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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Studying at Cambridge

Gina Littlefair

Measuring the Impact of Temporary Buildings on People and Planet

Buildings are responsible for the consumption of a large proportion of the planet’s natural resources.  Sustainability strategies are available for buildings, such as the use of passive design or renewable technologies, which could help to reduce this impact on the planet, but the financial considerations may discourage their adoption.  

For organisations, the major expense is its staff and not the construction or operation of their buildings.  Romm and Browning (1998) believe that “if labor productivity goes up just one percent, that will produce the same bottom-line benefit as eliminating the entire energy bill”.  Studies have shown that sustainable buildings can improve the productivity of the staff that use them, including the reduction of absenteeism and staff turnover.  It can therefore be seen that in order to promote the design of sustainable buildings to organisations, the focus should be on their benefit to people rather than to the planet.

The loss or unavailability of staff is costly to any organisation, but particularly in the construction industry where the knowledge and skills of workers is an essential part of the product being offered.  Many construction staff spend at least a proportion of their working time on a construction site based in a temporary site office.  However, the impact of these facilities on the planet or on the people using them is rarely considered.  

To assess the sustainability of the site office, a building rating tool was needed that reflected their temporary nature.  The initial part of this research was the development of such a tool, based upon the Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Systems (BREEAM) for offices and industrial facilities.  This tool was used to assess three case studies.  The productivity of the people using each site office was measured quantitatively, using absenteeism data and qualitatively, using feedback obtained from the workers via a survey.

From these assessments, a positive correlation between the sustainability of a building and the productivity of the staff working can be inferred, offering an economic incentive to organisations to adopt sustainable building strategies, thus promoting their use, resulting in a reduction in the impact of buildings on the planet while having a positive effect on the people using them.