What Is Sustainability In Construction?

Sustainability in construction.

What is that exactly? And why is that a question worthy of asking and attempting to answer?

Well, before I get to answering that question let me take you through a bit of a story.

The construction organisation I currently work for has been through somewhat of a “journey”, and in a number of respects that journey is not yet finished (and I mean that with all the greatest of respect – things take time!).

A key part of that journey has been in getting to grips with sustainability and what it means to the organisation, what it looks and feels like, what it brings, what it influences, who it influences and so on. And, as with other parts of the journey the organisation is on, that is still a path unwinding.


In playing my part in the organisation in getting to grips with sustainability, I’ve come to realise or rather had my thoughts confirmed on a few key things:

Positive, tailored engagement is key

I’m not talking about all up in your face, inane, stupid, gap-toothed grinning “isn’t this great” kind of approaches. That kind of thing is enough to make even the most committed of sustainability advocates turn to feelings of violence! Ok, well, maybe not. But my point is that even in the face of hardened, antediluvian types (and this organisation is far from filled with those I hasten to add!) one must remain not only resilient, but also positive and ensure that your messaging is tailored to the audience both in terms of its style and content. And always keep a sense of humour. Always!

That engagement doesn’t have to be through formal or organised channels all the time, in fact not even most of the time

A lot of the “wins”, for want of a better term, I’ve experienced in getting sustainability taken seriously, getting on the table during conversations, getting it embedded into hearts and minds is through informal conversations. Not necessarily hammering home the point and beating people into submission, but taking opportunities to weave sustainability threads in to conversations, into discussions and decision-making. And bringing a little bit of enthusiasm and measured passion (in the right way of course – see point 1). In that way it starts to find its own way on to agendas and people start asking you about it, and asking you (or others) about sustainability what can be done on this project or that tender or improvements to this or that part of the system.

People want to do the “right” things, but it has got to be about the business. A win-win (and as many other “wins” as you can get in)

Show the business imperative for something and it’s really hard to argue against that, even for the hardest and most stoic of individuals. Don’t know how to demonstrate a business case, quantified or unquantified? Then now’s a good time to learn. ISCA has a great free resource on this – here.

Talk the language of those you’re talking with

Going with a very simplistic analogy here (and cultural nuances aside!) in attempting to conduct business in Japan, an English-speaker needs to learn Japanese (or at least get a very good translator!). Attempting to continue speaking in English is unlikely to get you very far…… Same here. Sustainability practitioners and those that are immersed in all its terminology need to immerse themselves in the language of who they’re talking with – engineering, construction, procurement, business. Then understanding can begin to happen and cross-fertilisation of language also begins.

Sustainability advocates can come from all corners, and might just pleasantly surprise you

Turn the volume down on your own pre-conceived notions of what people in certain departments or professions may think or believe. That’s all that needs to be said on that matter!


Now I’m sure there are more learnings and confirmed thoughts tucked away in this brain of mine, but that’ll do for now as we need to bring things back around to the questions at the top of this piece – what exactly is sustainability in construction and why is that important question?

Let’s answer the latter question first.

What sustainability is in construction is an important question to ask because it frames the issue, it means there’s an issue to address, that needs to be addressed. Kind of like a drug-dependant person addressing their addiction. You have to realise there’s an issue to then understand its nature and do something with it.

And there is an issue – in 2013, the construction industry was responsible for just over 18% of Australia’s total carbon footprint1. That ain’t small biccies, people!

Admittedly that’s just looking at a very small part of the broader sustainability picture, but you catch my drift – the construction industry has a large impact on Australia and the globe from an environmental, social and economic perspective. This is why it’s important to ask what is sustainability in construction.

So, to that question – what is sustainability in construction?

It’s looking at and actually delivering things – infrastructure, buildings, built environments – in a more efficient and effective way, considerate of the interplay of societal needs, environment, finance, economics, under appropriate governance structures. It’s working towards and playing our part in delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goals in so doing. It’s about creating resilience, in its various forms, in the communities we work in.

But before any of these things it is a mindset.

If you take a look at those five points above these are all driven by mindset – an open, growth-focussed mindset to learning and adapting from a sustainability practitioner’s perspective, and helping others to see and understand what sustainability really is and how it helps achieves an organisation’s goals (in achieving broader national and global goals).

Sustainability in construction is a mindset. There has to be a genuine, collective understanding and will that things can be done better, more efficiently, differently. And once the majority are on board with that mindset change can begin to happen.


1 – W. Yu, T. Wiedmann, R. Crawford, C. Tait, The Carbon Footprint of Australia’s Construction Sector, Procedia Engineering 00 (2017) 000–000


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