Sustainable BuildingsConstructionHow to Get Started with Sustainable Construction: Developers

How to Get Started with Sustainable Construction: Developers

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.

As professionals linking multiple agents in the construction chain, developers are essential drivers of sustainability. Working practices are well-established, so there may be some reluctance to change. But from kudos to profit, benefits are plentiful. In this guide, we share some starting points for property developers who want to (or feel they should) make the move and get started with sustainable construction in their portfolio.

Stage 1: What’s the Plan?

Forward-thinking is central to a developer’s sustainability: from where we get the raw materials, to how we work together to use them most efficiently, and what we do with them when we’ve finished. We need a robust plan.

The Problem: No Time to Waste

One hundred million tonnes, 25% of all of building material used in construction, goes to waste each year. Destroying buildings and clearing and disposing of the detritus is expensive and comes at a huge environmental cost in the form of demolition embodied energy.

We’re fast running out of space to accommodate the waste. Lack of recycling facilities for this ‘junk’ hampers sustainable efforts. Unlike the household rubbish burned for bioenergy, construction scrap still goes to landfill in droves. Developers and contractors have a responsibility to reduce how much we’re chucking away or find somewhere for it to go that does degenerate the biosphere.

The Solution: The Cycle of Life

Reclaimed building materials will prove increasingly important as demand continues to outstrip supply for traditional single-use ones.

What does this tell us? That the end of a building’s life cycle should be part of its beginning. Developers need to consider at the conception stage what happens when their building’s intended purpose is complete:

  • Can it be reused for a different activity or repurposed for multifunctional use?
  • Is the location suitable? The UK’s National Planning Policy Framework (2021 edition) says building on green belt land should be avoided unless it is to reuse existing buildings for an indefinite period or provide affordable housing.
  • How can we minimise the need for renovation or retrofitting at a later date?
  • What movable assets, like temporary walls, can be used so that changes can quickly and easily be implemented?
  • If it needs to be disassembled, how can we limit the waste this creates? E.g., using materials in a new project.

Answers to questions like these will be your basis for a roadmap for cyclical use of build stock and construction resources, greatly reducing carbon emissions and costs in the demolition sector. Many give your project improved longevity and real estate value.

By way of illustrating the sustainable asset of mixed and repurposed construction, we can look at Mexico City’s Vía Vallejo. This multi-use property was planned and built for this from the offset. It contains a hotel, shops, businesses, living spaces, and health services. Benefits of such a concept include:

  • A wider choice of housing options.
  • Access to a range of amenities, jobs, and goods all within the space of a single city block.
  • Neighbourhood identity and pride.
  • Greater integration of public transport, reducing car dependency.
  • Round the clock lifestyles, facilities, and services – essential and leisure pursuits.

This kind of vibrancy doesn’t come from just throwing up any old building without forethought.

Crystal Ball of Policy

Policies that govern building practices will continue to react to changing climactic circumstances. Speaking to PCB Today, Joseph Michael Daniels, founder of modular home developer Etopia Group, recognises the role that emerging technologies have in “futureproofing against evolving policy”. The same applies to construction.

We should mitigate potential regulatory challenges that could arise by building to meet future, not only current, pressures. Developers have a responsibility to shield the eventual occupants of their properties from any elemental battering and prevent them from inheriting punitive repercussions that come from lax foresight and poor compliance. If we don’t factor this in at the planning stage, we damage profitability, and what kind of developer would that make us?

Drill Down on Data

Details are important. We learn a lot from data. And it will fundamentally change how we do things.

The Harvard Business Review looked at the green standards of Citigroup’s largest built assets. With this as a reference point, they believe it will soon be normal for “financial institutions and investors” to change priorities in “determining real estate values”. In future, they will turn to “new valuation methodologies to quantify important green building factors like productivity and long-term life cycle costs”.

So, even if your build won’t contain smart features, data can help maximise sustainability during the construction phase. The 3D visualization of Building Information Modelling (BIM)  allows all stakeholders working on a project to access the same data. This allows developers to envisage the entire lifecycle of a building, plan-in solutions before problems even occur, and prevent operational clashes between building components. More than 500 serious issues were rectified in the design of the US Department of Energy this way.

