Energy & Environment

Reducing carbon emissions from the built environment

Richard Westaway / Feb 2012

A construction site in Scotland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Understanding how to reduce carbon emissions from the built environment is more complicated than it might at first seem. However, such understanding is crucial if we are to bring about significant changes in the way that buildings and infrastructure are designed, built, renovated and managed.

According to a recent UK government report, despite being directly responsible for only 1% of the total carbon emissions of buildings, construction companies have the power to influence almost 47% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions through the design, operation and demolition of buildings. However, these headlines do not tell the whole story.

If carbon reduction targets are to be achieved, those in the driving seat when it comes to letting construction contracts need to be more aspirational in their thinking. The public sector in particular could play a much bigger role in encouraging the design and delivery of low carbon buildings. While it is the construction companies who do the building, they should not be expected to drive the market, in terms of carbon reductions.

Ultimately, construction companies are providing a service to the decision-makers who initiate, fund and control building and development contracts. More often than not, it is the architects, investors, clients and tenants who dictate the contract. Therefore in order to improve sustainability we must first look at the contract model used.

Construction, uniquely amongst the manufacturing sectors, is based on a huge variety of contract models. Although some contracts do allow construction companies to influence the design and specifications of developments, many do not. Companies must build to the exacting specifications of the client or architect regardless of whether they are sustainable or not, and they don’t have the opportunity to influence the outcome. Therefore, while construction companies might be able to identify where carbon savings could be made, it is not always in their power or interest to change them.

That is not to say that construction companies could not be doing more. For example, by reporting the number of projects (and the reduction in carbon emissions) from contracts that include their input over building design and materials would demonstrate their intent. It would also help stakeholders differentiate between construction companies whose approach to sustainability is largely client-led (i.e. building to meet client requirements) from those that are actively trying to influence the sustainable construction agenda; through advocating those contract models that promote sustainability when in “developer” mode.

Of course, some construction companies are already driving forward sustainability in their projects. For example, Skanska recently calculated the carbon footprint for major projects in Finland, Norway, Sweden, USA and the UK, by developing a group-wide carbon foot printing tool to support project teams and Business Units globally.  Although this is a great example of how the construction sector can drive forward sustainability, it is only relevant when the contract allows for their input.     

Despite receiving relatively little attention to date, urgent debate is required about how construction companies select their contracts and the implications of doing so. Ultimately, if we are to stand a chance of reaching ambitious carbon reduction targets we must radically change the way construction contracts work. 


Richard Westaway

Richard Westaway

February 2012

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