When the government published its industrial strategy Construction 2025, it said that part of its vision was to see an industry that leads the world in low carbon and green construction exports. Steve Menary takes a look at how the building finishes sector is looking to take waste out of the construction process.

For all the myriad efforts undertaken to reduce plasterboard waste, there is a simple solution at the heart of the problem: a specification that minimises or even designs out waste before work starts. Yet realising such a seemingly simple ambition seems dogged by inertia.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the inertia around the issue than take-up on a new an e-learning module and video aimed at designing out plasterboard waste. The 45-minute module was put together by a design sub-group at the Plasterboard Sustainability Partnership (PSP).

FPDC worked with recycling group WRAP, the Association of Interior Specialists and the Gypsum Products Development Association to produce the module, which was endorsed by the RIBA and published at www.constructionlibrary.co.uk in spring 2013.

Over the next six months, just 24 people began the course and only nine reached the end, all of whom passed. Those sorts of numbers do not indicate an industry-wide willingness to change and attempts by SpecFinish to find a successful example of designing out waste at specialist contractors and materials suppliers floundered. The PSP did not even respond.

“I do not perceive any meaningful change in designing out waste,” says Ian Sawyer, director of V-Cut, which manufactures pre-fabricated plasterboard modules off-site.

“Our products are actually designed to do just that, by reducing dusty site operations and off cuts in an area that was once responsible for most of the construction waste going to landfill.

“I cannot recall any client – designer or contractor – making a point that his demand was driven by this requirement [of designing out waste].”

Initiatives do exist to minimise site waste but take-up is not great. Encon has an offering with a company named Hippowaste, but Encon’s business development director Chris Barlow says: “We have had no takers on our offer, which appears strange. Gypsum suppliers do their own but again we have had very little response from customers to be involved with this.”

With seemingly little appetite to willingly address the issue, change is being forced by regulation. John Butler, technical services director at specialist contractor London Drywall and the FPDC representative on the PSP committee, says: “The driver from the commercial side is that main contractors are being asked to achieve tighter BREEAM ratings so all contractors and dryliners as well need to be more compliant.”

BREEAM does not involve regulatory compliance, but is an environmental benchmarking assessment method for buildings that is both widely accepted by end user clients as the ‘must have’ standard for major commercial office projects, especially in London.  These client aspirations are the main driver that causes architects to sit up and take notice, then assume the responsibility can be driven down the supply chain by their principal contractors”

In response, some specialist contractors are developing their own methods to minimise site waste, such as Buckinghamshire-based specialist PIB Contractors, which is successfully using an idea called plot packing on a regeneration project for main contractor Willmott Dixon in South Kilburn, London.

The process involves five steps starting with the right quantities taken off contract drawings before PIB then begins working with supplier SIG to develop a plot packing material schedule.

“Plot packs are delivered to site in the following format from bottom to top, ceiling boards, second fix boards, second fix party wall boards, first fix boards and first fix party wall boards,” says PIB construction director Lewis Foley.

PIB then moves the plot packs to a pre-agreed location on site using an electric stacker truck, which involves minimal labour and allows fixing operatives to begin to utilise the plot packs in the order the product is required.

PIB sees a swathe of advantages to the system ranging from minimal waste, with the correct number of boards scheduled off site, to reduced manual handling and embodied energies.

Waste is also re-used on site and there is quality assurance through correct specification. With less waste sites tend to be cleaner, whilst PIB also finds that plot packing offers programme savings and reduces damage risk on pallets.

The system was developed by PIB’s senior contract manager Ray Baker, who says: “Plot packing is not only enhancing our credentials as a leading green drylining business, it is also enabling us to deliver projects ahead of programme and under budget.”

Plot packing has mostly been used on commercial projects, but has potential for expansion. In an industry where margins remain endemically low, initiatives such as this will encourage specialists to reduce waste. Designers, however, might need a different approach.