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Who owns the carbon?

The role of contracts in reducing carbon emissions from the built environment
 The role of contracts in reducing carbon emissions  Construction contracts can reduce carbon emissions

By Dr. Richard Westaway

Understanding how to reduce carbon emissions from the built environment is more complicated than it might at first seem. However, such understanding is crucial if we are to bring about significant changes in the way that buildings and infrastructure are designed, built, renovated and managed.

A recent UK Government report  concluded that, despite being directly responsible for only 1% of the total carbon emissions of buildings, construction companies can influence almost 47% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions through how buildings are designed, operated and demolished. However, these headline figures do not tell the whole story.

Construction is, ultimately, a service provided to a group of decision-makers who initiate, fund and thus control building and development contracts. More often than not, it is these decision-makers - architects, investors, clients and tenants - who dictate the terms of engagement. What emerges is that the contract model used is of fundamental importance for sustainable construction.

Construction, perhaps uniquely amongst the manufacturing sectors, is based on a huge variety of contract models. Although some contracts do allow construction companies to influence the design and specifications of developments, many do not. Rather, they are required to build to the often exacting specifications set-out by the client or architect - whether sustainable or not - and they have limited opportunity to influence the outcome. Thus, while construction companies might be able to identify where carbon savings could be made, it is not always in their power or interest to achieve them.

That is not to say construction companies could not do more. For example, reporting the number of projects (and resulting carbon emissions reductions) from contracts that did allow influence to be exerted over building design and materials would provide an indication of their intent. It would also help stakeholders start to differentiate between construction companies whose approach to sustainability is largely client-led (i.e. building to meet client requirements) from those that are actively trying to influence the sustainable construction agenda; through advocating and favoring those contract models that allow it or through progress made when building for themselves in “developer” mode.

Despite receiving relatively little attention to date, urgent debate is required about the implications of different construction contract models and the process by which they are selected. Ultimately, the large cuts in carbon that will be needed from the built environment to contribute towards the UK’s ambitious reduction targets are unlikely to be achieved without a fundamental change in the way construction contracts work.

Dr Richard Westaway is a sustainability specialist for IMS Consulting


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