As the risks posed by climate change climb the corporate agenda, the construction industry is using sustainable building materials in order to minimise the carbon footprint of new infrastructure and protect the environment.

However, replacing traditional materials with sustainable alternatives can sometimes give rise to unexpected risks – so how should project managers prepare for this?

A clear understanding of sustainability

To ensure the risks around sustainability are properly managed, project managers should have a clear understanding of what they are aiming to achieve and the fundamental requirements of the programme. Having an appreciation of what sustainability means within the context of the programme is crucial – for example, does it refer to the use of sustainable materials alone, or the long-term use of the building too?


Early stage cost benefit analysis

Before prioritising sustainability, a cost-benefit analysis should be carried out at an early stage, and repeated in cases where the project team is being asked to use alternative materials. While they may have long-term benefits, eco-friendly materials can be more expensive and, in some cases, they may not provide sufficient benefit to justify the outlay.

Project managers should also ensure that stakeholders understand the whole-life cost of each specified material, as well as any associated risk factors and benefits it might bring.  Individual risk factors should be considered and analysed, including those associated with climatic uncertainties, such as fluctuating temperatures, and project managers should propose a specific mitigation strategy to tackle these. By planning ahead, designs can be amended at an early stage, whereas later on, the cost of any re-works or remediation could be both significant and disruptive.


Avoid over-specification and over-design

While a commitment to using sustainable materials is a positive step forward, all options should be considered fully at the outset. For example, in some situations it may make sense to use a more robust material, due to its structural resilience, rather than prioritising carbon reduction. In some cases, it may be possible to find a compromise by sourcing  durable materials made from recycled waste products. Avoiding over-specification and over-design is key, while ensuring structural optimisation. The environmental impacts and risk factors associated with transporting materials to the site should also be taken into account.


Delivering long-term benefits

Ultimately, the risks associated with using sustainable materials must be weighed up carefully. By prioritising these considerations at design stage, project managers can de-risk sustainable construction projects and and deliver benefits for stakeholders and the environment.