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How to deliver sustainability from design to delivery

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Peter Morris, emeritus professor of construction and project management at University College London, highlighted ways in which project managers are working to reduce the causes and consequences of climate change in 2017.

Buildings are being modified, greener products are being introduced, and fresh policies and regulations are being applied. But the profession can do more, he says: “We can help by managing projects that will deliver new forms of mitigation.”

This message rings loud and clear in the APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition, which categorises sustainability as balancing the environmental, social, economic and administrative aspects of project-based work to meet stakeholders’ needs without compromising or overburdening future generations.

It sets out its stall clearly, saying that project professionals have a responsibility to ensure that their work minimises environmental damage or, ideally, positively affects ongoing sustainability. The responsibility, then, is on project managers to challenge clients to consider more sustainable solutions, and to ensure that every strand of the entire project life cycle is held to account.

Scrutinise the suppliers

“With contractors, we should select the ones that scrutinise their own supply chain to make sure that sustainability is followed all the way through – that they are buying ethically, and that manufactured products can be tracked for their carbon footprint,” says Duncan Adams, partner for commercial property at CPC Project Services. “Ideally, you would buy locally, keep the local society employed and minimise the carbon footprint for transport.”

CPC project managed the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute (BDI), which achieved a BREEAM rating of ‘Outstanding’ and won RIBA’s South Award 2018, partly because of its groundbreaking sustainable heating and cooling system.

“We hold BDI up as a case study in sustainability,” says Adams. Working with the University of Oxford across a portfolio of buildings means it is incumbent on CPC to constantly consider longer-term sustainability issues for the client: future legislation, climate change, future-proofing a building by ensuring maximum flexibility, and prioritising a refit or repurposing of a building over other options.

Challenge the norms

“For project managers, the days of just being process-driven are over,” says Adams. “Project managers have to be dynamic, energetic and passionate, and they have to be unafraid to challenge the norms, because we all get obsessed with ticking boxes when we should be doing better. We have to say no to certain practices; we have to push for an agenda that prioritises great design and minimises the impact on the environment.”

Get the training

Adams urges project managers to be trained in the latest sustainable practices so that clients can be properly advised. “Not every client will be as caring for the environment as you would want them to be, but if they pay for an adviser, and you come back with something they don’t like, they should still listen.”

Change the priorities

Tom Harley-Tuffs, a senior engineer at Ramboll, is working on an unusual office project in Manchester where the design process has been flipped on its head – aiming for zero carbon for both operational and embodied energy as a priority over cost.

“At the moment, the majority of clients are driven by costs, and sustainability add-ons come into it when they look at how much they can rent out the office for. If they get a BREEAM ‘Outstanding’ rating, then they can mark up rental prices by 15 per cent,” says Harley-Tuffs.

“For this client, the executive of the company has seen that the industry is moving towards more sustainable solutions, and they want to use the project as a case study for them to understand what that means. They can afford to do it in the design phase. Whether it actually goes through into construction is another matter.”

Cost remains paramount, but sustainability sits on a sliding scale, where improvements can be made without pushing budgets through the roof. Using timber as a construction material can often achieve cost parity with a traditional concrete frame, but the carbon footprint is halved, Harley-Tuffs explains.

Easy wins

“There are easy switches where you might not get all the way down to zero carbon, but there are ways to improve it without having serious implications on the viability of a project,” says Harley-Tuffs.

It’s down to individual project managers to find the easy wins, realise which can have the biggest impact in terms of sustainability, and then raise them with the client at the right points of the project. By making a sustainable option the default position (for example, car-sharing during the build), it forces the client to consciously decide not to pursue the most sustainable option. Join and contribute to our ‘big conversation’ about how the project profession can best shape the future.

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