The three pillars of sustainability in construction


Periodically a new way of thinking shifts the approach of businesses. Early adopters recognise the strength in a new idea and other businesses quickly follow suit. New concepts provide a framework for more positive operating methods and swiftly become mainstream. Over the past decade, sustainability is one such approach that has readily become an embedded theme for many organisations.

The construction sector however is not known to be an early adopter of new concepts and is often criticised for maintaining ‘traditional’ methodologies even as other industry sectors adapt and evolve. Not so when it comes to sustainability. This is one area where new practices and approaches are rapidly taking root. Sustainability has become a core theme of the sector, as without consideration of sustainable practices, proposed designs are considered unacceptable by commissioners and specifiers.

But what do we mean by ‘sustainability’ exactly? The ‘three pillars’ – the key principle adopted by many businesses over the past few years – have also become the ‘pillars’ which construction firms are factoring into their design and build processes.

The three pillars of sustainability – economic, environmental and social benefits

Sustainability as a principle refers to the practice of fulfilling present needs, in a way which does not prohibit future generations from meeting theirs. When applied to construction, it equates to a consideration of economic, sustainability, environmental best practice, and social benefits. More bluntly, it comes down to ensuring that people, planet and profits are all factored into the construction project, with steps taken to ensure best practice is upheld across all three workstreams.

For investors in construction projects, corporate sustainability needs to evidence that along with financial profit, there is concrete thinking in place to ensure that the completed project (and build process) brings social value. This consideration commences at design stage, with ethical construction firms planning the construction process with due regard to the local community in terms of controlling noise pollution, vehicle congestion, or other negative impacts.

It also relates to the process of calculating the benefits of the completed project, in terms of social value. What positive attributes will the project deliver for the community? What legacy may be left following conclusion of the project? This may consider the skills legacy left behind for future generations, through the provision of apprenticeships during the build, for example.

Environmental sustainability – of more value to commissioners?

As with economic benefits and social value, environmental sustainability is a principle which requires consideration at the design stage of any proposed project. It relates to a calculation which evidences the specific materials used for construction – ensuring that they are ethically sourced, and sustainable. It also relates to the local environment, for example considering the impact of any planned works, and ensuring that protected habitats are conserved.

With environmental considerations becoming so pivotal, construction firms may gain competitive advantage in evidencing that they will undertake planned projects in ethical ways. Having a sound consideration of potential environmental impacts and evidencing a ‘green’ philosophy may represent a clear differentiator in the overall value proposition. This is because when it comes to procuring construction firms, commissioners need to be transparent about planned developments and the associated construction approach. Negative environmental impacts are ultimately the responsibility of the entity procuring, not undertaking, the build.

With the ‘three pillars’ of sustainability so closely mapping to core principles in construction, it’s unsurprising that even this traditionally late-adopting sector has accepted the business model into their suite of tools for planning works. By applying the three pillars from design stage onwards, construction firms will not just bring benefit to the environment, local community and economy, but also make themselves much more marketable to the organisations who will be engaging them.