I have two worn paperbacks on the bookshelf alongside me, one published in 1972 and the other in 1973. The former is titled ‘Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet’ and the second ‘Small is Beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered’. Both books were to be reprinted several times as ‘best sellers’.
In 1974, two notable events happened; firstly, the Health and Safety at Work Act was introduced and secondly, I started work. As a young engineer, starting work on site, just after the publication of these two books, the notion of what we now call sustainability in the construction process was, for all practical purposes, non-existent. The closest we came would have been in controlling quality on site or in the building of a sewage treatment works – structures specifically designed and built to minimise pollution. Even then, to relatively relaxed standards. Our reputation as the ‘dirty man of Europe’ was well earned albeit times were to change.
The introduction of BS 5750, Quality Systems, in 1979 and its successor, published in 1987, began the move to introduce systematic management across building and civil engineering. Whilst limited to ‘quality’, this was the first standard to be relatively widely adopted by the construction industry.
In 1988, the ‘Brundtland Report’ was published, which was to become the first and perhaps most recognised international report into sustainable development. It also introduced a ‘benchmark’ definition of what sustainable development might be – a definition still in use today.
During the 1990s, the ‘Latham Report’, on procurement and contractual arrangements in the construction industry, was published. Among its recommendations, there were several which were forerunners to important aspects of sustainability, e.g., factoring quality into tendering, improving governance, promoting training and encouraging apprenticeships. This was in the same year BS 7750, ‘Environmental Management Systems’ was introduced. Ideas, initiatives and standards were beginning to coalesce around the sustainability agenda and in the construction sector, through programs like ‘Rethinking Construction’, promoted by the SFfC.
In the 1990s, the concept of the ‘triple bottom line’ was also coined, introducing us to the three pillars of sustainability, namely ‘People’, ‘Planet’ and ‘Profit’. The first of these, ‘People’, arguably reflecting the contents of ‘Small is Beautiful’ and the second of these, ‘Planet’, reflecting the contents of ‘Only One Earth’. The sustainability agenda was moving forward.
In the noughties, the international standards that superseded BS 5750 and BS 7750, ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 respectively took on forms that we are familiar with today. In addition, in 2005, the government published ‘Securing the Future’, it’s sustainable development strategy. The maturing of standards, industry’s drive to improve its performance and external drivers such as the national and international promotion of sustainable development merged further. In 2008, the Government’s ‘Strategy for Sustainable Construction’ was published.
That was ten years ago, so where are we today and where are we going tomorrow? In 2011, HMG published its ‘Government Construction Strategy’, covering public sector construction, whilst in 2013, ‘Construction 2025’ was published. It set out Government and industry’s industrial strategy for construction describing four key objectives to be achieved by 2025, including the aim of a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the built environment.
Whilst ‘Construction 2025’ remains government policy, the drive to design and build more sustainable assets will continue apace addressing the issues arising out of climate change, the need to deliver energy and water efficient buildings; boosting ‘green’ infrastructure and transportation and the provision of new and refurbished housing. This will require the development of new tools, techniques and materials to facilitate both sustainable designs and subsequent construction. It will all have to be done such that it also provides value for money.
In terms of meeting society’s social and environmental expectations for the built environment in future, if I were starting work now as a young engineer, with an interest in environmental and social issues, what a choice of potential opportunities and challenges I would have ahead of me.
Rising to face these challenges is an exciting prospect for all those engaged in sustainability.
Action Sustainability will be at the forefront of delivering on tomorrow’s sustainability agenda.
 Strategic Forum for Construction
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