Key issues in Sustainable Construction

Published 22nd May 2008 by Constructing Excellence

This section details the key issues currently facing the construction industry surrounding sustainability.
Follow the links below for more information on what each issue is and why they’re important.

Corporate Responsibility

The construction industry has been slow to respond to the Corporate Responsibility but increasing regulation in areas such as carbon emissions and waste are forcing companies to improve their processes and many clients are beginning to demand responsible approaches to design and construction.

Corporate Responsibility (CR) is about improving the way that businesses respond to the needs of stakeholders and ensure the sustainability of their activities. This means that it is relevant to companies of all sizes within the industry supply chain, including clients, designers, contractors and the suppliers of materials.

What is it?

Business in the Community (BITC) defines Corporate Responsibility (CR) as:
“the management of a company’s positive impact on society and the environment through its operations, products or services and through its interaction with key stakeholders such as employees, customers, investors and suppliers”

Constructing Excellence, taking BITC’s lead, considers Corporate Responsibility to be made up of four elements:

  • Environment
  • Workplace
  • Community
  • Marketplace


Issues to consider when developing the CR strategy of a construction business include climate change mitigation in new builds and business operations, as well as adapting for future climate change conditions. Water management, including drainage and water conservation, is another crucial issue to environmental CR, as are considerations of biodiversity and waste reduction (on site and in the office).


Fair treatment of staff, discrimination prevention and workplace accessibility form an essential part of any Corporate Responsibility strategy. The Investors in People Standard is a framework for developing strategies, taking action and evaluating the impact of performance. Considerations of time management, office environment, health and safety, diversity and recruitment and skills development are crucial to any CR strategy.


A successful CR strategy will seek to engage with the community on a local and sometimes global scale. Companies can have positive influence on the areas in which they work through job creation, creation of training opportunities and apprenticeships, volunteering opportunities for staff and partnering with national and international charities. It is important to consider issues surrounding sustainable communities, the impacts of the construction process on communities and volunteering.


Research conducted by Arthur D Little and Business in the Community found that nearly 70% of CEOs say that Corporate Responsibility is “vital” to profitability . Therefore a company that operates in an ethical fashion and considers environmental and social factors can improve its economic performance. Consideration of procurement of construction products and in the office is key, as is working with the supply chain to align CR values and policies.

For further information, please refer to the guidance document “Making a Difference: Corporate Responsibility for the Built Environment”

Why is it important?

Research shows that companys that embrace CR are often more financially viable than those that do not. Forum for the Future found the majority of studies carried out between the 1970s and 1990s reported a positive correlation between CR performance and financial performance.

An effective CR approach can lead to benefits in the following areas:

  • Reputation management
  • Risk management
  • Employee satisfaction
  • Innovation and learning
  • Access to capital
  • Financial performance

In addition, customers, clients and job-seekers are increasingly interested in the values of the organisations they are looking to work with, which is possible through corporate responsibility reporting.

Energy, Pollution & Climate Change

The construction industry is responsible for the intensive use of energy in the creation of buildings and infrastructure and in the operational phase, and the production of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

The construction industry is responsible for the intensive use of energy both directly, in the creation of buildings and infrastructure, and indirectly, in the operational phase. As well as the carbon dioxide which is produced, a variety of other pollution is caused by construction processes and buildings in use.

Thoughtful planning and design can have a major impact on reducing energy use and pollution over a building’s entire lifetime. The number of more sustainable solutions is growing rapidly and many of these can provide substantial financial savings, as well as environmental benefits. This is particularly the case when they are considered at the earliest possible stage of a project and where longterm benefits are fully taken into account.

What is it?

Energy from fossil fuels, nuclear power, hydropower and wind power is used in the construction process during the manufacture of materials, construction of buildings and infrastructure and throughout the operation of buildings during their lifetime. The use of non-renewable energy contributes to climate change through the production of CO2 emissions.

The construction industry in its manufacture of materials, the construction process and the end-use of buildings produces a number of gases and other emissions, such as greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide (C02), water vapour, methane and nitrous oxide) and the pollutants produced by synthetic chemicals used in the construction process.

Why is it important?

Achieving targets for global reductions in CO2 emissions will be a major challenge as demand for energy increases, and particularly in the light of accelerating development in countries such as China and India. The potential for using energy more efficiently should not be underestimated. We already have a huge range of options for reducing energy use in existing homes, offices and other commercial buildings.

Greenhouse gases are naturally occuring, however when produced in excessive quantities they can contribute significantly to climate change. Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is currently the most significant greenhouse gas because it accounts for 60% of the ‘enhanced greenhouse effect’ which, in turn, is responsible for man-made global warming. The greenhouse effect means that the sun’s rays are trapped and build up in the atmosphere, causing temperatures to rise – the 1990’s was the warmest decade for the last millennium. Pollutants caused by synthetic chemicals can be harmful to the environment and human health.

