2019 was the year climate change and sustainability really took centre stage. We saw news stories about climate change activist Greta Thunberg, environment campaigners Extinction Rebellion, the UN climate summit, plastic-free Penzance and the and the RIBA Stirling prize winner focused on energy efficiency, make the headlines.

Perhaps the latest research into our own approach to sustainability has made me more alert to the topic, but it has also led me to think more closely about how well the construction industry is taking responsibility for its role in climate change.

Oft-quoted statistics say that the built environment contributes around 40 per cent of the UK’s total carbon footprint and our buildings contribute 50 to 60 per cent of all greenhouse gases, globally. As public perception of climate change and the environment shifts, how can we make a dent in those figures?

A fork in the road

As an industry, I think we know what needs to be done in 2020 and beyond.

In 2019, September’s World Green Building Week campaign demonstrated the desire and dedication of the sector to embrace and implement sustainable building methods. The World Green Building Council’s ‘Bring Embodied Carbon Upfront’ report earlier this year set out the steps needed to achieve full decarbonisation by 2050. RICS has issued guidance on whole-life building assessments. And the UK Green Building Council has laid out a process for organisations wanting to include circular principles in their project briefs.

Every day I see our customers driving a greener agenda, recognising that their buildings have a significant effect on their carbon footprint and that they need to make changes in their activities in 2020.

Whatever and whoever the drivers, I believe we are now at a fork in the road, where the construction industry has the opportunity to lead.

Challenges remain. Just determining the differences between carbon reduction, embodied carbon, upfront carbon, whole life carbon and net zero carbon is a challenge – the list goes on. Yes, we need those definitions and all the theory, but more importantly, as an industry, we have to adapt and change the culture in construction.

Practical steps – encouraging innovation

At McLaren, our own environmental strategy is defined – by 2022, we want to be an industry leader in environmental change. We want to minimise resource use, promote sustainable initiatives and educate our employees to create a culture where sustainability is embedded in all elements of our business.

It’s an iterative process, as we learn more and develop our sustainability offering.

From experience, I’ve seen that the best ideas often come from those closest to the job, if people are given the encouragement and space to address the problem.

We’ve put in the groundwork for that – measuring our sustainability performance, setting the baseline, sharing our five-year plan and putting the right support teams and leadership in place. The practical change, though, is really being driven at ground level, by our site teams.

We talk about our can-do culture a lot, and that includes supporting innovation and creativity – in the office and on site – to drive more sustainable practices and reduce our carbon emissions wherever we can.

Our site teams have autonomy to find the best solutions to meet or exceed the standards we must reach (BREEAM, WELL, LEED, Part L), as well as develop initiatives to drive improvements in things like waste management, reducing single-use plastics and increasing biodiversity.

Some of our site teams are looking into materials passports and other circular economy principles, take-back schemes, materials swap shops and pioneering water harvesting methods.

A can-do attitude

And perhaps most importantly, the teams are sharing all this with the supply chain, bringing our suppliers into sustainability discussions earlier to ensure they are educated, upskilled and prepared.

This is where I believe main contractors can lead the industry to where it needs to be – building effective working relationships with suppliers and customers and promoting a can-do culture towards sustainability on each project.

The construction industry has an opportunity to promote a new generation of sustainability experts and take carbon reduction from theory to everyday reality. With the right culture, support for innovation, encouragement and nurture, the future of our built environment is bright.

More information on Mclaren’s sustainability strategy is available here.