Not only is real estate the largest and most important asset class in the world, but it is also the most polluting. In fact, the construction industry contributes to over 40% of carbon emissions in the UK, with two of the main emission sources coming from the built materials as well as energy used.
It’s not only the construction and design phase of a building that contributes to this large footprint, but also the demolition and disposal of the building – the end-of-life stage – with 32% of landfill waste coming from both the construction and demolition of developments. That’s why the measurement and reduction of the whole life carbon of buildings is crucial to achieving the UK’s 2050 net zero aim.
Whole life carbon refers to the emissions from the materials, construction and use over the building’s entire life, including its demolition and disposal. It combines the impacts from both embodied and operational carbon.
Embodied carbon is the CO ₂ emitted in the construction of the development while operational carbon is the CO ₂ emissions produced for a building to run.
While the sector is on the right track, already making significant cuts to operational carbon, it is crucial that companies increase their efforts in reducing embodied carbon to achieve our net zero ambition.
In May, the Planet Mark team headed to UK Construction Week, the UK’s largest built environment event, to help other companies with their sustainability and find out what new trends are emerging in the sector.
Reflections on UK Construction Week 2022
By Charlotte Bowles, Sustainability Consultant and Isabella Valencio, Senior Sustainability Consultant
“It was fantastic to be part of UK Construction Week for another year, sharing our work in helping to measure and reduce whole life carbon in over 100 developments across the UK.
What stood out was the emphasis placed on sustainability with many case studies showcasing organisations already making impressive strides in their sustainability.
There was a real acknowledgement from many businesses that the private sector must step up and do its bit to tackle climate change and address any gaps left by slow policy reform. An interesting comment from one of the sustainability-focused talks shared the impact that small changes can make. For example, if you design a 10m x 10m concreate slab just 50mm thinner than normal, you will save as much CO ₂ as avoiding meat for one year.
One of the other key takeaways was the need for more collaboration between stakeholders, including architects, engineers, designers, developers, and contractors, to push the sustainability agenda while also ensuring the building works and meets regulations.
There were also many talks in the sustainability hub around waste: how to direct our focus on reusing rather than recycling or burning materials. An interesting comment from one of the speakers explained that many companies say they are sending zero waste to landfill. While good on paper, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the company is engaging in sustainable practises as often they are burning their waste instead of burying it.
While it was inspiring to see the increased focus on sustainability at UK Construction Week, companies must be vigilant when communicating their sustainability claims and commitments to avoid greenwashing.
Finally, we were thrilled to see a dedicated award for Best Sustainability Achievement at the conference, and even more delighted to walk away as the winners!”
Opportunities in the sector
In recent years, innovative carbon-reducing solutions and products have emerged that are being applied to developments and having significant impacts.
Many of these solutions focus on low-carbon cement, including carbon-absorbing concrete, more energy-efficient insulated concrete and reusing crushed concrete as aggregate in future batches. Global access to low-carbon cement needs to improve drastically however, and scalable technical solutions need to be developed and costs need to come down to ensure its use becomes more widespread.
Other simple actions that need to be implemented more widely include using biofuels to replace diesel in generators, recycling plastic waste into plastic paving and using less fossil fuels in the production of cement.
Ultimately, we need to encourage architects and engineers to reduce embodied carbon at the very start of projects through the way buildings are designed, and by adopting solutions related to big-ticket carbon items such as steel and cement. This is an exciting opportunity for new products and innovations across the sector.
Spotlight on SureCav
SureCav is one example of a company providing a more sustainable solution in the construction sector. In fact, their product is six times lower in CO ₂ than its alternative. They produce 100% recycled plastic cavity space systems which replace the need for concrete backing blocks.
“We have been providing the sustainable solution now for over 20 years… from the 100% recycled alternative product we provide, to the way we operate throughout the business” Jamie Horgan at SureCav said.
So far, SureCav have replaced over seven million concrete blocks with 100% recycled plastic. That’s 126,900 tonnes of concrete replaced with 1,715 tonnes of plastic that would otherwise go to landfill. This has been done in just 221 lorry loads, compared to 6347 lorries needed to deliver the same m2 in blocks – that’s 6126 lorries saved from ever going on the road. The product is also eliminating the danger of moisture issues from contaminated cavities, reducing the need for retrofitting and thus ensuring the product is there for the entire life cycle of the building.
When looking for a sustainability certification to measure their business emissions, SureCav didn’t want a company to simply calculate their carbon footprint but an organisation whose values closely aligned.
“On the initial call, [Planet Mark] shared our passion, care, positive attitude, and this made us feel at home. I believe Planet Mark is being more widely recognised and we are proud to have now achieved this.
With the world turning to more sustainable routes, it’s a great indicator that the results are accurate, true, transparent, and clear. This eliminates greenwashing and is a pure intent of doing our bit and doing good. The benefits far outweighed any cost, and it’s clear this is the way forward.” Jamie added.
Here are the two most impactful initiatives SureCav have implemented to help reduce their business emissions:
– Working from home: Even before the pandemic, the business’ employees worked from home and now try to reduce business travel wherever possible. The business has also switched to virtual meetings and training sessions. “We used to have a main office on a trading estate, which cost to lease as well as heat and cool. Switching to working from home has reduced the amount we need to use and is a cost saving but once again improves employees’ moods and productivity. Apart from the factory staff that need to go in, the rest work from home.”
– Reducing deliveries: To cut down the number of deliveries, they also tested new techniques in the warehouse to see if their products could be packed more efficiently. They found that they could easily fit more sheets per pallet and gained an extra 27m2 on each one. “We have put more stock onto pallets meaning we reduce the number of deliveries we need to do. At a cost, it’s a small saving but the emissions saved can add up.”
Looking to the future, SureCav are continuously learning and improving to be the best they can, while also providing a product and service that has the environment at the forefront of everything they do.
“I truly believe what we are doing, what we have achieved so far, is making a big difference, and we aim to make more of an impact in the reduction of the CO ₂ and try and make this as quickly as possible because it needs to happen – sooner rather than later.” Jamie said.