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Chapter 4 of No Waste (978-0-5660-8803-2) by Uly Ma

People, Construction and Sustainability: The Social Elements


This Chapter of the book is about the social elements of sustainability, beginning with a general introduction and followed by exploring some of the main issues relating to people in construction: people; skills; health and safety; communications; and marketing.

Although construction employs a large number of people in the UK, many work as subcontractors who may not share either the client’s or main contractor’s vision and culture. There is a risk that both the range of social sustainability activities and the various different interpretations of social sustainability can mean that people may end up doing things differently as well as doing different things. The impacts of not sharing the same set of objectives can be made worse by the large turnover of staff during a construction project as trades move in and out as required. The situation makes effective communications quite a challenge because the same message not only needs to be repeated, but perhaps also adapted for different teams of people. The rapid turnover of staff can lead to some managers feeling detached from their ever-changing workforce. Would you take time out to consider the welfare of people who may leave the project tomorrow and many whom you may never see again?

This diminished enthusiasm is not just about welfare, but also about skills development and health and safety. Perhaps some of it can be attributed to the overwhelming vastness of the social sustainability agenda. Since just about any progressive human resources or public relations activity can become part of a social sustainability campaign, the vastness also leads to an elusiveness – you are pursuing an ever-expanding and ever-changing subject. Where do you start? (And can you ever stop?)

It does not help when sometimes, social sustainability can appear to be contradictory to conventional business thinking. For example, one element in social sustainability is about the links with the local community. This is where the smaller local building firms are already doing – by virtue of being small and local. According to Stuart Green, professor at Reading University, local firms are more embedded in the community and therefore better poised to support the needs of the local stakeholders. This may be partly because both its clients and workforce come from the same community. Nevertheless, this is the reality for locally-based firms long before sustainability, community investment or corporate responsibility are viewed as something good to do. However, conventional business thinking also suggests that economies of scale can have a significant impact on the costs of a construction business. So does this mean stop growing and stick with the community or grow to deliver a better return on the business investments but become separated from your local links?

Whether being local really encourage a greater sense of corporate responsibility is debatable – think cowboy builders. But what about the community itself? Would a community that comprises like-minded people (in this case being progressive towards sustainability) make an impact in encouraging the industry as well? Michael Kohn of Slider Studio, an architectural practice, is working on a system of housing development called ‘Enabled Self Procurement’ (or ESP). Michael’s view is that residents are interested in how their community is planned and that his proposed system and supporting software will allow them to take part in a coordinated framework where the planning permission, building regulations and the actual construction have all been sorted. This is an example of our industry at its best, listening to the end users – the community.

But does social sustainability mean keeping your focus local? Can a company focus successfully on the needs of local communities while growing to become a regional, then national and finally global construction company? Or does this mean we need to be more flexible in planning our social sustainability actions? All these questions are tough ones to answer because there appears to be no right answer, down to the most fundamental one: is there a definition of social sustainability?

Just What is Social Sustainability?

I put this question to Rebecca Lovelace, director of Circle Three Consulting, a specialist consultancy on community investment in the construction sector. Her answers and ideas helped me shape this chapter and highlighted how different aspects of construction and management activities can work together to form the practice of social sustainability.

Lovelace believed that social sustainability is something much talked about in construction. Although almost everyone shares an agreement that we need to do better in the social aspects of sustainability, it is much harder to define what it actually is.

Looking at the overall picture of sustainability in construction, Lovelace echoed what I mentioned earlier: there is certainly recognition of the economic and social aspects to sustainability, but it has been the ‘green’ or environmental issues that has been the main driver for sustainability in general. The need for legal compliance on environmental issues and the provision of a response to media pressures has meant we have the skewed system described by Guy Hazlehurst in Chapter 2.

A cynical approach to how construction professionals and managers see sustainability currently could therefore be summed up as:

  • is this project financially sustainable? (or: can we afford to build it and will it make money?);

  • are we meeting environmental legislation requirements? (or: are we going end up in court?); and

  • are there enough skilled workers for the lifecycle of the project? (or: will we need to pay more to get the skills we need?).


Nevertheless, at least people are thinking about sustainability, however cynical their thoughts may be. Still, in my discussions with Rebecca Lovelace, she felt that the social element – or the ‘people side of things’ – is still placed on a lower priority than the environmental and economic elements. Fair enough, finance is important since we need to make sure that we do not go out of business. Environmental sustainability has teeth because of the many laws – nobody wants to damage their hard-earned reputation through going to court or paying fines and risk going out of business.

