Making a material difference

While timber is knocking louder and louder on the door, steel and concrete remain firmly entrenched as the big hitters when it comes to creating building structures. This presents both a problem and an opportunity for construction.

On the one hand, it is easy for critics to label the industry “dirty” and for nimbys to resist development. On the other, the sector is in a prime position to contribute to the attainment of net-zero goals. As our cover feature on page 28 reports, cement production is responsible for around 7 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, while steelmaking accounts for between 7 and 9 per cent, around half of which goes into construction.

The UK steel and concrete sectors have separate roadmaps to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, with milestones set at 2030. In our article, we discover the progress being made in both sectors. However, there are big challenges to meeting this date and much work still to do to if we are to meet the target dates.

In August, Construction News ventured into a new medium – the podcast. In the first monthly episode of First Site, we hear from Ian Riley, chief executive of the World Cement Association, and Dr Michael Sansom, sustainability manager at the British Constructional Steelwork Association. While both are positive about decarbonisation, they say that many of the easiest gains have already been made. Progress over the past 20 years has been driven as much by economic as environmental drivers. You can tune into the first episode of the podcast at

Alternative building methods provide some hope for a reduction in reliance on steel and concrete. But as our feature shows, the modular sector is still grappling with issues surrounding fire safety. New regulations should help, but insurance companies are by nature cautious, slow-moving beasts. The new regulations will need time to bed in before the technology gains further footholds in the market.

Despite the challenges, many firms in the modular sector are operating successfully. For our project report, we visited a modular project springing up in Colchester. The contractor, MTX, says it has engineered out fire safety risks and is using a hybrid model of construction to bring the new orthopaedic centre to life.

Reaching net-zero goals for materials is a tough – but achievable – aim. Contractors have a huge role to play here. But, too often, they are appointed when it is too late to influence building design. Clients may be keen on showcasing their environmental credentials, but unless they adopt two-stage contracting, allowing construction firms to take part in the design process, they are operating with one hand tied behind their back.

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