A strong urge to get back to nature – or at least become more sustainable – has gripped clients this year. Katie Puckett and Caroline Stocks discover how 50 of the biggest spenders are focusing their £12.1bn combined construction budget on all things green

It is vital or important to more than three-quarters of your clients. They spend millions of pounds on it every year. And they’re going to judge you on your approach to it. The only problem is, they don’t know what it means.

Sustainability is clearly rising up the agenda. But the 50 organisations in Building’s survey of the biggest spenders in construction gave a bewildering variety of responses when asked to describe what it meant. Recycling was the top answer, with 17% of the vote; environment came second with 15% and future-proof third with 11%, but the vote was split between 18 entries.

Confusing, yes. But contractors and consultants should take note. Together, these clients will spend £12.1bn on construction this year, across 9000 projects – 13% of the industry’s total output. Sustainability is becoming a key selection criterion for these companies. Just over a quarter said a contractor’s sustainability credentials were “vital” and only 8% said they were irrelevant.

Spending on sustainability is increasing – dramatically in some cases. Supermarket Asda, for example, spent only £200,000 on sustainability in 2005, a minuscule fraction of its £400m construction budget. This year it will invest £26m, nearly 6% of its total spend.

Asda’s big push towards greener building was prompted by a pledge made by its US parent Wal-Mart last October. In this country, Bob Simpson, Asda’s head of change management, is in charge of sustainability. He says it applies to energy use, materials and construction methods, which will be developed in a series of prototype stores.

We can send people to the moon, why can’t we eliminate site waste by planning, ensuring products are put together in a simplified way and reducing labour on site?

Bob Simpson, Asda

“It’s a bit of a journey,” he says. “The first part of our job is to make sure we’re engaged internally, the next stage is to get it out to contractors and suppliers and the second and third tier of suppliers.”

Asda is holding a conference for its suppliers later this year on the subject.

“We’ll be saying: ‘You’ve seen our aspirations, how are you going meet our aspirations with your own?’. We want like-minded people.”

Like Asda, most clients take responsibility for sustainability. No less than 71% said it was up to them rather than their suppliers.


Jolly green clients

Credit: Max Schindler

We want innovation and alignment of values not only from contractors but from architects, engineers, the supply chain and most definitely manufacturers

John Lorimer, Manchester council


Manchester council too will be spending much more of its £280m budget on sustainability this year than last year, up from £4.6m to £14m. Schools are the biggest area of investment for the council but it will enforce its green policy on all developments in the city. Capital programme director John Lorimer says it has been working with framework contractors and consultants to make each project more sustainable, whether through reducing water consumption or through specifying biomass boilers, photovoltaic panels, wind turbines or green roofs.

“We’ve been spending a huge amount of effort on the design process, looking at how we initially select components,” says Lorimer. “Take windows. We’re very keen to analyse the life-cycle costs of each product always with the sustainable agenda in our minds. We’re going for aluminium windows made from 100% recycled material. We certainly wouldn’t use PVCu. We will often be paying a premium for more sustainable products.”

Clients will be demanding a lot more from contractors on all fronts. In our survey, the top areas singled out were recycling and waste management. This is a big gripe for Asda’s Simpson. “We can send people to the moon, why can’t we eliminate site waste by planning, detailing, ensuring products are put together in a simplified way and reducing labour on site?” he complains. “We don’t know how much waste we produce, not just in skips but in efficiency.”

Our clients want a multi-skip approach on site, better training for employees, local labour and biodiesel instead of regular fuel. Procurement directors should have qualifications and a proven track record. They want sustainability considered at the design stage, true whole-life costs and cost-honesty from contractors. Sustainability criteria should be used to select subcontractors too.

Lorimer says: “We want innovation and alignment of values not only from contractors but from architects, engineers, the supply chain and most definitely manufacturers – they’re the really key bit in the chain.”

Finally, it’s not enough just to do it, clients also said they wanted to see more evidence of construction firms’ efforts. “There are some fine words,” says Simpson, “but not a great deal of doing within the context of the policy.” He suggests cutting phrases such as “to the very best of our endeavours” and replace them with firm commitments: “We will reduce our carbon use by X% …”