The current scarcity of key carbon-intensive products is the catalyst we need to focus on building more sustainably, Richard Steer says
Reports of worsening materials shortages and consequent price hikes have left construction professionals wondering exactly how the industry can achieve the government’s oft-repeated ambition to “build back better” given the lack of availability of the necessary supplies.
In recent weeks we have seen plastics, cement and aggregates join the ever-increasing list of products which my own builder is quick to tell me are as rare as hen’s teeth. The importation of timber is expected to be particularly problematic for some time to come.
Sweden, which supplies almost half of the structural wood used in the UK, has warned that current stock levels there are at their lowest for more than 20 years. Global demand has led to increases in costs of up to 20% according to the Building Merchants Federation and it seems other countries are prepared to pay more to guarantee their supply, echoing the rush for the covid-19 vaccine last year.
After any time of crisis, entire industries are often forced to reassess and innovate – forging better processes and solutions as a result
So, what does that mean for our housebuilders, for instance, where timber is a stable facet of construction? Viewed as a quick but environmentally friendly solution for delivering the new homes we so desperately need, it ticks boxes for large contractors.
Now the issue is shortage of availability and surging prices, will it lead them to abandon their green commitments in favour of simply getting the job done? Will a scarcity of products and price rises across the board mean that sticking to our net zero commitments takes a back seat, with the objective of “building back” taking precedence over the desire to do so “better”?
I believe the construction sector has an opportunity here. The housebuilders will, in all likelihood, emerge relatively unscathed from this disruption to wider timber supply thanks to sensible forward planning. But, after any time of crisis, entire industries are often forced to reassess and innovate – forging better processes and solutions as a result.
Perhaps a scarcity of affordable carbon-intensive products is the catalyst we need to focus our minds on embedding sustainability into every project, designing in decarbonisation, adopting modern methods of construction, eliminating avoidable waste, and identifying alternative green materials which can be sourced here in the UK with which to construct tomorrow’s built environment.
This shortage highlights the vulnerability of our reliance on traditional raw materials and expensive imports and could be the impetus that clients need to embrace change
While it may be unprecedented, this shortage highlights the vulnerability of our reliance on traditional raw materials and expensive imports and could be the impetus that clients need to embrace change. Consultants have long been extolling the virtues of MMC and ramping up scrutiny of building design to ensure that selected products are not only fit for purpose but also responsibly sourced, taking into account the whole-life carbon footprint of a project.
Meanwhile, our use of tech to better plan and manage delivery of schemes is reducing waste and improving efficiencies, with scientists constantly identifying revolutionary ways of reusing unavoidable by-products.
Going forward, greater consideration should be given to how we can capture “second-hand” materials from the demolition of existing buildings, recycling and repurposing wherever possible. Encouraging more widespread adoption of low-carbon alternatives to materials such as cement – for example hempcrete, ashcrete or ferrock – will also spread demand and alleviate pressure on product lines while helping us to achieve our environmental ambitions.
As consultants, we have a role in establishing a mind-set among clients that makes sure they look to use materials that future-proof building against potential green levies or taxes
It is also my belief that we, as consultants, have a continuing role in establishing a mind-set among clients that makes sure they look to use materials that future-proof building against potential green levies or taxes. These are the next natural refuge for a government desperate for revenue and boxed in by rash election promises not to raise personal taxes. They will give no leeway for a shortage of materials and will just want to ensure that we build sustainably and use any excuse to tax us if we don’t.
In many ways, so long as there are clear and measurable criteria for how the levies are imposed – and so long as it is a global, not just UK initiative – I am all in favour in order to build back better and greener. One stimulus may happen to have been a materials shortage – but, if we are saving the planet, all to the good.
As COP26 looms, the government has set out its stall, announcing the world’s most ambitious climate change target to reduce emissions by 78% compared with 1990 levels by 2035. We must play our part in achieving that aim, materials crisis or not.
Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds Worldwide