The construction sector is busy as the UK bids to build its way to recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, but despite bumper outputs, the industry has been afflicted by a perfect storm of material shortages and price hikes.
Indeed, a lack of labour, transport and materials means that costs are rising sharply, and efficiency is dropping. Timber, cement and other essential supplies have all become significantly more expensive to acquire.
Blame factors include large-scale projects such as HS2 for taking up capacity; others blame Brexit since new immigration rules have seen swathes of the migrant workforce from the continent leave. There has also been the additional change of the health crisis and the impact that has had on people’s decisions not to work abroad, and the effects on businesses and communities.
Whatever the reason, materials are scarce and expensive, labour and transport is short, and builders and their clients have been left with little alternative but to pay up if they want their projects to be completed.
Rico Wojtulewicz, head of housing and planning policy at the National Federation of Builders, says: “I think we're [construction] the only major sector that stayed open during lockdown, so all our work continued. What didn't continue was the material manufacturing worldwide.
“All the materials are dropping and dropping in supply, so all of a sudden that created a huge dearth of materials.”
However, one positive impact of these issues is that tighter margins of supplies have put pressure on the industry to rethink how it uses and discards its materials and start to consider how it can address the imperative of the Climate Emergency, that the pandemic has brought into greater focus.
According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, activities within construction, demolition and excavation accounted for a staggering 62 per cent of the UK’s total wastage in 2018. Meanwhile, a study from 2013 indicated that 13 per cent of materials delivered to a construction site go direct to waste without even being used. A large proportion of construction waste is also not recyclable.
Annual emissions from this industry have increased by roughly 45 percent compared to 1990 levels, and this only looks set to rise due to the current high outputs and inefficient methods of operation.
With all of that in mind, Wojtulewicz, says that now is the time to think about how to make the industry and construction products more eco-friendly.
“When I speak to my members, they make a real effort to put waste in the right place, but products could be more eco-friendly”, Wojtulewicz says.
“If you look at how a local authority recycles, often they burn things rather than recycling, so the industry needs a more strategic approach to waste.”
Surfacing activities as a sub-sector within construction is one area where OCL Regeneration has sought to clean and green up the industry. Embodied carbon in materials such as asphalt and concrete make up a very large percentage of the overall emissions profile of a road project, with a recent study showing that for a surfacing contractor as much as 48 per cent of their emissions profile can come from the embodied carbon in the hot asphalt they use.
It was the need to place sustainability more at the forefront of the sector’s priorities than inspired Stuart Gready to set-up OCL Regeneration, a business that now specialises in aggregate recycling, bound materials, and surfacing.
Gready, who heads up the business as managing director today, explains: "I founded the company after learning the trade working for the majors and realising that sustainability needed to be further up the list of priorities. It feels like things are turning for the better environmentally, the market is changing, the clients now have different needs, and we are getting much more traction with our products. They aren't new, we've been making and installing them for 20 years, but its only relatively recently that the market has started to embrace innovation and recycled low carbon alternatives and is seeking to move away from the norm. We work up and down the country with like-minded clients and local authorities and offer a turn-key solution that we affectionately call grave-to-cradle as we manage the whole process from the waste reprocessing through to the manufacture and installation of quality assured material to national and international specifications.”
Gready highlights that the use of alternative low carbon recycled materials is an ideal means to reduce the carbon footprint of a project, but also to de-risk on the pressures and escalating costs of scarcity of supply and transport. Self-delivery of elements of a project becomes a reality.
Waste from construction sites can be made into asphalts and concretes through new and innovative methods, meaning that projects are less reliant on having to ship in new materials. This also enables them to save on disposal costs and protect finite primary quarried aggregates, while also diverting wastes from landfill and taking lorries off the road.
By way of a solution, Cold Recycled Bound Material [CRBM] is a product that has the same design properties as the traditional material that it replaces but has no sacrifice to design life and is an actual reduction in whole life cost. It is made of largely recycled constituents, is installed with the same resources and methods, and allows a minimum 50 per cent saving on CO2 when compared to hot asphalt.
Incidentally, OCL Regeneration is the leading supplier of this material in the UK.
“We really can make a big difference here”, Gready says. “For instance, a recent scheme that we undertook replaced 25,000 tonnes of traditional asphalt with our Foambase® CRBM at a CO2 saving of 450,000 kilograms. This helped the client towards their net zero carbon target and is the equivalent of 550 direct flights from London to New York.
With the decarbonisation of the UK's current and future infrastructure high on the agenda and some construction sector operators beginning to push for stronger regulation on how businesses manage and report their carbon footprints, OCL has begun trialling the switch of all driven and process operational items to HVO fuel [hydrotreated vegetable oil fuel].
The move will reduce the companies fuel related emissions by 90 per cent and so further bring down the carbon footprint of the subsequent products they offer to market too.
“We currently manufacture around 100,000 tonnes of that product each year and are eyeing our one millionth ton being produced as a company by Christmas”, Gready explains. “Achieving that will be cause for an extra celebration as it means we would have saved 18,000 tonnes of CO2 through that product line alone.
“We are also currently developing a carbon negative asphalt product, and I mean genuinely carbon negative rather than through offset as others claim. It's in trial with several councils right now, but all being well we can launch next year. We really see that as a gamechanger for the industry and the planet.”