Existing Stock

Refurbishment of the existing building stock, including heritage buildings, will be crucial if the current UK government emissions targets are to be reached. The methods used in the construction phase of refurbishment, as well as their end-use, have impacts on their sustainability.

Materials & Waste

The construction industry produces a quarter of total waste each year of which up to 13% is delivered and unused. It produces three times more waste than all UK households combined.

Much of the waste from construction is potentially hazardous and disposal should be carefully planned. However, whatever the nature and characteristics of the waste may be, it all has one thing in common: it represents a loss of resources, loss of money and reduced sustainability. In particular, traditional waste disposal, such as landfill and incineration, can cause serious environmental damage.

What is it?

Some of the main types of waste resulting from the construction include: tiles, wood, insulation, concrete, plastic, brick and block, lead pipes, asphalt, ferrous and non-ferrous, glass, metals, paint and roofing materials.

Why is it important?

Historically, landfill sites have been the most common method of organised waste disposal. According to a recent report by the Wates Group (2006), the UK construction industry sends 36 million tonnes of waste to landfill sites each year .

The potential impacts of landfill are as follows: leakage, methane emissions, odour problems, damage to roads caused by heavy vehicles, noise pollution from vehicles and machinery, local air pollution particularly in the form of dust, nuisance and disease (e.g. from rats and flies). Landfill taxes are set to rise and there are serious penalties for fly-tipping offenders.

Construction waste is therefore a financial, social and environmental issue that needs to be tackled by following the Waste Hierarchy – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.


Upskilling employees, the supply chain and the local community can have a positive impact on the sustainability of a business and community, such as greater employment, job satisfaction and business productivity.

Sustainable Communities

Social aspects are often missed out of the construction industry’s considerations of sustainability despite the important effect that they have on long-term value for money and the well-being of building occupants.

The social impacts of construction start early in the construction phase and continue for as long as the structures remain standing.

What is it?


In December 2005, during the UK presidency of the EU, ministers from member states met in Bristol to discuss and agree the benefits of creating sustainable communities across Europe. The ‘Bristol Accord’, which they were asked to endorse, included eight characteristics of a sustainable community and a commitment to sharing good practice on case studies. The eight characteristics are as follows:

  • Well Run: With effective and inclusive participation, representation and leadership.
  • Well Connected: With good transport services and communication linking people to jobs, schools, health and other services.
  • Well Served: With public, private, community and voluntary services that are appropriate to people’s needs and accessible to all.
  • Environmentally Sensitive: Providing places for people that are considerate of the environment.
  • Thriving: With a flourishing and diverse local community.
  • Well designed and built: Featuring quality built and natural environment.
  • Fair for everyone: Including those in other communities, now and in the future.
  • Active, inclusive and safe: Fair, tolerant and cohesive with a strong local culture and other shared community activities.

Ministers agreed the importance of fostering skills for successful place making and the value of cooperative activity on this theme across member states.

Why is it important?

Some of the tower blocks which were rapidly built in the 1960s, together with poor building/estate management, are now widely seen as the root of serious social problems. Community issues have included low levels of well-being, increased depression and high levels of crime. Developments like these didn’t properly consider the requirements of the communities involved.

Sustainable Procurement

The procurement of goods, services and buildings has traditionally been based on two overriding considerations: price and quality. However, the choices people make about what they buy and how they buy it can have a huge impact on all aspects of sustainable development.

What is it?

Sustainable procurement isn’t just a question of choosing the most environmentally friendly products. It is about achieving the best possible value for money over the long term and should include economic and social, as well as environmental, considerations.

In June 2006, the government published ‘The National Action Plan: Procuring the Future’. It aims to deliver sustainable procurement, to stimulate innovation through public procurement and to complement and build on existing activity on the subject. It clearly explains how public spending can be used to combat climate change as well as promoting social progress.

Why is it important?

One of the key barriers to more sustainable procurement is the belief that it will always cost more. However, this is certainly not always true. In many cases costs can actually be cut by reducing waste, increasing resource eficiency and promoting innovative new products.


Water supplies are a growing cause for concern for the construction sector, which has particularly high requirements especially in the manufacture of materials such as steel and concrete. Most construction activity needlessly uses clean, drinkable water supplies and there is no reason why many processes coudn’t use water treated to less exacting standards.

What is it?

The huge industrial demands on water supplies are a growing cause for concern and the construction sector has particularly high requirements, especially in the manufacture of materials such as steel and concrete. Once a building is in use, demands for mains-supplied water can be a further major drain on resources. High density office buildings in urban areas, for example, often have very high requirements.

Why is it important?

With weather patterns becoming more unpredictable both in the UK and globally it is increasingly important to consider the conservation of clean, fresh supplies of water – not least in the design and use of buildings

Most construction activity needlessly uses clean, drinkable water supplies and there is no reason why many processes couldn’t use water treated to less exacting standards. If such high consumption continues, we will face a future where water companies won’t be able to guarantee continuity of supply through a dry summer. Measures to limit water use, such as hosepipe bans, are likely to become much more common.