How focusing on sustainability will drive wider social value outcomes in construction

The Social Value Act of 2012 has been a game-changer in construction. Nearly ten years on, social value permeates every aspect of a built environment project, from procurement to its ultimate operation.

Environmental wellbeing was always one of the cornerstones of the Social Value Act, but now it plays an even bigger role in the wider consciousness, driven by numerous carbon zero initiatives and high profile advocates such as Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion.

Those already committed to building a sustainable future know that social value and the environment are not separate issues, but one and the same. However, for some, the link between reducing carbon emissions while developing robust local economies may seem more opaque. It’s the responsibility of commissioners, procurers, service deliverers and other stakeholders to drive the education process.

Today, more than 400 local government bodies have declared a climate emergency, not to mention the plethora of other companies and other organisations who have done the same. In order for the construction industry to adequately address all this entails, it is imperative that social value plays a bigger role in both procurement and delivery.

Closer relationships are required within supply chains. Much of the carbon in construction projects is in the materials specified and procured. Whilst we strive to use more eco-friendly materials, we must also consider how people and materials get to site.

By providing training opportunities to local people, we are upskilling a local workforce and helping them to develop rewarding careers, while also reducing the need for staff to travel long distances for a project. This is a perfect example of how the economic and environmental are so closely entwined.

In order to drive the reduction in carbon emissions as a result of travelling further, we should also encourage increasingly sustainable transport such as cycling and electric cars, if public transport is not viable.

We additionally need to consider new approaches to materials. Say there are five major projects in close proximity in a city centre run by different contractors, what’s to say there can’t be a joined up approach to sourcing materials for each project? I believe that together, we’re stronger, and such an approach would limit carbon emissions while driving efficiencies for all involved.

It’s also crucial to better plan how waste will be managed from the beginning of a project, designing and procuring it out from the outset. Any materials that can’t be appropriately reused within a development could be donated to the local community, helping to support key local issues, or reused as part of a circular economy model.

As an example, a Morgan Sindall Construction school refurbishment project in South Wales saw a remarkable 99.97% of waste diverted from landfill. This included demolished walls and floors being collected by a local recycling firm who then returned it to site as processed aggregate. The existing timber floor was used to clad the internal walls in the reception area. Great examples of just how well a closed loop within a circular economy can work.

Some of these initiatives may seem small, but the scope of the construction industry’s reach means that their incremental power should not be underestimated.

By keeping social value at the heart of every stage of the construction process, we can ensure our projects continue to reach new levels of sustainability. There have already been so many inspiring schemes and programmes underpinned by social value in the past ten years. I hope the decade ahead will see an increased commitment to collaboration, in order to address the climate emergency in the manner that its urgency demands.

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