Dr. Elham Delzendeh, Senior Lecturer in Digital Built Environment at Birmingham City University, explains that BIM enhances collaboration, prevents runaway costs, and reduces construction times. Sounds like a developer’s best friend!

However, a report from Roland Berger[1] identified a need for “more skilled

personnel who can work effectively with the models”. For anyone new to BIM, you may be interested in the CIOB Academy’s BIM Foundation and Management courses.

Stage 2: Ethical Partnerships

As a developer, you’re making an investment. The Financial Times reported on the IMF’s claims that investors will increasingly be expected to “properly understand how their money is used” and prevented “from making misleading claims concerning their environmental credentials”.

Organisations have been known to highlight their pro-environmental activities whilst failing to declare the polluting, destructive forces of their supply chains. Avoid the backlash of ‘greenwashing’ by choosing appropriate playmates. Do your research. Check websites for sustainability pledges. Ask questions.

There is precedence for choosing a construction team with a solid background in corporate social responsibility. For investors and the community, a team with a social conscience is attractive. For you, this translates as financial backing and profitability.

Stage 3: Construction Strategy

A paper by Alias, Mohd Isa, and Abdul-Samad states: “Planning is the most important process conducted in managing the whole life of the projects.” Using sustainable building projects in Malaysia as a reference point, they identified a few important strategies:


Bring in all relevant parties, including client and construction teams, to set goals and priorities early in the project planning stage. This “establishes the framework in which all future project decisions are made”.

Collectively define the approach to “project execution”. Agile standup meetings where each team gets to update everyone else keep everyone abreast of developments and delays, aiding quick problem-solving.

Knowledge-sharing ensures all elements integrate for an efficient building ecosystem and that no one veers off the plan… in our case, by reverting to traditional, unsustainable practices.

Integrate the Team

All agents in your development plan should be recognised for their expertise and “use their own tools, protocol, and industry standards for making decisions and tracking information”.

However, everyone should coordinate. Their activities, regardless of how sustainable they make the project, should not disrupt, or prevent, others from making progress. Cost-effective and timely results will emerge from teams having an overall understanding of every aspect of the project, from finances to technology to communications.

Optimally, choose a single team with multidisciplinary knowledge who have “familiarity with the product type and market”, and who guarantee cooperation and sustainable practices in their part of the building process.

Collaborative Design

All systems should be seen as a complete, enclosed network early in the planning process, not split into isolated silos. Plan in parallel, not as a series of stages, to avoid the need for changes down the line.

Whole-building design and analysis ensure the project meets its agreed sustainable objectives. Good construction management seeks input from engineers and operational and maintenance teams: all stakeholders should be involved, including end-users. This can be done using the brief consultation Charrette process.

Sustainable Construction for Developers in a Nutshell

Your role in sustainable construction is all about preparing for what is yet to come. We’re not saying developers need to be soothsayers. Leave it to the scientists to forecast the demands environmental changes will place upon our living spaces. But listen to them and plan solutions now that will characterise the exemplary and resilient cities of our future:

  • Keep waste to a minimum by imagining how it can be mitigated or reused
  • Plan how to repurpose the building for future needs
  • Anticipate ever-stringent policy and building codes – build for what is yet to come, not just the issues we’re facing now
  • Inform quality decisions with quality data
  • Integrate teams for a commitment to a shared goal, approach, and schedule
  • Keep communication channels open and meet regularly to keep the plan on track

The next step will be the build itself. Head over to our article for building professionals for more advice on getting started with sustainable construction.

For a bit of further reading, you may also want to read the Good Practice Guidance: Sustainable Design and Construction. This was put together to map out for planners, developers, and public authorities how to make construction sustainable.

[1] Schober, Kai-Stefan; Hoff, Philipp; Lecat, Ambroise; De Thieulloy, Georges; Siepen, Sven (2017) Turning point for the construction industry: The disruptive impact of Building Information Modeling (BIM)

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