collaboration among construction-sector partners would give clients, contractors and suppliers a better chance of decarbonising their operations, a recent roundtable discussion heard. But while innovative technology can play an important part in meeting net-zero targets, getting better at the basics is crucial, too. Mike Walter reports

On the panel

Landsec head of development management Ross Sayers
HS2 head of environmental sciences Neil Wait
Altro supply chain consultant Elaine Reynolds
Quintain head of sustainability Clare Masters
BAM head of procurement Daniel Billinge
Cemex UK technical manager Richard Kershaw
Department for Education head of energy, environment and engineering Hershil Patel
National Highways outcomes director for the Lower Thames Crossing project, Andrew Kidd
Ebbsfleet Development Corporation director of projects Julia Gregory
BAM head of supply chain and systems for the UK and Ireland, Steve Hayward
Chair: Mike Walter, Barrett Byrd Associates

When faced with the mammoth challenge of decarbonising the construction industry, views may differ as to the best ways to make significant progress. But one thing has become clear: there is no going it alone.

“If we come together and work as a group, we are stronger,” stated Ross Sayers, head of development management at developer Landsec, during a roundtable discussion on the subject. “We have massive challenges in front of us, and we are much better facing those challenges as a collective rather than trying to think any one of us has some bit of intellectual property that might give us a competitive advantage.”

In tackling carbon emissions in construction, the sharing of best practice is critical, he said at the event hosted by Construction News and sponsored by BAM. And everyone in the industry must “work together, otherwise we are beaten”.

“Nine times out of 10, we get great products specified, but by the time it gets to site, there are cost overruns and products get taken out. Cost is the biggest barrier”

Elaine Reynolds, Altro

HS2 head of environmental sciences Neil Wait concurred. New ways of cutting carbon are often led by the supply chain, he said, and his employer is “working closely with other arm’s-length bodies”, such as National Highways and East West Rail, to bring innovative ideas to the fore.

“We all have the same ambitions and big challenges around materials such as concrete and steel,” Wait commented. By working together with other clients instead of in isolation, carbon-reduction strategies can be developed much more effectively for everyone, he added.

Early collaboration on decarbonisation is sought by suppliers, too. “Get us in at the really early design stage and see what innovative products we can give you,” urged flooring manufacturer and wall-cladding supplier Altro’s supply chain consultant, Elaine Reynolds. “We love to work with people to show what carbon benefits we can bring.”

Developer Quintain’s head of sustainability, Clare Masters, welcomed greater dialogue through the supply chain. Her top request regarding new products or approaches that promise to reduce carbon was to “give us options and be upfront about [potential] costs and logistical challenges”.

Clients might not be able to specify a particular innovation on one scheme, but when hearing of an idea, may decide to do so in future, she added.

BAM head of procurement Daniel Billinge spoke of the benefits of “repeatability and consistency” in the build process, which helps to reduce carbon consumption. “The next step is [to employ] a ‘kit of parts’ using standardised panel sizes in the built environment,” he added.

Billinge gave an example of a recent scheme in Glasgow where a 3D-printed concrete staircase was installed for a pedestrian and cycle bridge over a motorway, helping to reduce waste by 40 per cent compared with traditional construction methods, and improving carbon efficiency.

Better communication

Allied to greater collaboration is the need to communicate carbon-reduction strategies more effectively, Masters said: “We need to be better at telling these stories and sharing great examples, because otherwise people – and those they work with – will be operating in their own little bubble.”

But while successful strategies for cutting carbon often involve new ideas, it is important to recognise that lower-carbon materials are already available today, said Cemex UK technical manager Richard Kershaw. “It is not all about innovations, but encouraging what we can do now more quickly,” he said.

The focus, he noted, is too often “on the niche and novel, rather than different methods of construction” that could show demonstrable carbon-reduction benefits, such as making concrete slabs thinner. Kershaw also pointed out that cement production produces about 40 per cent less carbon today than it did 30 years ago.

According to Wait, “Your biggest carbon saving is through your detailed design.” Decarbonisation is not just about new materials, but also “lean design, reducing waste, efficient use of materials and the fuel you use on site”.

The Department for Education’s head of energy, environment and engineering, Hershil Patel, told the other roundtable participants that there is more to carbon innovation than technical newness. He said that “about 80 per cent of technology to decarbonise already exists”. As such, Patel called for the construction industry to use contractual and project-management channels to achieve its aims.

