What is sustainable construction?

Learn about sustainable construction and how to become an environmentally-friendly, energy-efficient construction firm.

Sustainable construction

What is sustainable construction?

The construction industry is a major global polluter, accounting for 39% of gross annual carbon emissions.

But things are changing. Organisations like Passivhaus Trust and buildings such as The Crystal are standout examples of how the construction industry is embracing sustainability. But what does it take for your business to reduce its environmental impact?

Whether you’re looking to improve individual construction projects or reposition your firm as a sustainable construction business, this guide will explore how to make impactful change.

What is meant by sustainable construction?

Sustainable construction means designing, constructing, and operating buildings and infrastructure in an environmentally responsible way.

This can involve things like using renewable and non-toxic materials, increasing energy efficiency, and minimising waste.

The goal of sustainable construction is to limit the negative environmental impact of buildings while simultaneously achieving economic and social sustainability. We’ll expand on these concepts in the next section.

What are the three pillars of sustainability in construction?

Sustainability isn’t just about using green energy or being more energy efficient. Achieving it can be guided by the three pillars of sustainability in construction:

  1. Environmental sustainability This pillar involves reducing the negative impact of buildings on the environment by using more eco-friendly materials and methods. Think: energy-efficient design and using resources that generate lower CO2 emissions.
  2. Economic sustainability This pillar is about making sure projects stay within budget, turn a profit, and deliver financial benefits for the community and occupants. Businesses need a clear picture of their numbers to make smart financial decisions, which is where construction accounting comes into play.
  3. Social sustainability This pillar is all about creating spaces that respond to the needs of the community, and improve overall quality of life for people using them. Socially sustainable construction projects should promote wellbeing for occupants and the wider community.

Is sustainable construction more expensive?

While the initial costs for a sustainable construction project can be higher, these are typically offset by utility savings. For example, research has shown that BREEAM certification has a positive impact on office rental prices. Meanwhile, the use of durable materials and good design can also generate savings through reduced energy and water consumption – and extend the life of a building.

It’s also worth noting that the UK has environmental taxes, reliefs, and schemes for businesses making green choices. For example, you might be able to get a relief or exemption from taxes if:

  • your business is energy-intensive by nature
  • your small business doesn’t use much energy
  • you invest in energy-efficient technology for your business

You can learn more about such financial incentives here.

Construction accounting software can help you keep track of the costs and provide evidence for tax relief or exemptions. Using a system like Procore within the Xero app will help you stay on top of expenses by putting the information you need at your fingertips.

Why is sustainable construction important?

The UK has set a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But this goal isn’t the only reason to pursue sustainable construction. There are countless sustainable construction benefits, including:

1. Environmental protection

Biodiversity is essential to human life on earth. By choosing sustainable construction practices, you can limit the negative impact of buildings on the environment and contribute to environmental preservation. For example, opt for solar panels so occupants don’t have to rely on fossil fuels for energy, or choose recycled materials instead of new ones.

2. Resource conservation

Natural resources are often depleted by traditional construction methods. Choosing renewable, non-toxic, and durable materials can help with resource conservation. Sheep wool insulation is a great example of a natural material that can be regenerated. Take your resource conservation efforts one step further by investing in more efficient waste management and recycling.

3. Cost savings

As we’ve already touched on, long-term cost savings can be significant for sustainable construction projects. These can be made through the design of the building, as well as the materials chosen. For example, well-insulated buildings lose heat more slowly, so it takes less energy to keep them at the right temperature. Buildings with skylights and windows positioned towards the sun gain light and heat naturally, so you don’t need to turn up the thermostat.

4. Improved indoor air quality

Good air quality is essential for our health. Sustainable construction methods can improve indoor air quality through the use of non-toxic materials that emit fewer pollutants, and natural ventilation that tops up the fresh air.

5. Community development

Buildings have an essential role to play in community wellbeing. Sustainable construction can contribute to the development of thriving communities by improving walkability, providing green spaces, and even inspiring rooftop agriculture.

6. Adaptability to climate change

Sustainable design and construction can help buildings withstand extreme weather events and natural disasters. Often, climate change construction makes use of the natural environment. For example, you can protect buildings against floods by surrounding them with trees and vegetation which soak up excess water.

7. Supporting economic development

Construction projects big and small need boots on the ground. By embracing sustainable construction, you can stimulate the local economy through job opportunities and support nearby businesses by sourcing materials closer to the site.

How can construction be more sustainable?

