Building a better future: sustainable construction

Four industry leaders and members of the LBS community share their insights on building a world fit for future generations

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The construction industry is cleaning up its act. Under increasing pressure from the UK government, many firms are embracing greener, more sustainable practices. To understand what that looks like in our post-Brexit, post-pandemic age, Think spoke to four industry leaders about advancements in sustainable construction and the emerging technologies that make them possible.

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 Alec Vallintine, Managing Director, Construction, Canary Wharf Group, SEP102


How can we come back stronger than ever after the pandemic while also solving the environmental crisis?

At Canary Wharf, we’ve been having conversations regarding the environmental impact of our buildings for 25 years, but what Covid-19 has made us question is our purpose. We built Canary Wharf to be a city that people could work and play in. We had to ask ourselves what that looked like when most of the work was being done from home; we have now built a residential portfolio on the estate so that people can live, work and play here as well. We have embraced change and become the 15 minute city built by the largest sustainable developer in the UK.

In terms of moving towards a more sustainable future, one of the biggest challenges is investment in new methods. There’s a lot of talk about ‘modern methods of construction’, but they need to be fit for purpose. Modular construction could and should be the holy grail – it’s high quality and low carbon. There’s not enough of it in the UK right now, and even when we are using modular elements on our projects, we often find it arrives still needing a lot of ‘snagging’ or completing. That means using more physical labour to get pieces up to scratch. It’s indicative of how the industry needs to ensure it can deliver on its promises; we all need to do better.

As one of the UK’s major developers, Canary Wharf Group has made a commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. To achieve that, we’re going to have to bring our whole supply chain along with us, which is why we insist that everyone in that chain signs up to The Sustainability School; we see it as our responsibility to lead from the top. We’re also liaising with other companies, sharing our learnings. Because this area is still so new, it seems like there’s a lot more willingness to collaborate across the industry. We are all in this together.

“There's a lot more willingness to collaborate across the industry. We are all in this together”

We take a long-term, holistic approach. Rather than hiring someone to check how sustainable a building is at the end of a project, we bring them in early and engage them right the way through the process. It’s about having pride in our work. As an example, we see this reflected in the relationship with our local community; we’re right by the river and docks, and we collect rubbish from the water as a matter of principle. It’s not technically our responsibility, but we take it upon ourselves to make improvements where we can and create a better environment for all.

I have just finished the Senior Executive Programme at LBS in February; although it was severely disrupted by the Covid pandemic, it has been an excellent learning experience and the SEP delivery team have been excellent throughout. With issues like sustainability and leadership, there’s no one lesson that will give you the keys to the kingdom but being around peers is enlightening. As leaders, so many of us are prone to doubt. Being in a room with my contemporaries and realising they all have the same insecurities has given me the confidence to keep moving forward. You learn that sometimes the most important thing is just making a decision. If it goes wrong, you can learn from it, but leaders need to be able to take that first step.


Paul McNerney MRICS, Director, UK Building (Laing O’Rourke), SEP103


I’ve worked at Laing O’Rourke for 26 years now and I’m privileged to have worked across the world – Africa, Australia, Indonesia, even Scotland. In my current role, I work with fantastic and skilled teams delivering hospitals, schools, stadiums, office developments, and other pieces of significant infrastructure. What differentiates us is that we directly deliver, meaning we own all of the production, including manufacturing facilities. Certainty in deliver is what we are about. This brings huge opportunity and challenge when it comes to sustainability and delivering in a better way.

For hundreds of years, construction companies have been operating and building in the same way, moving materials and resources to the job sites and building in a traditional and labour-intensive way. At Laing O’Rourke, we believe this needs to move towards an automated, digital process. The car manufacturing and ship building industries did this decades ago, now it’s our turn. Embracing technology will make us more sustainable on two key fronts. Firstly, we can reduce waste while increasing the quality of buildings. As a result, productivity and efficiency will increase. Secondly, we can also begin to address the gender imbalance in our very male-dominated industry by creating new roles that require new skills. Today, construction firms are competing for talent against industries like tech, finance and gaming. When you compare some of those jobs to carrying steel on your back through the depths of winter, construction isn’t such an attractive proposition. If we can offer training in areas like digital design, assembly and logistics, that's a much better offer for young talented people.

“One of our guiding principles at Laing O'Rourke is 'sophisticated simplicity'”

I believe, building sustainably just means building and designing well. That’s what we’re really talking about: rigorous design, thoughtful decision-making and the adoption of modern practices. However, I also believe we need to be mindful of our material choices and how those materials arrive on our sites. Traditional approaches and products can be massively wasteful and carbon-intensive. This is something the whole industry needs to reflect on and collaborate around.

Sometimes the key to a better future lies in the past. We’re working on a project with the Ministry of Justice, producing designs for a new prison framework. The project would involve using modern methods of construction across a standard template, delivered in multiple locations. It’s the same for the government’s new hospital pledge, the question being asked is how can we leverage repeatability across an estate and assure efficiency and quality.

One of our guiding principles at Laing O’Rourke is ‘sophisticated simplicity’. That feels especially important here, as conversations around sustainability can so easily be reduced to buzzwords. Being able to talk frankly about the benefits and challenges of operating in this way, using simple language and targets people can actually connect with, is the only way to get them passionate about driving change.

The SEP programme has been a massive pivot for me. Professor Dan Cable’s introductory sessions were extremely moving and helped me to reflect on my own feelings towards work and life. I also took a lot from Professor Costas Markides’ teachings on change being "a threat and an opportunity" at the same time. The sheer pace at which we need to evolve is staggering – and as such, we cannot allow ourselves to be bogged down by hesitation nor become complacent of the status quo.


