How do we build responsibly?

By Professor Saul Humphrey

The Construction sector is a huge part of the UK economy. It directly accounts for about 6% of GDP and about 10% of all employment, but the indirect, supply-chain impact is even greater.

Published in Norfolk Director Magazine Summer | Autumn 2023

Main photo shows Norwich Energy Innovation Park which is setting out to achieve BREEAM Outstanding.

Construction Feature: Professor Saul Humphrey

More importantly, the construction sector delivers the critical infrastructure that society requires. From schools and roads to hospitals and houses, from renewable energy projects to flood protection, the construction industry creates the places in which we learn, work and play.

But the sector has challenges

It is often criticised for not being innovative, as well as for a high rate of business failure and historically it has failed to attract sufficient new applicants to keep up with demand. Anecdotally, it is said that construction workers are leaving at twice the rate than they are joining. A genuine skills crisis is on the horizon – and that is before things get busy….!

Historically, profit margins are too low, and risks are too high. Record inflation and high borrowing costs make this even worse. Housing developers complain about delayed planning applications and red tape, whilst their schemes are threatened by higher material costs and the threat of falling sales. This shifts the dial on the question of commercial viability and threatens the delivery of affordable homes many communities require. Insolvencies are too common and business confidence is lacking. The business outlook is uncertain, and legislation is changing.

Tighter scrutiny and targets

Following the Carillion debacle and then the tragic Grenfell fire, the sector is quite rightly facing tighter regulatory scrutiny and challenge.

Equally, awareness of the construction sector’s impact on the environment is growing. Carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, ecological damage, excess material extraction, water scarcity, pollution and nutrient neutrality are all blamed on the sector. This has rightly resulted in further legislative change and a profound shift towards more responsible, more sustainable solutions.

Looking forward, we know the UK Government has committed to achieving ‘net zero’ and the construction sector is at the heart of this commitment.

Globally, we have to substantially reduce our Green House Gas emissions forthwith. It is often reported that 40% of all GHGs originate from the built environment itself. Heating and cooling our buildings currently require too much fossil fuel. This operational carbon is added to by building material impacts from the embodied carbon in the products used to construct our buildings.

So what’s the answer to carbon reduction?

The operational carbon can be reduced by better insulated buildings (new and existing) with solar/PV and heat pumps running off renewable energy rather than gas boilers. Embodied carbon can be reduced with the careful selection of products, perhaps preferring timber, hemp and natural products over concrete, steel and glass. In terms of CO2, it is said that if cement were a country, it would be the third biggest emitter in the world and if steel was a country it would be fifth…

In terms of environmental impact, the built environment is currently a big cause of some of the problems…but it can and must also be at the heart of the solution.

Constructing new buildings more sustainably is essential and there are many reasons to do this beyond having an environmental conscience. Greener buildings attract premium values, they are cheaper to run and are in great demand.

Road Maps to Net Zero, ESG commitments and Sustainability Reports are now ubiquitous, but it is a profound change in actual design and delivery that is now required.

Developing responsibility

‘Greener’ buildings – new and old – are imperative. Developing responsibly to protect or enhance landscapes, preserve water, avoid flooding and enhancing biodiversity is the ambition, creating more sustainable places that do not demand excess heating, cooling or any fossil fuels.

The sector will be actively involved in the roll-out of renewable energy solutions. Sizewell C will require approximately 10,000 workers on site. The wind farms proposed off the coast of East Anglia require significant onshore infrastructure investment, but apart from these additional commitments, the sector must also continue to build the schools, hospitals and homes (and care homes) our growing (and ageing) population requires.

Making what we have more efficient

Additionally, and as a priority, we must also retrofit the existing homes and buildings that remain.

By 2050, it is estimated that 80% of the homes and building that exist today will still be present. Refurbishing and retrofitting these buildings to improve their energy performance is crucial if we are to have any hope of keeping to the Paris Commitment of Net Zero by 2050.

Advances in AI and Digital promise further benefits in terms of efficiency, sustainability and standards, but we have already seen business failures as a result of promised advances in Modular Homes and Modern Methods of Construction. There are no doubt future efficiencies in automation, design for manufacturing and assembly, and the optimisation of pre-manufactured value, but the rush to standardisation must be balanced and cautious.

Down to construction to deliver

It is the construction and civil engineering sector that can deliver the renewable energy capital projects and infrastructure that society requires. It is the construction sector that can build the affordable and sustainable homes we need, the schools and universities to teach the next generation and the infrastructure to provide the access and resilience to which we aspire.

The chance to build a better future is something that can inspire the next generation of construction professionals. Whether they be environmentally aware or digitally astute; talented tradespeople or great managers and leaders: Construction provides a rewarding and inclusive career for all. It is this next generation that will build the sustainable, modern, and resilient solutions that tomorrow’s society requires.

This article is brought to you in association with…

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Saul Humphrey is founder of Saul D Humphrey LLP. He is Professor of Sustainable Construction at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge and a Governor of East Coast College. He is also Chair of the IoD Norfolk branch, Non-Executive Director of Equinox and Chair of Building Growth, New Anglia LEP.

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