Well-publicised media reports of raw material shortages in construction can provide an impetus for the industry’s net zero response, argues ACE’s Hannah Vickers.
Both construction and the mainstream media has been awash recently with reports of product supply challenges. On top of the perfect storm of raw material shortages and exuberant lockdown purchasing, we have seen changes to our terms of trade and disruption at our ports owing to Brexit and stretched global shipping capacity. When we add the very welcome and healthy ‘post-pandemic’ growth for our sector, it leads us to today’s situation.
The Construction Leadership Council has, just this week, warned that smaller players might become choked in this environment. This timely intervention called for the sector to work together to manage this unprecedented situation for the benefit of the entire industry and our customers. This is a question of balancing supply and demand of raw materials and I hope that we will be able to build on our truly collaborative pandemic response to ensure as smooth a situation as possible.
The risks for our industry if we get this balancing act wrong are huge. Material inflation, stop/start supply chains and constrained liquidity will all have knock on impacts on jobs and project delivery and stunt wider economic recovery. It is vital that, as far as possible, we avoid material rationing.
Taking a step back, and with an understanding that necessity is the mother of invention, this situation could, in fact, help accelerate the good work we’re doing as an industry, building on leadership by the Green Construction Board, around modernising construction to eliminate ‘avoidable waste’.
The work I lead with CO2nstruct Zero, the CLC’s industry change programme for net zero, sets out priorities and practical solutions for businesses and projects to adopt to meet the carbon challenge. A number of these would also relieve demand pressure building on certain product lines, as well as helping us to meet ambitions for a net zero future. There are three relevant priorities in this context.
Firstly, a priority on designing out carbon, recently committed to by leading consultancies in the built environment and celebrated on the global stage by the secretary of state at the recent B7 Summit, will naturally reduce demand for materials and boost use of alternative products. As part of this, ideas around recycling, reuse and even more basically around efficient constructability will be key here.
Secondly, a priority on modern methods of construction and measures to reduce waste on site should be met by everyone working in our sector. Whether a large contractor or SME builder, reducing the use of construction materials through better planning and smarter delivery will soften inherent demand.
Finally, a priority around the materials themselves. Encouraging clients to explore low-carbon alternatives would also help spread demand across a wider range of products and require merchants and product suppliers to find and advise on alternatives to traditional materials.
While at first glance the supply challenges of construction products is an issue far removed from net zero, as with many other areas of life it is, in fact, intertwined.
A net zero future will lead to changes in how and what we build and this new approach will mean we are more productive with our raw materials. The sooner we move towards this future, the sooner we can ease and broaden demand for construction products and the less likely that we’ll be held hostage to issues outside of our control.
Our collective response to the Covid crisis demonstrates that industry collaboration can deliver great results for an entire sector. A similar approach towards addressing the current materials risks and in turn the realisation of construction’s net zero future, is now required.
Hannah Vickers is chief executive of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering and CO2nstruct Zero lead at the Construction Leadership Council (CLC).