For many years design and environmental issues were talked about as discrete entities, as though one were entirely independent of the other. Steve Halcrow, FPDC’s technical director, considers how the sector has become more aware of the impact of design on sustainability.

One of the biggest issues we have as a sector is that however much good intention there is concerning ‘designing out waste’, or making designs more sustainable, very often the damage has already been done because those before you in the design and procurement chain have not been of a like mind, or perhaps lacked the detailed understanding we have.

We know that we should be engaged in the process early, far earlier than we usually are, but we also know that modern procurement methods usually lead to us being on board very late. How then can we positively affect the sustainability aspect of the build story?

One of the most obvious answers is boards and metal components supplied cut to length, but this is old hat nowadays. Everyone knows we can get special length boards and metal if we have a sufficient order quantity, but we can be smarter than that.

What about more efficient use of off-cuts? Sure, our primary aim is to reduce the number of these through smart design, but there will still always be some. When we are looking at the design of the various elements in our package, might we be able to store some of those shorter to medium lengths of stud and track and use them in those fiddly corners, or for trimming openings, or framing columns? Or as braces and supports, where we tend to cut the ends off new three metre lengths of stud and create a remainder length of a not-very-useable size?

Why can’t board off-cuts be planned to be used? This is one step beyond the opportunistic use of off-cuts that happen to come along, but actually forecasting the presence of these smaller items and utilising them? It’s not as daft as it sounds – one contractor I know does this very successfully and reduces their board waste considerably as a result. Along with which comes a reduction in cost of handling it.

Here’s a radical thought: how about truly working with the other trade contractors on a given site, and the project team overall? I know, it’s crazy, but think about it – I would wager that there are myriad operations carried out by M&E contractors, flooring contractors, etc., where they just need small pieces of a conveniently sized packing material, or a small amount of plywood or similar. Might it just be possible that we could actually give them our cast-offs, thereby not wasting them or having to transport them off the site with all the associated cost and inconvenience? Who knows, unless we check? Imagine the green story you can tell in the future if you can show you supplied sections of board off-cuts to a fellow contractor who had to pack up a piece of carcassing in each apartment bathroom, or needed a spacer when installing a mirror, or … . The possibilities are endless, if we allow them to be.

These days we have some exceptional software not just for design but for material take-offs and using the accuracy these (and our experience of course) bring we can predict far more reliably where we are going to produce the worst waste and how much of it, thereby giving us the chance to do something about it. The best anti-waste measures are undoubtedly the ones that do not produce it in the first place.

One powerful piece of software we are all starting to hear more and more about is  BIM, and this possesses enormous potential to help us produce sustainable designs, designs which will require less material transportation, less handling and far less wastage on site. It is coming, get used to it – and we will be expected to use tools like this to aid our quest for better and better sustainability scores through more informed design.

I urge you not to become constrained by conventional thinking, falling into the ‘cut-to-length boards’ trap. That is one possible answer, but there are many others, some we’ve not yet discovered.