But as she asks, is it simply a case that no one quite ‘gets’ social sustainability because it is such a massive issue with no real framework within which a clear definition exists? How can construction companies justify spending time and effort to build stronger and healthier societies when there’s a building contract to complete? Is it really down to us in construction to build a better and stronger society? Are we supposed to be building not just the physical part of society but also the social bits? Should this be something the government is responsible for? Is this not what our taxes are for? Or should these be carried out by us in our role as volunteer citizens as suggested by the UK government?

These questions and attitudes are on many people’s mind. We just do not voice them because they cause embarrassment. It is embarrassing because we seem to be saying that the government is not up to it, embarrassing also because it can also say that we do not care about other people. But wait a minute, are we not in a market capitalism society where only the fittest survive? Yes to the market capitalism but even that is evolving. We are now in a more compassionate society, market capitalism or not. Once again, our ‘business as before’ philosophy needs to evolve and adapt so we can thrive in the current social climate. It may mean the cost of doing business is higher than before. But with both social pressures and legislation, there are ample reason to change and deliver a more effective business formula that encompasses the social needs in construction.

In our discussions, Lovelace further asserted that we in the industry are already doing a lot of progressive activities but it is just that we have not put it all together and called it social sustainability. This is somewhat compounded by not having a set of real industry-wide benchmarking/reporting tools. While this is an on-going challenge for some companies, many others are already doing things that are often considered to be part of Corporate Social Responsibility or Community Investment, or under the banner of Human Resources, Health and Safety or Learning and Development. Lovelace suggested that if these activities are grouped together there is more potential for industry-wide benchmarking as represented in the global level guidance, such as the UN Global Compact1 [42] and the International Finance Corporation’s Equator Principles.2 [43] She commended The London Benchmarking Group as a good example of companies working together to measure Corporate Community Investment.3 [44] The problem, perhaps, is that although social sustainability is present in most companies but often these are used as elements of competitive edge to distinguish one company from another.4 [45]

The Global Compact

The UN Global Compact is about businesses behaving in a more responsible fashion. Unfortunately, it is both vague and somewhat bureaucratic in its original wording. I have prepared the following abbreviation stripped of much of the original jargon – not a lot can be done, however, for the vagueness. The original version can be downloaded from the UN Global Compact website:

  • Businesses supporting and respecting internationally proclaimed human rights.

  • Business to make sure that they are not part of human rights abuses.

  • Businesses supporting the freedom to form and belong to trades unions.

  • Forced and compulsory labour should be eliminated.

  • End child labour.

  • No discrimination in employment and occupation.

  • Businesses should take greater care when dealing with sensitive environmental issues.

  • Businesses should establish activities to promote greater environmental responsibility.

  • Businesses should support the development and spread the use of environmentally friendly technologies.

  • Businesses should work against corruption in all its forms including bribery and extortion.


Although at first glance these may seem to be stating the obvious, but it is clear that even in advanced rich countries like the UK, we read about these types of problems. Poor health and safety practices by a contractor is an abuse of the human rights and dignity of the workforce; blacklisting workers is a form of discriminatory practice; similarly, the Office of Fair Trading’s investigation (2007 to 2009) into price fixing and cover pricing shows that the UN Global Compact has a role even in the UK. Unfortunately, like a lot of these things, there is no teeth behind the Global Compact.

The Equator Principles

This is, to quote the official blurb, ‘a benchmark for the financial industry to manage social and environmental issues in project financing’.2 In essence, the Equator Principles suggest that if you are investing in a country without effective national social and environmental legislation, then use the principles as a guide and do not go for exploitation and other unprincipled activities. The difference to the UN Global Compact is that the Equator Principles are aimed at project financing by banks and other financial institutions. Banks and other bodies that adopt these principles should therefore not invest in projects over US$10 million unless these conform to the ten principles. My (hopefully) jargon-free interpretation of the principles look something like this:

  1. Review and categorisation (yes, these people are also bureaucrats): this is about the banks reviewing the environmental and social due diligence of the finance with emphasis on the impacts of the project.

  2. Social and environmental assessment: this is for the borrower to carry out to the satisfaction of the lender.

  3. Applicable social and environmental standards: this is basically about applying specific guidelines in countries that are not in the OECD.5 [46] The guidelines are developed by the World Bank (parent of the International Finance Corporation).

