Green goals: Viable solutions in construction

by | Apr 30, 2023

CIF Director of Main Contracting Paul Sheridan talks green procurement, project scope and why we need to zoom out and look at the entire life cycle of our built assets

Amid all the doom and gloom around climate change it is easy to forget the progress that has been made. “The industry has come a long way in the last 10 years in terms of developing building standards and moving towards net zero emissions,” says Paul Sheridan, the CIF’s Director of Main Contracting. That does not change the fact that far more is needed, of course.

“Climate change is a huge challenge, and both industry and government need to come up with viable solutions,” he adds, noting that contractors bring a huge amount of expertise to the table in trying to identify those solutions.

Modern Methods of Construction, for example, boost productivity and improve certainty when it comes to timelines, which together foster the reduction of carbon emissions during construction.

Meanwhile, Building Information Modelling (BIM) provides better measuring tools and predictive analyses, thereby improving tender evaluation. So there is quite a bit to be positive about – but equally a lot of ground to be covered if government and industry are to achieve their green goals.

Building communities

First things first. If we are to create the communities we want for our children and grandchildren, says Sheridan, we have to follow through on the National Development Plan (NDP).

“I have two daughters and they have the right to a fruitful future and to have the option of having a family,” he says. “But to do that they need to have a home and a community, and for that there needs to be water, energy, schools, jobs, businesses and healthcare. So we need to create a system of interconnected communities around the country, and the only way to do that is through the NDP.”

There is no getting around the fact that we have to build, and the construction process generates carbon. But we need to bear in mind the entire life cycle of a project, not just the relatively short time frame of the actual build.

“We need to stop focusing narrowly on the construction phase and start looking at the whole life cycle cost of built assets,” he says.

“The construction phase might last two years but the building could be around for 100. The question is, how do we make sure the other 98 deliver on sustainability objectives? It’s about building the right solution in the right way in the right place, and that’s what the NDP is all about.”

He acknowledges that there are often debates and differences of opinion as to what types of projects should and shouldn’t be prioritised in the NDP, citing as one example the Galway Ring Road.

“There is the view that we shouldn’t be building any roads at all, but the Government has developed a national investment framework for transport and that has identified the need for enhanced regional and rural connectivity,” he says.

“Roads are part of that solution because we need to move freight around the country, and rail is often not the right option. The more effective the road network, the faster we move freight and the greater connectivity we have to ports and our international community – which in turn provides an economic lifeline to communities.”

CIF Director of Main Contracting Paul Sheridan

Project scope

Construction contractors believe that green procurement is primarily about choices. These choices need to be client led and supported by their design teams. For example, says Sheridan, clients need to ask how do they want their built asset to sustain performance over its entire life cycle?

“Then they need to ask how do they define and measure that performance. The only way to answer that is if there is an understanding of the relationship between sustainability, performance, green procurement and project scope, which will be critical.

Sustainability is about environmental performance, and we use certain metrics to measure that. The client and design team must specify these, and it is important that this is done through the business case and design phase at the start of a project, not during construction.”

Crucially, he says, you don’t buy performance through the contract, you buy it through the scope of the project.

“The contract is just the operation manual for the project, the scope is the description of the work, what features are to be included and how it is to perform. This is essential to green procurement and it means having very detailed documents such as material specifications, works requirements, bills of quantity, what types of mechanical, electrical and technological systems you want.

“We are in a much more complex environment now, and sustainability brings more complexity and uncertainty. Contractors will align their tenders to the client’s design team’s scope, so clients and their design teams will have to be far more accurate and detailed in the procurement process.

Throughout all of this, says Sheridan, the client also needs to think about how they can get the best out of their contractor.

“Contractors bring a huge amount of knowhow, so as a client you need to decide if you want early contractor involvement. Technological disruption is having a huge impact on the industry, particularly around the traditional capability of design professions to design modern built assets.

More and more it is the construction contractor who is doing the design work. For this to work then they will need to be brought in earlier in the procurement and design process and have their proposals taken into account.

Value for money

Stressing the fact that green procurement is “not the cheaper option” Sheridan says that, on the contrary, it is likely in the short to medium term to increase the capital cost of any construction project. However, it is likely that if the design is done right, it will lower the operational costs over the whole life cycle.

“That means over time you will get returns and create a much more sustainable community, which is critical,” he says. “Green procurement is about value for money rather than lowest price. It involves innovation, new technologies and new materials, and this brings risk.”

This means increased capital investment from government – as well as from contractors in terms of their own people and technologies.

“That can only happen if construction contractors are able to earn sustainable profit margins, which is why the whole area of public procurement and public works contracts needs reform,” he says. “For green procurement to work we must move away from a transactional approach, where risk is simply transferred to the contractor, to one of partnership and who is best placed to manage that risk.”

On the same page

Achieving alignment between government and industry is essential, says Sheridan. It is vital that the industry understands the client’s needs and decision-making processes – such as how they are going to identify a winning tender.

“This means construction contractors deciding what they need to change in their own business to make themselves competitive for green procurement work,” he says. “Part of this is making sure that all your subcontractors, suppliers are aligned with you in what you are trying to achieve. What evidence can you use to show that your tender will meet the performance requirements set out in the client’s scope of works?”

With this in mind the CIF developed its Guide to Supporting Green Construction, and has also worked in partnership with the Construction Professionals Skillnet and Davy Horizons to create a programme to support green procurement.

“One of the key areas we try to help members with is preparing their business [for green procurement] so we put together a sustainability roadmap with 10 steps to become more competitive, and a roadmap to creating a resource-efficient site,” Sheridan says.

“The most important thing in terms of green procurement is supply chain integration. That means developing a code of conduct which can cascade down to the supply chain and result in standardised environmental product declarations (EPDs) showing how much embedded carbon is in various materials.”

EPDs will be critical in measuring and evaluating embedded carbon over the whole life cycle of a built asset and therefore should they be put on the same footing as a CE mark. This will be critical if tenders are to be evaluated quickly, he adds.

Looking ahead

In terms of where we go from here, Sheridan says we are now in an era where design will be very much led by embedded carbon. If the industry is to succeed on this, which he believes it can, it needs to look at how it can measure this in a standardised way from the client right down to the suppliers.

“This will give rise to all kinds of questions such as where will the data be stored, should it be free access, so BIM will be essential,” he says.

Ultimately, he believes that we can achieve change – but only if the effort is a concerted one.

“Yes, the industry needs to move away from CO2-heavy practices and materials, but we can only do that in a collective way. We need the support of clients and designers to reform the public procurement process and contracts, make green and more sustainable choices, by thinking in terms of the whole life cycle.”

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