How construction companies can unlock the value of sustainable design.

Lisa Trainor, the ProZero Environmental and Quality Manager at fit-out specialist, Portview, explains how the company contributes to the creation of legacy-defining spaces that work for people, businesses, communities, owners and investors.

Sustainability has been driving real change across the construction industry over the past decade. The next 10 years will undoubtedly see this ramp up as we all aim to reduce emissions, future-proof projects and slow the rate of climate change. To reach  the ambitious targets set out by The Paris Agreement and the UK Government’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, the way construction and fit-out projects operate will have to evolve. While governments and clients have a central role to play, construction companies and specialists have the opportunity to lead this process, and as interior fit-out specialists, we can integrate sustainability into our approach while ensuring quality, budget control and delivery.

Here are some of the lessons that the Portview team have learnt along the way:

Engaging early
Companies of all shapes and sizes want to create sustainable buildings, but the planning and execution involved can be complicated and time-intensive. Reaching a BREEAM ‘excellent’ or ‘outstanding’ rating relies on implementing sustainable working practices at every stage of a project.

This includes resource efficiency, waste management and using the right building materials and techniques, but it also means effectively engaging all stakeholders. By setting out sustainability goals at the start of the process and maintaining an ongoing dialogue, we can ensure clients, architects and contractors can consider sustainability at every stage. This includes things that can often get overlooked, such as sourcing low VOC products or using electric rather than diesel-fuelled forklifts onsite.

Building expertise
It feels as if the whole world has taken a crash-course in sustainability over the past decade, and we have seen a considerable leap in expertise among our industry and clients just within the past five years. There is still a lot of progress to make, and continuing to build in-house capability is critical.

Clients and investors are increasingly knowledgeable about BREEAM, LEED or WELL. However, they still need practical knowledge and insights into making these goals a reality. While expert consultants will always have a role to play, having in-house expertise is increasingly emerging as a key differentiator for clients. They want specialists that can provide value throughout the process, from sourcing materials to issuing commissioning certificates and providing aftercare.

Highlighting the opportunity
Sustainability is often still seen as a tick-box, regulatory exercise by some in the construction and fit-out world. And while it is undoubtedly the case that the prospect of increasingly heavy financial penalties is a significant motivating factor, we are  finding that a growing number of clients are taking a more positive view. Achieving a BREEAM ‘outstanding’ rating requires additional cost, such as paying to conduct thermographic surveys or making sure that all materials are fully recyclable. But the  long-term benefits are likely to be significant in terms of reduced utility costs, future-proofed businesses, increased tenant demand and increased wellbeing for employees and communities. Again, engaging stakeholders early is often critical in elevating sustainability from a regulatory requirement to an exciting opportunity.

Holding yourself accountable
The practical challenges of transitioning to a low-carbon economy touch every  part of modern life, from the way we heat our homes to the lacquers and glues we use to finish a fit-out. Sustainable design has become a niche market over the past decade, but it will only become more important and mainstream. Companies in the construction and fit-out space also need to start holding their own operations to the same standards their projects are judged by. For example, Portview has pledged to use
only low-VOC paints and reduce its carbon footprint by 30% by 2030.

This is not only an essential part of making sure we practise what we preach at Portview, it will also help us to attract and retain talent from younger generations who may not currently see the construction and fit-out sector as a potential career choice.

Understanding your system
Choosing the right materials and construction techniques is an integral part of sustainable design and creating local systems that support wellbeing and the environment. On the one hand, this means considering such factors as sun orientation,  implementing high-efficiency electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems, as well as using more renewable energy. But it’s also important to be aware of the broader local environment in which our buildings exist. This includes design choices such as using  trees, plants, and grasses native to the area or installing stormwater management strategies.

Buildings also play a role in our social systems. A commercial building’s average lifespan is 25-30 years, which presents some challenges for sustainable design. Either these buildings must be made with completely recyclable materials so that they can be cleanly dismantled, or the initial designs need to be flexible enough to accommodate future changes of use. The UK Government is encouraging the latter through the introduction of Class E permitted development rights.

There are many other ways that projects can be more sustainable that are unique to their local contexts. For example, Portview have developed several closed-loop solutions that reduce waste and benefit the local community. We are part of recycling  chemes for Correx, Plasterboard and Armstrong Ceiling tiles. Used materials are collected from our sites and re-manufactured; reducing raw materials, carbon waste and skip space. We donate waste wood from our projects to a local college’s carpentry department, providing a new use for materials that would otherwise be destined for landfill. We also work with The Turnaround Project, who have created a workshop out of the wood we’ve donated. We’ve also recently partnered with Tools for Solidarity  – who take our old tools, refurbish them and send them to Tasmania and Malawi.

Developing these solutions helps to reduce the impact of every job we complete and strengthens community relationships, allowing us to lead the sustainability conversation.

Making sustainability ‘normal’
Part of what makes the challenges of sustainability so intimidating is their scale. The narrative around the topic is often focused on the bigger picture, and goals like the UK achieving net zero emissions by 2050 can feel daunting. As with any large project, it can be difficult to know where to start. In reality, seemingly small wins can begin to create the momentum for change when taken together. Organisational leadership has a really important role in educating stakeholders and making sure that construction and fit-out companies lead by example and hold themselves to account. Effective education drives changes in behaviour that help contribute to the larger goal of transitioning to a low-carbon economy.

Although it may seem small, an onsite worker stopping to quickly check whether a paint is low VOC before applying it shows that people are beginning to think differently about the way they work.

The construction industry is at the heart of making our towns and cities more sustainable. By taking a proactive approach to driving change rather than reacting to it, we can help clients create amazing, future-proofed spaces with social and environmental benefits that ripple outwards. We can also help them differentiate themselves in a crowded market and make sustainability the norm.

FIS is in the process of setting up a sustainability working group and would welcome your views on the direction it should take to establish a net-zero plan for the finishes and interiors sector. If you want to join the working group, email Iain McIlwee at