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The SA construction industry needs a mindset shift

In today’s era of social consciousness and what seems to be ever-increasing occurrences of extreme weather and natural disasters, the issue of climate change is in the forefront of everyone’s minds. While many individuals strive to make a difference through their day-to-day behaviour – recycling, saving water, using energy efficient lightbulbs – it is the responsibility of big industries to acknowledge the impact they have, and to minimise it as a matter of urgency. 

The construction and building sector is one such industry. According to the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, this industry accounts for almost 40% of global CO2 emissions – a picture which isn’t likely to change on its own as the population grows and countries all over the world strive to provide adequate housing and infrastructure for their citizens. 

What’s the problem?

While technological and commercially sound building solutions have arisen in recent years, this development has seemingly not been enough to offset the rising demand and thus the rising emissions in the construction industry. According Erik Solheim, Executive Director for the United Nations Environment Programme, a hurdle in improving the outlook for the industry lies in policy and practices. It seems the construction industry is slow to change, and this is especially the case in developing countries where codes and policies mandating sustainable construction have not yet been put in place or are not enforced.

The International Energy Agency predicts that Africa’s floorspace is set to triple in the next 40 years, from under 30 billion m2 to almost 90 billion m2 – more growth than is expected from any other continent. Considering that South Africa’s construction sector contributes more CO2 than most other African countries, it seems we are set to fight a losing battle in our attempt to satisfy the country’s National Development Plan and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. 

A mindset shift is crucial

Recent research into South Africa’s slow adoption of sustainable building practices has identified that a large barrier lies in misconceptions that new practices will be more expensive, require big investment, or necessitate further training for all involved. Researchers have termed this the “lazy view” and recommend that construction professionals turn their attention to the vast benefits that can be accrued through sustainable construction practices – on top of the environmental benefits. “There are many simple ways to minimise the footprint of a construction project, and in many cases it can operations easier and faster,” says ICON Group MD Wayne Neary. 

ICON is a provider of bulk earthworks, demolitions and related civil engineering services and is currently on track to complete a demolition making way for the expansion of the Melrose Arch precinct in Johannesburg. “One way we are striving for sustainability is through re-use. We salvage all the building material from the site and crush it as aggregate to be used on another site. One of the biggest contributors to the industry’s famously high CO2 emissions is the manufacturing of building materials. If we can reuse as much as possible, not only do we minimise costs and optimise our operations, but we contribute to a more sustainable industry,” says Neary. 

Another practice ICON has put in place is to relocate trees whenever possible, instead of cutting them down. “While relocating a huge tree is not always the easiest thing, its worth it. Sometimes I think we overlook the time in takes for a tree to grow and sure, maybe sometimes it’s ‘just one tree’ but it adds up. Not only that – clients seem to really like it when we can give these trees a new home,” concludes Neary.