Sustainable BuildingsConstructionHow to Get Started with Sustainable Construction: Contractors

How to Get Started with Sustainable Construction: Contractors

Karl Dickinson
Karl Dickinson
Change matters. It takes courage. As a writer - and citizen - I am inspired by stories of those who challenge the 'we've always done it this way' attitude. We can do better - it's time to listen to those who go against the grain.

Builders, you provide one of our most basic needs: shelter. As a changing climate calls for more resilient properties, fulfilling this need requires new approaches both to retrofitting and fresh builds. Companies that adapt to green construction early will find their skills in high demand. In this article, we see how building contractors can get started with sustainable construction methods.

Grey energy, embodied carbon, and run-of-the-mill pollutants are all unwanted by-products of conventional approaches to construction. Built environment specialist NBS tells us that as much as “55% of the global industrial carbon emissions come from the manufacture and processing of five key materials: steel (25%), cement (19%), paper (4%), plastic and aluminium (3%)”. That’s the same amount as it takes to power all our homes, businesses, and transport combined.

This gives us plenty of room for improvement. Society looks to the construction industry to get better at controlling the impact of its materials, processes, practices, and operations. There are plenty of ways to make the first move, from planning and collaboration to retraining and simply switching to building with new goods. Let’s get started!

Chatty Gaffers

In our guide for developers, we recommend holistic collaboration involving the spectrum of stakeholders with regular meetings.

As the construction expert, these briefings are your chance to manage expectations. Share your knowledge of construction timelines and advocate for the right renewable and reusable resources. Property owners will have an understanding and ideas of their own but they won’t have the years of experience you do. Your guidance is invaluable.

Living in a Material World

Concrete accounts for 8% of all worldwide carbon emissions – far more than the 2% pumped out by aviation. Janna Laan Lomas told CityChangers that “concrete is not a cyclical material” but it’s not strictly single-use either.

Waste Not, Want Not

Can you find a local supplier that provides recycled building materials?

From grounding it down for remoulding to using old chunks of the stuff as paving slabs, there are ways to recycle concrete. EU project SeRaMCo pioneered research into revitalising construction and demolition waste (CDW). Finer particles can be used in place of clay or limestone; sand and gravel can be recycled for prefabricated concrete. ‘Artificial’ cement from the Vicat cement factory in France contains 5% recycled concrete, ceramic, and brick from fresh and landfilled demolitions, saving quarry excavation.

Build For Life… and Beyond

The outlook of construction professionals doesn’t begin with breaking ground and shouldn’t end with the last brick or tile being set in place. Employ foresight to calculate the operational activities over the building’s lifetime and work backwards to ascertain the best materials for the job.

Janna explained that renewable construction materials produce a significantly lower carbon footprint. Plus, plant-based fibres are carbon negative – they absorb CO2. It’s not even a compromise in quality: by converting to natural materials, we can achieve much the same strength, longevity, energy efficiency, temperature balance, comfort, air quality, noise insulation, and aesthetic as with classic products. Our fact files outline the major characteristics of some of the most common options to help you and your client choose:

Sourcing Materials is a BREeze

BRE Global Ltd. – the people behind BREEAM, the Environmental Assessment Method – published a few useful resources that could be of use for getting your hands on the right materials:

  • Green Guide to Specification – explores the environmental impacts of the typical construction materials used in various types of buildings (residential, healthcare, offices, etc).
  • GreenBookLive – a handy database for searching for suppliers of approved sustainable materials.
  • Innovation Parks – get hands-on! Visit one of BRE’s demonstration sites to experience multiple sustainable building practices first-hand at full-scale. Currently operating in Brazil, Canada, China, and the UK.

Evaluate and Avoid Risks

You and whoever you’re building for likely want reassurances that the materials you’re using have little damaging environmental impact. It’s common to hear companies that have already made the step towards sustainable building that environmental standard measurements like LEED are at the core of getting it right.

“Use an environmental management plan and schedule environmental risk assessments to ensure all materials are compliant”, says Czech material suppliers JUTA.

Restricted Movement

With construction traffic contributing so much congestion and pollution to our city streets, any opportunity to intervene should be welcome. Research has found construction consolidation centers to drastically reduce the number of trips, travel times, and distances of deliveries taken by lorries. Make use of them. If they’re not yet present, team up with fellow builders to call for their introduction.

Electric vehicles shipping goods out from CCCs would maximise their impact. Sourcing goods as locally as possible would take it a step further. Read more on the topic in our article about Sweden’s largest CCC, the Bygglogistikcenter.

