Change is in the air with city pollution

The construction sector stands accused as a polluter, but has an opportunity to clean up its act

From cyclists battling smog in Beijing, to car-free days on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, air pollution has become a high-profile, global problem. The bad news for the construction industry is that it has historically been a big part of that problem.

Adverse health effects of exposure to air pollution range from respiratory impacts and asthma, to heart disease and diabetes, plus foetal and postnatal implications.

In the UK, the issue makes headlines every month. Only five days into 2017, the country had already breached its annual air pollution limits for the entire year. Just a few weeks later, London mayor Sadiq Khan declared the toughest emission standard anywhere in the world will be introduced this October.

Even more recently, legal activist group ClientEarth announced it will be taking the government to court for a third time over air pollution, having sued successfully twice before.

For construction, there has already been a tightening of restrictions around emissions, says Charlie Law, managing director of Sustainable Construction Solutions and editor of the CIRIA (Construction Industry Research and Information Association) Environmental good practice on-site pocket book.

He says: “The regulatory framework with regard to air pollution has been relatively minor up until recently, with only the Environmental Protection Act 1990 imposing controls on dust emissions from construction sites. However, introduction of the London Non-Road Mobile Machinery Regulations in 2015 has really started to address the issue of NOx and PM10 [nitrogen oxides and particulate matter] emissions.”

NOx are the gases associated with severe pollution effects such as smog and acid rain. PM10 is particulate matter with a diameter of up to 10 micrometres (microns), easily inhaled deep into the lungs. Only ten years ago, US Environmental Protection Agency research into diesel emissions found construction responsible for as much as 32 per cent of all mobile-source NOx and 37 per cent of PM.

Making changes

Cleaner engine technologies and emissions restrictions on newer vehicles will inevitably bring incremental improvements. However, with replacement costs high and progress slow, education and training in more efficient use of existing assets offers easier, quicker wins, according to Mr Law.

Recent emissions scandals involving major vehicle manufacturers have also served to put construction firms on notice, says Shaun McCarthy, chair of the Supply Chain Sustainability School. “‘Dieselgate’ captured the world’s attention and contractors need to understand that death and ill health due to plant and vehicle emissions are as much their responsibility as accidents on-site. This is not an optional extra,” he warns.

On-site there is no substitute for effective policy implementation, says Daniel Sweeney, environmental manager at John F Hunt Demolition. “A well-planned environmental management policy allows for impacts to be identified and appropriate control measures put in place to minimise risk,” he says. “It will aid in achieving environmental objectives, plus sets out a clear chain of control and response, allowing for good communication between all stakeholders.”

In the wake of the “modernise or die” 2016 Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model, it is perhaps what the industry can do off-site, rather than on-site, that offers greatest hope.

Away from site, the bulk of environmental impact occurs down long and complex industry supply chains

Swapping the potential inefficiencies and unpredictable weather associated with traditional on-site working for the controlled environment of the factory floor promises clear opportunity for impact minimisation. Whether companies are looking to cut resource consumption or reduce risk of pollution there are gains in prospect on energy, water, waste, carbon emissions and air quality.

Additional potential benefits relate to wellbeing, health and safety, quality, cost and time.

Starting with a single room, prefabrication and modern methods of construction can deliver multiple environmental benefits, says James Stephens, managing director of bathroom pod manufacturer Offsite Solutions.

He says: “With use of off-site for bathroom construction, the number of activities and trades on-site is radically reduced – from around 15 different operations to just one pod supplier. This significantly reduces vehicle movements and associated emissions, plus achieves programme savings.”

Pedestrians on the Champs-Élysées in Paris as the world-famous shopping street went car-free for a day last May to tackle pollution in the French capita
Pedestrians on the Champs-Élysées in Paris as the world-famous shopping street went car-free for a day last May to tackle pollution in the French capital

Supply chain

Away from site, the bulk of environmental impact occurs down long and complex industry supply chains. Construction is coming under increasing pressure to avoid charges of effectively exploiting communities and suppliers by exporting pollution.

In this regard, it is significant that the recent “world first” for completing the opening assessment against the new international standard for sustainable procurement, ISO 20400, went to leading international infrastructure group and giant of the British construction industry Balfour Beatty.

A prime focus for environmental footprinting of business activities is, of course, carbon. Built environment numbers are big, but ambition needs to be bigger, says global industry director for construction at IFS, Kenny Ingram.

“Buildings contribute to 40 per cent of world carbon emissions and the UK has targeted a 50 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 – a stepping stone to cutting 80 per cent by 2050,” he says.

While the imperative might be clear, so too is the urgent need for construction to up its game, says Mr McCarthy. “Industry awareness and understanding has historically proved very poor, with many players simply ignorant of the issues,” he says. “We need a step-change in our approach to carbon, in both what we build and how we build it, before disruptive players enter the market and wreak commercial havoc.”

In a bid to boost sector education and engagement, the Supply Chain Sustainability School is currently working together with the Carbon Trust and UK Green Building Council on a Carbon Month of activities throughout June, from free events to e-learning.

It is time for construction to start seeing carbon emissions not as some mere measure of cost-saving energy efficiency, but as a direct form of environmental pollution, in their own right.

Ultimately, when it comes to whether construction can cross the bridge from environmental problem to sustainable solution, we already know the answer, says Martin Brown, Living Building Challenge (LBC) UK ambassador and author of FutuREstorative.

“Not only is it conceivable that buildings can be restorative, we now have evidence they can indeed do more good, not just less harm, to the environment and human health,” he says.

With the LBC flagship Bullitt Centre in Seattle restorative in energy, water and health, the problem now is not the buildings or the process, but the industry, Mr Brown says. He concludes: “We have all the tools, thinking and capability for a restorative future. The biggest barrier to true implementation is ourselves, with our entrenched culture and mindset.”