Published here October 2015.


Musings Index

Sustainable Project Management Practices in Construction

Do we really know what we are talking about when we talk about "sustainable project management practices"? Last year I read in one of the discussions on LinkedIn that Mohit Salhotra posted this request:[1]

"I am an MSc Project Management student at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. I am currently doing my dissertation on 'sustainable project management practices in UK construction industry'. I would really appreciate it if you could help me in this research by filling in an online questionnaire by clicking on this link: [Questionnaire now closed]

To which Wessel Pieters of Infra-structure Group Leader and Project Manager for Alpha Projects responded: (with heavy handed humor):

"Maybe you should ask your guiding professor what is 'sustainable project management practices'. I suggest you need to reformulate because at this time it sounds like an impressive linkage of words that means squat; and that is not sustainable."

Unperturbed, Mohit then came back with:

"By sustainable project management practices I mean not only constructing a sustainable building but also constructing it in a sustainable way. Now someone can construct a very good sustainable building but they may not do it in a sustainable way. For example, maybe the suppliers who provide construction materials for the project are generating too much carbon emission. Or maybe they do not pay attention towards their staff or society/council.

Maybe the construction equipment used is not efficient and uses too much energy resulting in increased project spending and more carbon emission through the use and production of energy. Maybe the project is causing problems for the local people (due to their operations or location) and does not provide benefit to the society. Maybe the project team members are not happy with health and safety issues at work etc.

Yes, projects have defined ending dates, but integration of sustainability into project management stretches the boundaries of project management. Maybe the construction of such buildings will require increased budgets to cover sustainable operations but the benefits in long run can cover the cost. True, initially buying efficient equipment and training project team members on sustainable practices may require more money to spend during the initial phase of a project. But it could result in cost savings in the long run arising from equipment and team member efficiencies both in the current project as well as in future projects.

So basically it means constructing a sustainable building in a sustainable way in which pre-construction issues, such as site selection and careful selection of contractors and sub contractors, not just the cheapest ones, have also been considered."

That's all well and good, and one can see the possibilities, especially for promotional purposes. But what is the reality? In the free world, the construction industry is a highly competitive business as is also the building design-for-construction industry, in the sense of producing the designs though not necessarily in the design of what is to be built.

Most efficiencies come from repetition and, in the case of buildings, one can think of multiple similar buildings in an industrial or housing estate, or the multiple floors in a high rise. But the real issue is for what purpose is the project being built? Is the building project contemplated being undertaken for purposes of "build to sell" or "build to own and occupy"?

Only in the latter case is there an incentive to spend more money up front on the niceties of so-called sustainability with a view to saving in the long term. If the developer's intent is to sell off units as soon as built, then the opportunity to reap the rewards of more "sustainable" design and construction is very limited. That is someone else's problem, or benefit.

These two scenarios are very different in practical outcome, but both are driven by financial considerations. So "sustainability" will only come about when a clear financial gain is evident and proven. And that requires more diligence than the outpourings and hype of marketing types.

There is an exception of course. That's when government sponsored building is involved. The objective in this case is to please the populace, and financial return is not the primary issue. The money, after all, comes from someone else and any additional or over spending is lost in last year's accounting. But sooner or later, such practices are not sustainable.

1. These quotes are slightly edited to improve web site reading.
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