Annelies Van Ostaeyen, Operations Manager, DEME Offshore, ADP211


Dredging, Environmental and Marine Engineering’s (DEME) sustainability credentials were one of the reasons I wanted to work here. They were already pioneering in building wind farms and I knew I needed a job with purpose. What could be better than building a greener future? Today, I lead on operations for all our offshore projects. Part of my role involves helping our senior management to implement our sustainability targets and ensuring that those targets are being properly communicated to everyone in the company. Our sustainability goals are guided by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals; there’s more to sustainability than environmental issues, it’s also about social advancement. Part of my role is to help people understand those bigger picture concerns.

One of the biggest changes for us has been moving towards using biodegradable oil in all our equipment. All our new vessels can be completely powered by liquified natural gas (LNG), which is greener than traditional diesels. We’re also working with some pioneering researchers to create green hydrogen. You need electricity to make hydrogen, and this electricity can come from many sources: coal, gas, nuclear, wind or solar. ‘Green hydrogen’ just refers to hydrogen generated from sustainable sources. Previously, we haven’t been able to effectively store electricity from these sources, but green hydrogen could be the answer. We're pushing for increased use of this green hydrogen, as we believe it will help us become carbon neutral by 2050.

I often look to other industries for inspiration. There’s so much progress we can learn from; even the fashion industry is making exciting steps. I’ve been impressed by how brands are reducing waste while also fixing social issues, such as poor working conditions for garment producers. I follow a few designers on social media who are doing interesting things like making trendy swimwear out of recycled ocean plastic. Wearing eco-friendly clothes used to mean embarrassing rubber shoes, but these brands are showing people that these lifestyle shifts don’t need to be painful.

“More than anything, I want us to move towards a place where we can learn from everyone else's sustainability journey”

Another priority for us right now is producing cleaner batteries. It’s so easy to get excited about electric cars, but their batteries use lots of mineral resources, which need to be mined, often at a high environmental cost. We’re exploring the possibility of mining from the sea floor instead, which removes the need to deforest mining areas. We’ve been experimenting with small-scale areas to see how disruptive it would be to the surrounding sea life to mine four kilometres deep. So far, the results are very promising. These are ambitious projects: but we want to get ahead and steer disruption, rather than being steered by it.

I enrolled in the Accelerated Development Programme at LBS after taking on my new role. I wanted to give myself the broadest possible picture of how different organisations work, while also learning about building and communicating effective strategies. As leaders, we need to be able to tell the story of our strategy and get people excited to change, otherwise it’s like pulling on a dead horse.

More than anything, I want us to move towards a place where we can learn from everyone else’s sustainability journey. It sounds corny, but this really is about making the world a better place. The more people we can inspire to get involved in that, the better.


Graham Shaw, Managing Director, Willmott Dixon Interiors, SEP100


I'm the managing director of Willmott Dixon Interiors; it's my role to lead the business and set strategy. I’ve been here for 27 years and sustainability has always been very high on our agenda. Our purpose is to deliver brilliant buildings, transform lives, strengthen communities, and enhance the environment so our world is fit for future generations. After all, what is construction if not building an environment where people can thrive? The construction industry has tended to lag behind others but we’re moving in the right direction. Especially now that the pandemic has opened many people’s eyes to how fragile our way of life is. There’s probably been more progress in the last 18 months than over the last five years.

In September 2020, we launched our sustainability strategy, Now or Never, which is our response, and the part we will play to tackle these challenges. We wanted to make our sustainability ambitions and targets clear and bring our people, our stakeholders, and our customers along on that journey with us. Essentially, we wanted to up our game. We’d been looking at the usual areas – reducing water waste and lowering carbon emissions. But too often in this industry, leaders just want to tick off those easy items. We decided to stay ahead of the government’s agenda, which has since become a key business differentiator for us. Our goal is that all our buildings will be net zero in operation by 2030 and have zero embodied carbon by 2040.

“In the purest sense, sustainability means building a society that’s fit for the future”

Communities are at the heart of everything we do. In Walthamstow where we are restoring the landmark EMD cinema on behalf of London Borough of Waltham Forest, we have been working with the local council to reduce youth unemployment and support their vision of economic recovery and connecting people with jobs.

We launched a pop up skills centre called Building Lives Academy to upskill young people who are NEET and connect them with local construction jobs. Through the programme participants achieve qualifications in construction health and safety and NOCN Level 2, enabling them to gain practical skills training and other employability skills. Once trained, those young people are given the opportunity to apply for placements across the Willmott Dixon supply chain. Adding and measuring social value to every project is something our people are passionate about because it lets them build human connections. In the purest sense, sustainability means building a society that’s fit for the future.

The SEP programme was fantastic. I enrolled as part of my own personal development goals and was keen to look at strategy and moving the business forward. I thought it might be a more commercial programme, but it actually fully aligned with our focus on people, emotional intelligence and inspiring teams. Professor Randall S Peterson was great; he really helped me to understand what I needed to work on in order to be able to give other people a sense of purpose and really sell them on our ‘why’.

Throughout the programme, I was struck by how many conversations we had about things like emotional buy-in. These approaches aren’t always directly related to sustainability, but they represent a new way of thinking and talking about business. Even just 10 years ago, you might not have had people in boardrooms talking about how to personally connect with an issue. It’s indicative of how we’re moving towards a more connected world. Leadership is no longer simply about telling people what to do, or how we’re going to fix the great issues of our time. It’s about empowering everyone to join you on that journey, because we really will need everyone.

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