You can improve the sustainability of your construction projects by choosing the right materials and methods. Let’s dig into some examples.

1. Using sustainable construction materials

Certain construction materials have a more negative environmental impact than others. For example, concrete production is extremely carbon-intensive and responsible for nearly 8% of global CO2 emissions every year.

Choosing sustainable construction materials can have ongoing benefits for the building’s occupants and the surrounding community. Here are a few examples of more environmentally friendly materials:

  • Cross-laminated timber (CLT) is a carbon-negative material, which means it takes more CO2 out of the atmosphere than it emits.
  • Recycled materials make use of resources that could otherwise go to waste, and limit the need to use raw resources for building projects.
  • Renewable materials can be regrown and regenerated, so you won’t be depleting a finite resource by using them.
  • Low-embodied energy materials require low levels of energy to produce, such as brick and timber.
  • Low-VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) materials are less damaging for the environment (and us) because they contain a lower level of harmful chemicals than other materials. High levels of VOCs cause damage to the ozone layer.
  • Bio-based materials come from nature and can often be replenished quickly. Take bamboo as an example – small plants can reach adulthood in as little as three years. Use it for flooring, room dividers or support structures.
  • Non-toxic materials emit no or incredibly low levels of toxins, making them safer for humans to be around. High levels of toxins can be dangerous for occupants and damaging to the environment.
  • Local materials are sourced close to the construction site, so less fuel is required to transport them. Choosing them also helps support the local economy, business owners, and workers.
  • Durable materials withstand the test of time (and the elements), so they don’t need to be replaced as regularly.

Practising sustainable construction methods

Running an environmentally conscious construction project requires more than just picking sustainable materials. You need to use those materials in combination with sustainable construction practices.

Here are some examples of sustainable construction methods you can adopt:

  • Incorporating energy-efficient design means you maximise the resources you’ve got. Ensuring there’s room for plenty of insulation, mapping out areas for ventilation, and building with airtightness in mind can all contribute to a more sustainable project.
  • Reducing waste and conserving natural resources limits your impact on the planet. Get clear on which materials can be recycled and repurposed. Where possible, use recycled resources instead of raw materials.
  • Creating buildings that are healthy and comfortable for occupants improves the social sustainability pillar. Plenty of integrated green spaces, natural light, and ventilation means occupants can exist in harmony with their local environment.
  • Promoting walkability and access to green spaces can improve the health and wellbeing of occupants and the wider community. For example, buildings with green spaces and plants have a positive impact on the productivity, wellbeing, and health of workers.
  • Considering the entire life cycle of the building will help you future proof your property. By selecting materials and designs fit for the future – think, heat pumps and solar panels that generate green energy – you won’t need to make additional upgrades to the building. More upgrades = more raw materials.

Sustainable construction examples

There are plenty of organisations, guidelines, and stand-out sustainable buildings you can take inspiration from. Here are a handful of examples:

  1. Passivhaus standard is a low-energy building standard for new and existing buildings. Measured targets focus on factors such as ventilation, temperature control, and airtightness. This results in buildings that require less energy and provide a healthier environment for occupants.
  2. BREEAM certification assesses the environmental performance of buildings on criteria such as whole-life performance, health and social impact, and biodiversity. The standard is widely used in the UK and applicable to all kinds of buildings.
  3. Living Roofs promotes and advocates for green roofs and living walls in urban areas. The organisation produces and curates research on green roofs, and their campaigning led to the creation of the first living roof policy in the UK.
  4. The Green Infrastructure Framework is a government campaign focused on providing green and blue spaces (like parks, nature reserves, lakes, and rivers) within a 15-minute walk for all people living in the UK. Developers can take inspiration from 15 principles to construct buildings and infrastructure within this framework.

Become a more sustainable construction business

In this guide we’ve explored:

  • The three pillars of sustainable construction and how you can meet all of them in your construction business.
  • The benefits of sustainable construction materials and practices, for you, your clients, and the wider community.
  • Examples of sustainable construction initiatives you can seek inspiration from.

However, to truly make a commitment to sustainable construction and reap the rewards, you need to have a clear picture of your finances.

Accounting software for construction businesses can help you make sense of your cash flow, track your inventory, and clarify what’s coming in and going out in your business. Then you can focus on making sustainable decisions that serve your clients and elevate your work.


Xero does not provide accounting, tax, business or legal advice. This guide has been provided for information purposes only. You should consult your own professional advisors for advice directly relating to your business or before taking action in relation to any of the content provided.

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