He added that he was pleased with how supply chains in the education sector had made “huge progress” towards zero carbon, but warned: “A fear I have is carbon taking over some of the rational decision-making when we build our buildings, in terms of health and wellbeing. I could build as low-carbon a building as you wanted tomorrow, but everything would be switched off and you wouldn’t want to be there.”

The discussion also heard that ambitions to decarbonise are not always reflected in what is getting built – and that technology to clean up construction is available, but is not always adopted at scale. In general, it was also said, there is a need to change professionals’ mindsets and behaviours.

National Highways’ outcomes director for the Lower Thames Crossing project, Andrew Kidd, said the construction industry “needs to catch up with the curve and get ahead of it” on decarbonisation, and should not put off efforts to reduce carbon for decades, but instead tackle it in the near term.

The simplest thing that anybody could do to push on with the agenda, Kidd added, would be to adopt “a change of attitude and switch from [asking] ‘why?’ to ‘why not?’”.

Drawing a parallel with safety, he continued: “If you found a safer way of building something, you would probably just do it – or you would tell your client you would do it and you would charge them to do it, and they wouldn’t say no.”

Industry can help clients

Ebbsfleet Development Corporation director of projects Julia Gregory said, as a client, she keeps abreast of the latest advances in the construction sector towards decarbonisation. But she pointed out that, “with the best will in the world, I cannot be in every space and know exactly what materials are coming forward. I think that is where the industry can help clients.”

Gregory added that some clients may not have the in-house expertise to know which products are right from a reduced-carbon perspective. What would be useful, she suggested, would be if more architects and designers explained the options to clients.

“We need to continue to push forward – there is more of a collaborative feel now”

Daniel Billinge, BAM

Gregory said creating more energy-efficient buildings in use was a key factor in driving the carbon reduction agenda: “Unless you make buildings energy-efficient now, many business cases won’t stack up. A key thing we look at is the standard that building is built to and the future energy costs.”

BAM’s head of supply chain and systems for the UK and Ireland, Steve Hayward, said it might be difficult to introduce carbon-efficient processes if they are not as cost-effective or do not accelerate a programme as much as conventional approaches.

One strategy to promote carbon efficiency is to outline the costs and savings of sustainable actions in tenders, he explained: “That allows clients to make decisions around what they want to see, rather than it being about the bottom line.”

Hayward added that while some clients previously have wanted “to be smarter, better, faster and more carbon-orientated, [when] we gave them options, they were not accepted, as someone else made a decision”.

Altro’s Reynolds added: “Nine times out of 10, we get great products specified, but by the time it gets to site, there are cost overruns and products get taken out. Cost is the biggest barrier.”

She spoke up for a service that collects and recycles unwanted vinyl flooring, which could help building projects to reduce waste. But Reynolds said “not many people are using the scheme, so we need to understand why and work more with supply chains” to see whether they could support it by adding a requirement in tenders for unwanted flooring to be recycled.

Carrots or sticks?

The roundtable discussion moved on to whether the construction sector should employ more ‘carrots’ or ‘sticks’ to encourage decarbonisation efforts. “To have lasting change, it has to be the carrot,” remarked Sayers. “People have to want it rather than be told they need it.”

HS2’s Wait said both could be used, but added that there “needs to be an element of ‘stick’ through procurement, otherwise there is never going to be that fundamental shift”; carbon-efficient products risked being viewed as “a premium novelty”.

Participants were asked whether the government should do more to push the decarbonisation agenda, but several pointed out that the drive must come from the construction sector.

“It is easy to pass the buck and say this is up to the government to make things happen, but there needs to be behavioural choice at ground level,” said Hayward. He described “the Attenborough effect”, in recognition of naturalist Sir David Attenborough’s attempts to encourage people to make small changes, stating: “People believe in something they are passionate about.”

Sayers agreed and said change was more likely to be driven by big corporate firms rather than government. But he also urged cross-party political support for the carbon-cutting agenda.

Such support was also encouraged by Kershaw, who added that for commercial organisations to develop products, there has to be a market need.

Key takeaways

To sum up, participants were asked where the construction sector’s focus should now lie.

“It is about collaboration, utilising expertise in the supply chain and trying to be transparent,” said BAM’s Billinge. “We need to continue to push forward, but we [the sector] have improved; there is more of a collaborative feel now, from clients to product manufacturers.”

And Andrew Kidd of National Highways summed up the mood of enthusiasm to make powerful change through a collective effort: “Decarbonisation of construction really is going to happen; you really want to be on that journey, not lagging behind.”

Sponsored by BAM

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