Industry codes adopted by the construction sector spell out recommendations on the materials, design features and installations needed to meet higher environmental standards. However, companies with a far-sighted commitment to sustainability realise that is just one piece of the jigsaw.
From design to site management, new roles in the construction industry are emerging as companies look for more comprehensive ways to make their practices sustainable. These companies see that it is possible to be greener in virtually every area of operations, understanding that effective change is a matter of incremental steps, logical thinking and viewing the big picture.
"One of the critical issues for sustainability is that people need to start with the end in mind," said Shirlee Algire, group sustainability and corporate social responsibility manager for Gammon Construction. "We have set up a system to measure the impact of our work and what we can influence through things like procurement and on-site practices."
She noted that the company's HK$1.5 billion redevelopment of the Hennessy Centre in Causeway Bay was a good example of how to apply green principles in every aspect of a project.
Work on the 36-storey retail and office building, which will have a total gross floor area of 710,000 sqft, is due for completion in late 2011.
The design will use natural light and ventilation, have green spaces to reduce heat and use double-glazing for greater energy efficiency. These features - and others - will allow the building to achieve the platinum level under the United States-supervised Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design scheme and meet the highest requirements of Hong Kong's Building Environmental Assessment Method.
Despite that, David Kwok, contracts manager for Gammon Construction, said it was also important to find inventive site-specific solutions and not stick simply to recommended standards.
"We are looking to put a real sustainable building in Causeway Bay and believe the government and others can follow," he said.
As illustration, he noted that the company had put extra emphasis on site preparation and management. When they demolished the previous tower and excavated existing substructure, they sorted and recycled the material rather than dumping it in a landfill.
Metal and steel scrap went to a licensed collector for reprocessing; some of the asphalt was reused elsewhere; and much of the rock and concrete rubble was trucked to a reclamation site in Tuen Mun.
"They needed to check if our material was suitable, and most went for backfill at the project at Tuen Mun or other areas," Kwok said. "We managed things to minimise truck traffic and this kind of `twinning' also saved paying for [dumping at] a landfill."
With up to 600 people working on site at peak periods, there is always scope to implement new practices, while also improving the level of environmental awareness among staff and contractors.
For example, the stated aim is to use wood wisely throughout the construction phase. That means obtaining supplies from sustainable sources within reasonable distance of Hong Kong and then reusing it multiple times.
Planks may be used first for formwork in making concrete, then for decking and, ultimately, delivered to a recycling company for reprocessing as particle board or wood chippings for compost.
Similarly, there is a system to recycle water on site for general cleaning and to suppress dust. To reduce consumption further, timers are installed to switch off supplies at 7pm, leaving just what is essential for fire-fighting and emergencies. This can bring noticeable monthly cost savings and teaches people to value the resource.
"There is also a conscious effort not to leave equipment idling on site," Kwok said. "We bring this message to frontline workers in morning briefings." He added that providing data, targets and feedback relating to such issues was very important. It is key to establishing a culture that can educate and encourage further suggestions about ways to save money and do the right thing for the environment.
"A lot of effort goes into explaining the need to respect the community around the site and instilling that we mean what we say," Algire said.
She said good partnerships at different levels were needed to make things work well. That leads to better understanding and co-operation between government and the business sector, companies and staff, site managers and frontline employees. "You can't do it with just one side of the equation," she said.
Algire also said software could now play a big part in pre-planning on-site activity to maximise efficiency. Gammon's own building information management technology is able to streamline phases and improve on design co-ordination even before actual construction work began.