Colin Mitchell asks what needs to change to ensure that more than just lip service is paid to the regulations for site waste management plans

On 6 April 2008 it became essential for all projects worth more than £300,000 to have a site waste management plan (SWMP). The benefits of this to the environment are not in question. But is the way in which construction work is procured working to support these benefits, or are SWMPs simply another box-ticking exercise?

As a contractor working in the affordable housing market, it is clear that the industry has a long way to go. A significant step change in the way in which contractors are selected is needed for the true benefits of the SWMP to be realised. For example, I have yet to see an initial SWMP included within a set of tender documents that has been prepared by the client, which sets a standard of expectation and which is a selection criteria for the preferred contractor. Decisions are, in the main, still being made purely on price.

Cost is, and always will be, a significant aspect in any tendering process and it does take time for the financial implications of meeting and exceeding new legislation and assessment processes to be realised and understood by clients and their advisers, as shown by the Code for Sustainable Homes.

However, if the tender documentation set out objectives with the SWMP in mind, each contractor would be required to identify a strategy and solutions to meet targets, both in terms of the design and site activities.

Colin Mitchell

The potential additional costs associated with this approach could then be identified separately, enabling the client to recognise the base costs while also seeing whether the contractor understands the regulations and can reduce waste.

This would put an end to the tenders of contractors who are already fully embracing the SWMP procedures and actively seeking to enforce, support and enhance the principles of the regulations being overlooked simply on cost terms.

Money is also an issue when choosing construction processes and products that minimise waste. Modern methods of construction, such as the use of structural insulated panel systems, can achieve significant benefits when it comes to waste. Yet, because they are perceived as a premium cost product, they are often dropped.

Similarly, on-site recycling of demolition material for re-use is often cost prohibitive, storage space is inadequate, and noise or dust issues make it unacceptable to neighbouring properties. The problems appear to overshadow the benefits.

One way to overcome some of these issues is to plan early. Too often a design has been developed and planning approval secured before a contractor is on board. Then, not surprisingly, when it is proposed that the design change to reduce waste, either in specification or sizing to utilise standard components, there are significant cost implications. The proposals are resisted by both the client and architect because of the risks of having to go back to planning to change materials or adjust the height of the building, for example.

Pre-construction programmes need to embrace the regulations to ensure the most effective SWMP is in place. Options and technical solutions need to be assessed based on their respective costs and incorporation into the final design. Workshops are a good idea to bring together the full team in the pre-planning and detailed design phases, with clear milestones, to ensure waste is fully considered.

Clients need to accept that contractors and subcontractors that embrace best practice will not be the cheapest. This is true of those who follow the SWMP guidance as much as those with good health and safety standards. Unfortunately, this is rarely recognised in competitive tendering. The “tick-box” approach only proves basic compliance with legislation, but the outputs and improvements from the recording, monitoring and feedback of design and construction processes reap the real benefits. This whole process takes time and resources, adding cost that will increase preliminaries, commonly an area where contractors are criticised for being too expensive.

If SWMPs are to achieve their full potential, there needs to be a mechanism for identifying, measuring and scoring approaches to the SWMP regulations, separate from the base construction costs. If a contractor is then chosen purely on the base construction cost, there will an auditable trail that in the affordable housing market can be reviewed by the Housing Corporation and perhaps even influence the levels of funding that each registered social landlord receives. This in turn will incentivise clients to select contractors who act upon new regulations.