  4. Action plan and management system: the borrower has to prepare a plan to mitigate impacts and risks identified in the assessment. Again, this is the approach for non-OECD6 [47] countries, otherwise, national laws apply.

  5. Consultation and disclosure: this is to make sure that the people impacted by investment are consulted in ‘an appropriate manner … to ensure free, prior and informed consultation’. The consultation will also need to be made public.

  6. Grievance mechanism: this is to allow the people impacted by the investment to complain about it and have their concerns addressed by the borrower.

  7. Independent review: this is to allow independent review of the assessment (number 2 above); the action plan (number 4 above); and the consultation process (number 5 above).

  8. Covenants: this covers regulatory compliance of the host country, sticking to the Action Plan (number 4 above), providing reports and carry out any decommissioning as agreed.

  9. Independent monitoring and reporting: this is where the borrowers pay external specialists to verify what it has done with the investment and report back to the financiers.

  10. Equator principles financial institutions reporting: this is where the financiers reports publicly on their equator principles investments.


The Equator Principles can be seen as taking on some of the roles of social and environmental legislation commonly encountered in OECD/rich countries. However, putting the onus on the investor is a good idea to ensure some compliance. The relevance for construction in the UK is perhaps less evident, but if you borrow money from banks that have signed up to the Equator Principles, then you may need to comply. (Of course, in a credit crunch, not many people are able to borrow or lend money, despite UK banks being the original group that set up the Equator Principles.)

At a national level, the rich countries have legal frameworks that dignify the individual and compel corporate behaviour. Although not many go as far as the Himalayan country of Bhutan, where the ‘Gross National Happiness’ is part of the national plan. The UK government has its sustainability principles which include ‘ensuring a strong, healthy and just society’ to describe the social elements of sustainable development.7 [48] This principle is about ‘meeting the diverse needs of all people in existing and future communities, promoting personal well-being, social cohesion and inclusion and creating equal opportunity for all’.8 [49]

Social Sustainability at the Ground Level

For all the lofty top-down comments, what is social sustainability as seen from a construction project? Clearly, it is not likely that many clients and contractors will adopt the Gross National Happiness as an index of corporate performance (although individually, most will agree that happiness does matter). Nevertheless, much of the Global Compact and the Equator Principles are informally part of the way we do business in the UK. The types of activities that can be catalogued into this rather wide topic can include, for example:

  • Stopping construction workers wolf whistling at women passing the construction site;

  • Providing more than the minimum in site welfare facilities;

  • Implementing an adequately budgeted health and safety initiative;

  • Employing local people whether unskilled or inexperienced;

  • Buy materials locally;

  • Promoting healthier life style through an information programme on site;

  • Facilities for people coming to work on bicycles with secured bike sheds and so on;

  • Offering paternity leave or flexible working for office staff;

  • Supporting the local community through Section 106 funded activities;9 [50]

  • Offering staff time off to support local community actions;

  • A Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or Community Investment strategy that enshrines social sustainability activities as part of the corporate mission;

  • Design a development or a regeneration programme that takes into account the social needs of people living in the area; and

  • … (you can extend this list with whatever you deem necessary for your particular project).


Reality Check for Social Sustainability

There is one common factor in the list above besides social sustainability – they involve some form of behaviour change from ‘business as before’ to ‘business for sustainability’. Change, other than stopping the wolf whistling, tends to cost money, and the list of activities above can add up to a significant cost. Whether your company or client is happy to pay this because they believe it is the right thing to do or treat the costs as a sustainability levy, money still needs to be spent. I will explore reducing these costs in Chapter 8 and behaviour changes in Chapter 16.

Although many projects carry out the activities listed above, the scope of social sustainability can be confusing for people working in construction as well as people from outside the industry. There are procurement issues (local buying); social issues (local employment); social engineering issues (eat more healthily); gender issues (wolf whistling); grand strategic issues (coordination with local regeneration); and marketing issues (greenwash).

Where do we start in a discussion on social sustainability? Do we start with the grand gestures – where a company expresses its deep and sincere commitment to the local society whether it is practical or not? Or do we start with the pragmatic actions – where a company graciously carries out activities that society is pressuring it to do anyway? Do we start on site? At the office or somewhere else?

A simple way to assess these needs is to use the criticality analysis described in Chapter 1. An adaptation for social sustainability is shown on Figure 4.1. The original Criticality Analysis for Sustainability (see Introduction) has three elements for the social areas:

  1. Committed parties: the employees and investors. These people either committed their money or their livelihoods with the company.

