Round table: at the cutting edge on carbon

3 March 2014

A CM round-table debate addressed the issue of how much progress the industry has made in reducing its operational emissions and how much it still has to cut to achieve its long-term carbon goal. Elaine Knutt and Nicky Roger report. Photographs by Edward Tyler.

This feature was sponsored by Certas

In the past five years, sustainability has had to jostle for position with many other agendas, from simply staying in business to the downward shift in average project values to the BIM phenomenon. But now that we are emerging into slightly better times – and coinciding with a more urgent debate on climate change – cutting our carbon emissions has taken on a renewed focus. So is the industry on track to meet its goals, or has the recession slowed momentum to the point where we’re in danger of falling behind?

The industry is working towards an over-arching target of cutting emission from the built environment by 80% by 2050, and 50% by 2025. Emissions directly attributed to construction operations – site activities and transporting materials to site and waste away – is a relatively small part of the overall total but a large chunk of the emissions the industry can directly control. So in 2008 the industry adopted a voluntary target to reduce these operational emissions by 15% by 2012: we are still waiting to hear from the Green Construction Board and UKCG whether that has been achieved.

"Manufacturers seem more committed and have reporting set up but trying to drag the subcontractors into it is difficult."

Alan Crowe, Interserve Construction

But is that an ambitious enough target or should it have been set higher? Is the industry adopting the innovations – in plant, in transport, in self-organisation – that will allow us to go above and beyond this target? These were some of the questions CM wanted to address in a round-table debate, sponsored by national fuel supply company Certas and attended by senior industry figures and CIOB members in logistics, procurement and manufacturing. The debate sought to gather views on how much progress the industry has made and still has to make.

The 15% target for 2008-12 seemed like a good place to start. Simon Attwood MCIOB, sustainability manager at contractor ISG, whose brief includes reporting on carbon management and mandatory emissions, has concerns that figures collated by UKCG will not necessarily be an accurate reflection of what’s happening: “As a business we have struggled with measuring and reporting carbon usage. What is our carbon? What is our supply chain carbon? The biggest problem is the supply chain – getting that information, particularly in a recession.”

Alan Crowe MCIOB, procurement manager at Interserve Construction, had similar concerns: “We feed our figures into UKCG and various other bodies and there are some question marks about how valid the earlier figures are. The large construction companies have got their heads around what they need to do but you take a step further down the chain – which is where most of carbon lies – and trying to get that information out of the subcontractor, well it’s not their first priority. Manufacturers seem more committed but trying to drag the subcontractors into it is difficult.”

The problem of measuring – and then reducing – carbon emissions through the supply chain was a recurring theme. There was a general view that Tier 1 contractors had “picked the low hanging fruit” of carbon reduction, and going forward would require far more input from supply chains. David Hollywood MCIOB, construction category director at Carillion, noted: “Certainly three or four years ago the rate at which our carbon footprint has been reducing has dropped off, due to the nature of our work and the margins within it. We’re finding it very difficult to get buy-in from some of our contractors, especially at that SME level.”

"When you're investing large amounts of capital it's a huge risk, and you need to know those numbers are solid for five, 10, 15 years."

Mike Cowell, Hope Construction Materials

And ISG’s Attwood wasn’t even sure that everyone would be reporting construction-based emissions to the same standard. “Yes, there are protocols but within those there’s scope for what can be included and what can’t be included and it’s difficult to measure eggs for eggs. It is getting better, particularly in larger companies, but SMEs will be the harder people to get the data from.”

Push technology

Technology and innovation in plant and machinery could potentially be a major driver in reducing operational carbon. As Fermin Torres, logistics manager with Mace, points out, it should be possible to develop a solar-powered crane, but the plant sector is hardly leading from the front. “Cranes have been driven by diesel for many years and although solar power is being investigated you need [reliable] power and you need to know it is safe. It’s a big question for us in terms of big equipment: is it safe to use with new technology? Manufacturers need to investigate it and the technology needs to address more than just cost efficiency.”

And where innovative products have reached the market, cost is still a barrier: Interserve’s Crowe tells of how its Site Services plant division researched hybrid generators (that use batteries connected to solar arrays and are used to power site cabins). “The gas reduction can be substantial but I can see it struggling for investment.” As for actual site equipment, the only hybrid excavator it found was an off-putting 50% above normal cost.

As Mike Cowell, chief operating officer for Hope Construction Materials, points out, “when you’re investing large amounts of capital it’s a huge risk, and you need to know those numbers are solid for five, 10, 15 years”. The company is currently investing in new Euro 6 engines, which he anticipates will be more fuel efficient – if driven and maintained correctly.

Jim Williams, director of national accounts at fuel solutions firm Certas Energy, points to an example where today’s technology can both reduce carbon and save money. The company offers a fuel management telemetry system for construction sites which allows fuel levels to be read, and eliminates the need for dipping the tanks and reduces over-ordering. “If everyone started using it we could make a demonstrable saving on carbon. It also reduces administration and associated movement of vehicles, it helps maintain continuity on site and provides evidence on what you’re doing to reduce carbon useage. It’s a smart technology.”

"If everyone started using fuel management telemetry we could make a demonstrable saving on carbon."

Jim Williams, Certas Energy

The data capture side of the proposition might be of interest to Interserve’s Crowe: he refers to an analysis the company carried out on its fuel usage, which showed 44% of the fuel it used powered its site generators. “And £6m of that 44% was spent on gas oil, and £3m on [hiring] generators,” he says. “Why don’t we just get the power on earlier?”

