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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Studying at Cambridge

Tercia Jansen Van Vuuren

Perceptions of sustainability in the construction industry.
The construction industry significantly impacts sustainability’s three aspects of economy, society and the environment, and is therefore a fundamental role-player in striving for sustainable development. However, despite many initiatives targeted specifically at improving the industry’s sustainability, transformation has been slow.  Previous studies that have assessed perceptions and engagement of the UK construction industry with sustainability have focused at organisational levels or professional stakeholders, such as architects and engineers. There is limited understanding of the engagement with sustainability at the micro-level of the industry.

The research objective was to investigate the perceptions of individuals on a construction project to sustainability, specifically how they understood sustainability and perceived their role and ability to influence it. The focus was on the people involved in on-site construction activities and differences across the project hierarchy were investigated.

Qualitative research executed through interviews was deemed to be the most appropriate methodology to investigate individuals’ perceptions. Using a construction project in Cambridge as a case-study, 23 semi-structured interviews were conducted with representatives from the client, main contractor and sub-contractors. To obtain a range of perspectives on the subject, individuals across the project hierarchy were interviewed (tradesmen, project staff and managers). The interviews were analysed and coded according to the grounded-theory approach, which is characterised by determining themes based on what emerges from the data. The emergent themes were arranged into a thematic network which was analysed to determine patterns and hypotheses in relation to the research objectives.

In addressing the research questions, the emergent themes can be split into three parts: (1) how sustainability is understood, (2) the individuals’ perception of their role and scope of influence regarding sustainability, and (3) the factors that define how the construction industry operates and implications for sustainability:

(1) The understanding of sustainability varied greatly both across and down the project hierarchy. Most of the interviewees did not have a holistic understanding of the concept and focussed on the environmental aspect, demonstrating familiarity with issues such as materials and waste. The implied attitude was that sustainability is beneficial in improving the efficiency of current construction activities and reducing cost, but not to radically transform the industry through actively integrating sustainability ideology and addressing the social and environmental impacts.

(2) Most interviewees believed that they could not influence sustainability and felt constrained by prior decisions made by others, such as the client, architect and designers. On the construction site, the fundamental driving factor that directs all actions and decisions was cost.  The primary factor driving the implementation of sustainability was having to comply with BREEAM.

(3) Discussions about various aspects of the construction industry culture revealed the challenges faced in stimulating change. It is evident that transformation requires redefining the industry culture and restructuring the way it operates, especially the evaluation and reward system, to ensure that sustainability is integrated at all levels of the project delivery.
 
In summary, this study reveals that sustainability is not widely understood at the level of the individual on the construction project and is led by legal and contractual requirements rather than a commitment to the principles of sustainable development. Through understanding the drivers of the construction industry, it is evident that to transform the industry, it is necessary to change the system factors so that the most expensive choice is being unsustainable. Furthermore, there is a need to know how to create a culture of voluntary industry action that goes beyond mere compliance.