  2. Involved parties: suppliers and customers. These people essentially have some form of contractual relationship with the company.


Both these groups either pay the company or get paid by the company (or they deliver value to the company or get value from the company). Whereas the third group has no contractual relationship with the company at all. These people are the:

  • 3. Interested parties: the broader society and its regulatory bodies. These people have no real links with the company but exert an influence which may be regulatory, social or emotional.


Figure 4.1 Criticality analysis for social sustainability


(Trying to) Keep Everyone Happy – Criticality for Social Sustainability

How are social sustainability actions going to be applied to these three groups, bearing in mind that we also have to do some constructing during a project? How do we use our sustainability actions and add value to them to make a real difference? Lovelace suggested that we should start with the premise that ‘happiness is the foundation upon which we build our needs’. In other words, if we are going to make these three groups happy, what do we need to do? By considering ‘increasing happiness’ as a possible social sustainability mission statement. What does that mean for the committed, involved and interested groups?

Committed to Happiness

The committed group comprises investors and employees, it is a no-brainer that the basic ingredient for happiness will be a good return on investment and continued employment respectively.

A reality check tells us that it is unlikely most investors in construction companies are doing it for altruistic reasons – if you do, you might as well give money to charities directly. So investors want to see a decent return on their investment. Decent is a relative term – if another sector offers better returns then some investment will move to those sectors. Remember those construction companies that reshaped themselves into service companies to run PFI contracts recently? Many did so because ‘service’ attracted a better rate of return than ‘straight’ construction. Essentially, investors wants to get ever better returns on their investment and often they are prepared to pay an initial premium if they believe there is assurance of a bigger pay-off.

Employees seek a number of things as shown in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (see Figure 4.2).10 [51]

Figure 4.2 Individual and corporate focus


During the good times, people tend to focus on self-growth as life is more stable and there is time to think about self-growth and development. But during the tougher times, the stability is gone and the focus switches to survival – hunkering down and sitting out the storm. People’s needs shrink back to the basic ones of shelter and food – i.e. staying employed.

Involved in Happiness

The involved group are basically on contracts of one sort or another as either suppliers or contractors. A third group of involved relationship is a partnership that is neither supplier or contractor – much like how my sustainability project NoWaste11 [52] is working with ConstructionSkills at the big construction project in Stratford (which cannot be named because I am not a sponsor). The ingredients of happiness for these relationships will mostly be various flavours of ‘hassle-free success’: on-time; to specifications; and to cost.

For these two or three groups, an ability to just deliver on time, to specification and to cost together with avoiding embarrassments – in other words, just having a good day with no major or minor disasters, will probably contribute significantly to the happiness quotient.

Interested in Happiness

The interested group is perhaps less easy to define principally because it comprises everyone with their different needs and demands. This group can include society at large as well as the local neighbours of our projects. Nevertheless, happiness for this varied group can probably be described as ‘no news is likely to mean good news’. In other words, if the construction industry can avoid the headlines: accidents on site; collapsing buildings; Office of Fair Trading inquires; or cowboy builder antics, the interested stakeholders are likely to find something else to be interested in.

All these different needs can be wrapped up as basic social sustainability actions: look after the people you deal with and being respectful to your neighbours. Just doing these well and you can be assured you are meeting a good proportion of their needs.

Social sustainability therefore becomes a somewhat easier goal to aim for once we understand that it is actually quite simple. It, as Lovelace suggested, is the integration of the many things we are already doing: training; enhancing work–life balance; toolbox talks; recruitment; health and safety; welfare facilities; community activities; and so on. An added bonus is that each of these also contributes to building a better society and providing more opportunities for people in that society.

When you combine these activities to the other sustainability elements of financial and environment management, it becomes clear that just as finance is an enabler, social sustainability is also an enabler. Achieving the Triple Bottom Line, described in Chapter 1, will not really be possible without dedicated people and some budget. If people are happier, then everything just get achieved a little bit easier.

Since this book promotes the view that sustainability belongs to everyone, rather than just senior decision makers, a bottom-up approach is recommended. The social sustainability checklist I propose is the Lovelace List, an action-led approach described in Chapter 13.