Of course, swapping site generators for permanent (or temporary) power supplies is an obvious way to cut emissions, but Interserve, ISG, Carillion and Mace all bemoaned the lack of responsiveness in the utility sector that makes this harder than it need be. “We’ve all been there – it’s a horrendous job to get permanent supplies, never mind temporary,” says Carillion’s Hollywood.

One option, as Mace logistics director Andy Brown MCIOB suggests, is asking the distributor directly about availability. “If UK Power Networks could give you the power earlier they would be selling more energy to you directly. If they said ‘we have the capacity here, next door to your site, come and take a feed’, then we could get in there earlier and use it. The people who are distributing it are the people who really understand what they’ve got. They could give us all a big map.”

Generator shortage

One option that ISG has explored is lower-emission gas generators with Calor but supply of product was an issue, says Attwood. “The problem is that when we have a site that needs a generator and we try to procure one there aren’t many in the marketplace so we find they’re not available at the right time. We need people like Calor to push their product into the manufacturing arena.”

"The benefits [of a consolidation centre] are a reduction in lorries visiting sites… It reduces emissions in an efficient way."

Fermin Torres, Mace

To boost fuel economy, Certas’s Jim Williams says Certas is working with its major suppliers to develop an additive for gas oil that would mirror the fuel economy improvements seen in “white” diesel in the retail market, a product he expects will be available in 12 months. That could look increasingly attractive as red diesel becomes subject to the Road Traffic Fuel Obligation legislation, which will add an increasing proportion of biofuel to commercial diesel. It might be a sustainability-driven measure but, “unfortunately, the end user is getting penalised in terms of cost”, says Williams.

Another route to reducing operational carbon is examining the logistics of site deliveries and waste disposal. Mace uses consolidation centres on its central London projects, as Torres explains: “The benefits are a reduction in lorries visiting sites, as the big lorries – one or two a day – go to the consolidation centre. It reduces emissions in an efficient way. It is driven in London by having more European suppliers: we can have larger artic vehicles coming from continental Europe but if they experience problems on the road it means they can’t make the slot on time and it’s chaotic for the site. A consolidation centre takes those problems out of the equation.”

Mace’s Andy Brown would like to take the idea further, suggesting an app that would fill empty delivery vehicles. “Bricks are all coming down from the Midlands so logistics companies are sending back empty vehicles. So the challenge is to fill them to reduce CO2. In the world of apps what if there was an agency who said ‘there’s are all the spare vehicles going back between Dover and the Midlands’?”

Another option the industry is beginning to consider is the actual vehicles used, adds Brown. He is involved in the works of CLOCS – Construction Logistics and Cyclist Safety – which is looking at the design of large construction vehicles from a safety point of view, but which could have knock-on carbon efficiencies. “They’ve all been built like Tonka toys over past 20 years. But they don’t need to have no windows and be that heavy. If you change them back to a design like a modern day refuse vehicle – with a low cab, lots of glass – it reduces the weight of vehicle with the benefit that it will use less carbon.”

"As a business we have struggled with measuring and reporting carbon usage."

Simon Attwood, ISG

Certas’s Williams supports this view: “If you reduce the weight of vehicles you can carry more and reduce the number of trips.”

The other way to reduce operational carbon emissions is to design projects for minimal site emissions in the first place, using offsite fabrication, modular construction, and – increasingly – BIM. But it’s not quite that simple, acknowledges Carillion’s Hollywood. “You’re building more efficiently and you have less logistical issues. But modular is held back by its ability to lock design down so we can’t use it and go back to traditional methods and an increase in fuel. We always start with great aspirations around modular and offsite, but frequently either the procurement or design process prevents it.”

So will increasing use of BIM, with its ability to identify clashes and cut out waste, be part of the answer? The CIOB’s Michael Brown, formerly deputy chief executive, certainly thinks so. “The next big step is BIM, and the changes that can bring to the way we do things. Look at the way Magnet puts a kitchen into a house – it’s using these principles, and there’s very little waste. We might get it at the bottom [of the industry] and the top, but I’m not sure what we’ll have in the middle.”

Forward march

Taking the temperature of the industry on carbon reduction, participants were confident the industry’s Top 10 or 20 contractors were achieving or over-achieving their targets, but that the industry as a whole needed a new concerted focus if emissions were to shrink at a fast enough pace. “At the principle contractor level there are not too many differentiators any more, we’re all on a particular level,” says Carillion’s Hollywood. “The next step is onerous and expensive – are people willing to pay for it? But Tier 1 and subcontractor level need support, whether it’s from us, the client’s mandate or government agenda.”

Interserve’s Crowe added that main contractors and manufacturers are making great strides but the onus is on them and clients to put pressure on the supply chain. “Construction clients and large contractors have a responsibility to proactively drive carbon reduction throughout the supply chain. The pace of improvement so far has been driven by cost of energy and fuel, that’s been the push factor. As clients and contractors, we need to be the pull factor motivating this.”

And ISG’s Attwood also echoes these sentiments: “Government has a big role to take. Legislation drives our clients, it drives us. But standardisation of measurement across industries – not just ours – would help. Mandatory reporting may be the way forward. At the moment it’s set for large companies and in 2016 it will be reviewed to maybe include smaller companies, so perhaps that’s the way forward.”

About the sponsor

Certas Energy is one of the largest independent fuel and lubricant distributors in the UK, supplying domestic, commercial, agricultural and industrial customers. It provides innovative alternatives to traditional fuel supply arrangements and prides itself on providing the highest standards of service to its customers, offering tailored solutions to meet their individual energy needs.

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