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Let’s set the standards for sustainability Comment Shaun McCarthy

Shaun McCarthy OBE, chair of the industry’s Supply Chain Sustainability School, says that we need to emulate mega-projects’ ambitions across the board

IN MY EXPERIENCE the 1970s were all about safety: working as an apprentice on an oil refinery in 1973 I learned all about PPE, safe working practices, permits and procedures. The 1980s for me was all about quality. I bought into the whole deal – BS 5750, Total Quality Management, Steve Denning’s “radical management”. The 1990s were all about e-commerce and doing things more efficiently. Again I went for it, developing an early e-procurement system for Heathrow Airport. These things were not fads, but huge leaps forward in the way we think about how we do business and how we construct things.

Then came the early 2000s, which

were all about the environment. A gradual awakening to the threat of climate change came with a realisation that 50% of carbon emissions are related to buildings, and that the way we design and deploy them has a profound effect on our impact on the environment. So now we see sustainability as a much broader picture with more and more emphasis on social returns, local procurement, and fair and local employment practices, including apprenticeships. In the past 15 years we have seen an

evolution of mega-projects leading the way on embedding sustainability into procurement and construction. Perhaps it started with Heathrow Terminal 5, which set high ambitions for the project. Many of them were achieved, but some were quietly dropped. There was an independent advisory group but it was disbanded after the objectives were set, so there was nobody to hold the project to account. This led me directly to setting up and running the “Commission for a Sustainable London 2012” to hold the London Olympics programme to account for its sustainability commitments. The ODA , LOCOG and other partners did a great job, exemplary standards were set

and there was nowhere to hide when it came to achieving them. They even left a legacy of knowledge – the London 2012 Learning Legacy website is a great resource. I have been less involved in Crossrail

directly but my observations from meeting with the team is that they picked up where the ODA left off. There is some anecdotal evidence of things not going quite as they were expected but I have no hard evidence of this. Now we have HS2, raising the bar

even higher. One of their targets is for 60% of their expenditure to be through SMEs, boosting the resilience and capability of the smaller businesses in the sector. It means that Tiers 2, 3 and 4 of their supply chain will need to track exactly where they are buying things from and to be held to account for their performance. This has never happened before on a project of this magnitude and promises to be a game-changer for the industry.

But I don’t see the trend for ever more

sustainable outcomes trickling down to smaller projects. Why is this? In my view the reasons are many and varied, but here are three of them: l We lack “intelligent clients”. Many construction clients are not experts in this field – why should they be? They are experts in whatever they do; they just need buildings and infrastructure to do it. This means that clients fail to understand the art of the possible and there is too

“A little army of people are employed to add up spreadsheets. We spend so much time collecting data inefficiently that we rarely use it to manage”

much reliance on schemes like BREEAM which are of value but sometimes drive perverse behaviours to get cheap points and can stifle imagination. l We don’t have the data. Every project is different and every project invents a new Excel spreadsheet to record performance in a slightly different way to previous projects, then a little army of people are employed to send emails reminding people to fill in their spreadsheets and another little army are employed to add up all the spreadsheets, change the numbers around a bit and send reports up the chain. We spend so much time collecting data inefficiently we rarely use it to manage. There must be a better way. l Our supply chain lacks the knowledge. I am proud to chair the Supply Chain Sustainability School, which is trying to do something about this element. We can demonstrate that the base level of knowledge is low and we have evidence that 8,000 people have joined the school since its launch in 2012 and are actively improving their knowledge of sustainability. But when we consider that one in 10 people in employment in the UK works in the construction and infrastructure sectors we still have a long way to go. The school needs to get bigger and better fast if we are to address this issue. Early in 2015 we set up schools for the facilities management and infrastructure sectors, and last month we launched our school for the build offsite sector. It is not all bad news. We have

exemplary projects to learn from and some great people in the industry but we need to learn and apply new skills and techniques at a faster rate than ever before.

Shaun McCarthy OBE is director of Action Sustainability and chair of the Supply Chain Sustainability School.


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