The End-Users of the Sustainable Buildings

One aspect of social sustainability in construction is the treatment of the end-user. I do not intend to go into this deeply as my focus is in managing sustainability in construction. During the writing of this book, I was told by a sustainability specialist that, in his opinion, some architects pay lip service to sustainability. ‘They are only interested in ticking boxes,’ he said. He then gave me examples of automatic PIR sensors12 [53] on room lights but with no daylight overrides. Therefore people working (and walking) in an office in broad daylight will always have all the lights on. Even if these are energy saving lights, you are still wasting electricity. My colleague then screamed his frustrations about another one of these modern offices. There is one switch on the wall and it looks like a light switch. Therefore people flick it as they leave the room but instead, this switch turns off the PIR, so the light stays on. Then my colleague told me that there are still large new open plan offices with one thermostat for the whole floor. I thought the old Energy Efficiency Best Practice Programme13 [54] managed to see off this type of control system designs, but apparently not. It seems that no matter what the codes specify, my colleague reckoned there will always be designers who take the view of ‘This is only a job and I will never work or live in that building.’

My colleague’s cynicism and frustrations about some of our colleagues were confirmed by Mindy Hadi of BRE, a consultancy. Hadi told me that ‘a building is a system and that includes the people occupying it’. She further adds designers ‘cannot design a building as though it is an empty box in isolation’. She believed that ‘if a building does not work for its occupants, it is not sustainable no matter how green it is’.14 [55]

The Recession and All That – Caveats for Social Sustainability

Part of this section was written before the construction industry fell off a cliff in mid-2008. Since then, thousands of jobs have gone and many are still going despite the reports in the trade press about developers starting to rebuild their land banks and house prices creeping up in the UK from summer 2009. In the summer of 2010, the national news reported that the UK economy had grown at a much higher rate, thanks to the construction industry. While business is booming, it is easier to take on additional non-core activities as part of the business activities. By this I mean anything that does not add to the functionality of the building, such as the social elements in sustainability. When times are tough, whether it is recession or the early stages of recovery, is there sufficient justification to cut back on everything that is not part of the core activities?

This is a tough one to answer. If everyone is doing it, then it becomes a stampede to the lowest common denominator. The situation then becomes a matter of comparative advantage – the socially aware company will have an advantage of its reputation, but also suffers from higher costs. It is almost a matter of who can hold their breath longest while being under the flood of recession. Of course, this is the case in a ‘perfect’ competitive environment, but not necessarily the reality in the UK. Our market situation can often be distorted with local authority planning obligations. The use of the Section 106 Agreements also brings added social sustainability aspirations (or complications) into the process. So we muddle through, recession or not. 15 [56]

Besides the headline items on the social sustainability agenda, there is a host of related issues that are not always attached to sustainability but have strong implications for a full transformation to sustainable construction. There are two strands to sustainable construction: build sustainably; and build sustainable buildings. The former is really the way forward but this requires changes in behaviour. The latter is just meeting a client desire and it is how a lot of companies treat sustainability. However, whether you are a designer or a builder, there are opportunities not just to build sustainable buildings, but also to run your business in a sustainable way – the office; the project site; and dealing with people (the committed, involved and interested).

Social sustainability is not just about having checklists, ‘we build to level 4 of the Code for Sustainable Homes’ or ‘we have a BREEAM certificate’, it is also about the relationship with people during the process of building. Making people happier should perhaps come with a caveat: make people happier so that they can become more innovative. People in the industry needs to be motivated so that they think a little beyond meeting the letter of the current requirements.

Rebecca Lovelace finished her discussion with me by suggesting actions to take us forward towards integrating social sustainability more strategically into our industry:

  • Carry out an audit of all community investment activities taking place within the company and on construction projects. It’s amazing how often much of what is happening is not captured or formally coordinated.

  • Think strategically – is there capacity to do more? Which activities would bring greater benefit to both our company and their communities?

  • Leverage your combined expertise by working in partnership with communities.

  • Develop and implement a strategic and integrated community investment strategy.

  • Ensure that there is adequate public measurement, evaluation and reporting on all community investment activities.


She recommends that we ask ourselves four critical questions:

  1. Do I respect the people working with me?

  2. Do I recognise their contributions?

  3. Do I reward them in an open and fair way?


And perhaps most importantly:

  • 4. Do I want to make people happier?


A ‘yes’ answer to any of these questions gets you started on social sustainability. These questions also form the basis of the 3R tool: respect; recognition; and reward. This is described in the Chapter 16.

In Chapter 13, I will examine how the various ideas from this chapter are turned into a useful checklist for the things you can do to make social sustainability happen easier under an adverse (or improving) economic climate.

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