Top Tips: Reducing Carbon Impact in the Construction Process

Wednesday 27th October 2021

As part of our ongoing commitment to supporting sustainable construction, we launched the SCF Net Zero Carbon Guidance app this year, which offers advice on reducing the carbon footprint at each stage of the construction process.

Here, Emma Bull, SCF senior framework manager, highlights some of the key takeaways and offers some top tips on how to maximise environmental sustainability at every stage of a construction project…

Retrofit where you can

Do you need a new build? Think about it.  The allure of a new, statement building can create great excitement, but is it ultimately what is needed.  And what will its carbon impact be while in operation? And what is the impact of embedded carbon in the build?

Consider your goal: What is it you are trying to achieve?  Is it increased capacity?  A change of use?  A new facility?

Can your organisation achieve these goals within your existing estate?  Can you change the way you use your buildings or will new ways of working ultimately mean that footfall may not be what you had anticipated?

It may sound obvious, but before you embark on a new-build construction project, ask whether a new build is in fact necessary. Has a retrofit been considered?

Of every decision you make around construction, it is this one which will have the biggest impact on carbon.

Either way, your ultimate goal is to have an estate which is fit for the future of your organisation.

Get smart about raw materials

Whether you’re approaching a new build or a retrofit project, think about the raw materials you’ll be using. Your SCF consultants and contractors will be able to advise on the most appropriate materials for the job and, importantly, on the supply chain. Working with a partner that has existing agreements and relationships can give you insight into materials availability, cost and how you can tap into local suppliers and/or those with good sustainability credentials.

Prioritise responsibly sourced items, such as FSC chain of custody certified timber. The chain of custody provides credible confirmation for products with environmentally and socially responsible sources.

Think about the lifespan of the materials and the disposal (more on this later).

Weave sustainability into your structure

When it comes to designing the structure of your build, keep it simple. Simpler designs typically lead to a lower embodied carbon figure.

With this in mind, avoid elements with limited value, such as façades that serve a purely aesthetic purpose.

Optimise the structural frame by considering whether lighter or timber frames would suit the building’s use and try to reduce the weight of the structure wherever possible.

And future-proof your structure by employing modular designs and MMC principles, such as separating structural elements from functions that could be changed or moved should the building be adapted further down the line.

Reduce transport emissions

Transporting materials and people to and from a project site can make a big impact on carbon emissions.

While it’s easy to claim that materials are locally sourced, what does ‘local’ truly mean? Taking a zoned approach to where your materials come from will help keep you focused on realistic targets. For example, you may decide to source bulky materials from within a 50-mile radius, but then widen this for lighter weight, high tech materials to UK based.

Travel plans are an ideal way to help reduce transport emissions for staff at the site and be sure to set local employment targets.

Create an efficient site

Wherever possible, avoid using diesel or fossil fuel generators on site and aim for a renewable energy supply. Plus, ensure there’s a site shutdown plan in place for switching off non-essential equipment when not in use.

Review KPIs with contractors relating to waste and water efficiencies and use water efficient equipment where you can. Implement misting to tackle dust suppression (assuming the alternative is hoseing down).

When providing accommodation for operatives, use any existing structures if you can and, if there’s a catering provision, select a contractor whose values reflect your own and who has measures in place, for example to minimise waste and use reusable rather than single-use plastic.  Consider using a social enterprise for these services.

Imagine the building in use …

The PassivHaus principles are a useful guide in maximising energy efficiency. Use these to help you identify and set specific air permeability targets to reduce heat loss, for example.

Naturally ventilated buildings will avoid the initial carbon and financial costs of a ventilated system installation and the repeat costs of future replacement.

Consider whether all finishes are necessary, such as linings to solid walls, and discuss how all components could be de-mounted without affecting other components if the building were to be adapted in future.

… and the end of its lifespan

While it may be difficult to imagine in the construction phase, it’s important to think about what happens when the building is no longer needed.

Aim to maximise the opportunities to repurpose the building over deconstruction should there be any change of use, and specify products that have high recyclability potential at the end of their life, such as biobased materials where available.

These are just a few tips to help prompt thinking about how to approach a construction project with environmental sustainability in mind. For more advice and support, including our new Net Zero Carbon Guidance app, visit:  Carbon – SCF (