Contractors unable to replace their own fleets could look to alternative fuels instead. Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (also called ‘renewable diesel fuel’ or ‘green diesel’) is, predictably, regular veg oil treated with hydrogen. It can be used in regular diesel engines without mechanical alteration and reduces CO2 emissions by up to 90%. Could it also be used in your diesel-powered generators on building sites?

A Bit on the Site

Sourcing materials responsibly will take a big chunk out of your carbon footprint. Services like Constructionline easily link you to approved suppliers, creating a more reliable, cost-effective supply chain.

The website also offers some helpful advice to make worksites more eco-friendly:

  • Only deal with suppliers who hold an environmental policy (and show evidence they stick to it).
  • Consider the temporary arrangements while building work is carried out. Do you have a portable office on site? Does the family who you’re building for live nearby in a caravan? Just as with the property we’re erecting, ensure these units are airtight, insulated, and use low-energy appliances.
  • Before dumping waste or leftover material in a landfill, ask around: maybe another project can make use of it.
  • Set yourself sustainability targets. Measure and report on them accurately. Publish findings regularly. Green-minded customers appreciate transparency. Genuine efforts falling short of targets is still more attractive than not making any effort – if you make efforts to improve.

Building sites can go a step further to offset their emissions by powering tools and security lights with renewables – even generating energy with solar panel-topped vans and portacabins.

Sustainable Scaffold

Why not try bamboo scaffolding? It is lightweight, quick to assemble, and some argue stronger than steel.

It’s very much region-dependent: bamboo is not suited to dry and cold climates and transporting it far from where it grows is counterproductive. Where supply is local and humidity is at least 40%, it is a viable option.

We may need a change in legislation (and mindset) to allow the widespread use of bamboo as scaffolding, but as this Code of Practice for Bamboo Scaffolding Safety from Hong Kong’s Labour Department shows, it’s a valid, reputable option.

For small builds, you could also make your own scaffold from repurposed wood.

Bamboo scaffold -
Image credit: Unsplash / Jordan Merrick

Training for Change

The shift away from conventional building techniques is underway. It’s a little too late to be ahead of the green construction revolution but there’s still plenty of room for growth. If contractors don’t want to get left behind, we need to be in the know. Don’t fear the change – train for it.

There’s plenty of accredited courses out there. Don’t just think bricks and mortar. Data is big business. A survey by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) found that two-thirds of respondents credit rating systems like LEED as instrumental in building better-performing buildings, and more than half “believe that rating systems provide third-party verification that ensures buildings are running in a sustainable manner”.

“Nationally recognised quality assured standards provide a consistent and common framework against which the sustainability of most types of new buildings can be assessed.”

Planning Policy Wales, Welsh Assembly Government

With many countries enforcing minimum efficiency standards on new and renovated properties, qualifications in assessing and certifying electricity use, water conservation, and ethical power generation will lead our charge against climate change.

As an employer, invest in your workforce. Training costs may be large upfront outgoings but will pay dividends. Property evaluation will only become more stringent, and the more in-house expertise you have, the:

  • Less hassle landowners will have in sourcing the right workers for the job as your team can provide the range.
  • Easier it will be for you to schedule assessments, not having to rely on external agents.
  • More efficient planning the build will be, as you share one working culture and take existing, cooperative working relationships to each new project.

Some training providers claim to have learners job-ready within 8 months.

Take on apprentices fresh from construction college. Sustainability will run through the veins of this new generation of builders, and they can teach older, qualified peers a thing or two. Starting early in their career is precisely the idea of Greenwich Council: they offer Building Green Skills Youth Training Camp, workshops that “will springboard young people aged 18 to 29 into the sustainable construction jobs of the future”. Make use of these opportunities.


You are the voice of your industry. On a daily basis, you encounter what works and what doesn’t. Don’t stay silent and face the same struggles over and over. Sustainable construction is still relatively new; you have a chance to shape it.

Contact your professional bodies, unions, supply chains. Invite politicians and the press to building sites. Share stories. Draw attention. Make a case for decision-makers and policy-writers for including natural materials in building codes and funding for training in budgets.

How Builders Can Get Started with Sustainable Construction in a Nutshell

Let’s borrow a helpful summary from BOSS Magazine:

“Construction managers can position their companies as allies to sustainable initiatives by practicing energy-efficient techniques and creating resource-conscious facilities. Retrofitting old buildings and signing contracts with eco-friendly suppliers are lucrative ways to start small.”

Diligent material sourcing, waste planning and management, and dealing solely with responsible supply chains are the essential starting points. Green collar workers will be the heroes of turning our carbon-heavy properties into clean and comfortable stock, so invest in the workforce of the future early on. And use data to your advantage. But like any good building, start with the foundations first: before doing anything else, get informed.

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