Constructing a high degree of ability

1st June 2015

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Kevin Marley

Paul Suff on how Willmott Dixon is using the IEMA skills map to build competence

Building a manor house in the Sussex countryside in the 1930s from reclaimed materials is evidence that construction business Willmott Dixon has had a long commitment to sustainable development.

Since completing Baliffscourt at Climping in 1933, Willmott Dixon (WD) has continued to build sustainability into its business model. Milestones more recently include: becoming in 2006 the first UK construction firm to establish its own internal sustainability consultancy (Re-Think); installing sustainability managers in each of its local construction offices in 2008 to help embed sustainability and implementing a 10-point plan to drive the concept at site level; and, in 2009, appointing environmental champion Jonathon Porritt to its board.

Ensuring its staff and suppliers have the skills and knowledge to deliver sustainable development is core to WD's strategy and achieving its nine 2020 ambitions, which are grouped under four themes:

  • Responsible business. Ambitions include: leave a sustainable legacy across the built environment through collaboration across the sector to improve environmental standards, improve design and building quality, and influence government.
  • Reduce carbon footprint and decouple business growth from carbon emissions. Ambitions: reduce carbon footprint, maintain carbon neutrality and work towards decoupling emissions from business growth.
  • Reduce environmental impacts and use of natural resources. Ambitions: reduce the amount of construction waste and achieve zero waste to landfill.
  • Invest in communities and the wellbeing of people. Ambitions include: leave a lasting legacy in communities, helping them to thrive and prosper by enabling and creating a sustainable built environment.

Building the framework

WD has developed self-development competence matrices to ensure employees have the technical skills to deliver sustainable buildings. This work has included taking the IEMA skills map to construct a programme of environmental and sustainability skills for the whole workforce, from induction to board leadership (see extract, "When I first saw the map, I could see its potential to be translated at an organisational level," says Martin Ballard, group environment manager. "We had a couple of workshops to explore that possibility and then set out a framework to structure our existing training delivery within the levels of the map."

WD became a corporate member of IEMA in 2012. Ballard explains that the company sees the professional body as the ideal partner to help it raise environmental and sustainability competence across its 3,360 workforce and secure approval for its in-house training courses: "IEMA corporate membership is very valuable to WD. It has helped us on our long-term journey to gain recognition for the training we have been doing as well as assisting us to move forward and implement it across our entire business."

The map has been translated into four levels: induction, operations, management and leadership. "These mirror the skills map's entry, operational, managerial and leadership levels," says Ballard. The induction level is for new starters, support staff, and trainees and apprentices, while operations covers a range of disciplines, from planners, design coordinators, surveyors and supply chain managers to supervisors and site managers. The management level consists of environment sustainability professionals, while leadership comprises directors and managing directors.

Ballard says WD has not adopted the specialist category contained in the IEMA skills map because it is not entirely relevant to the firm's activities. However, this may change in the future and may be something that the company considers for its own sustainability consultants.

The skills for the job

Each of the four levels has its own training syllabus based on WD's register of environmental legislation to ensure course content covers relevant areas of legal compliance. Environmental and sustainability topics covered by the training matrix are:

  • air emissions, operational energy and carbon;
  • nuisance - dust, noise, as well as issues detailed by the Considerate Constructors Scheme (CCS) and measures in a construction management plan;
  • pollution prevention;
  • water - consumption during construction and surface water flooding;
  • waste and materials - resource efficiency;
  • contaminated land;
  • timber;
  • biodiversity and habitat; and
  • planning and archaeology.

Training is a mix of online and classroom-based learning. "We make use of online training, particularly for the basics, but like to follow it with face-to-face learning because it's important to build relationships," says Ballard.

Most of the training is delivered by in-house environment and sustainability practitioners. "It's the most sensible approach," he says. "Our safety team has delivered courses for a long time, so it makes sense to use the knowledge and expertise of our environment and sustainability team in a similar way." Ballard explains that in-house provision makes the training relevant to WD and its values and standards.

Environment managers are expected to attain full IEMA membership and/or Chartered environmentalist status in order to deliver training.

Ballard says knowledge and understanding of the nine topic areas are covered lightly at induction, mainly using a 60-minute online course. It is supplemented by company inductions on health, safety and environment, and project-specific training based on risk and need, which is often delivered at site "toolbox" talks.

"The course provides a brief introduction of legal compliance needs, company policy, management structure and process," he says. Trainees also learn about reporting incidents and sustainable business practices, including identifying efficiency improvements. "The induction course provides an introduction to the basics, leaving site managers and supervisors free to focus solely on site-specific aspects at local meetings," explains Ballard.

Course content covers all group activities at a level that reflects the needs of the four discipline groups covered - pre-construction, commercial, operations and support services. "Operational level training provides appropriate content, with detailed reference to environmental systems and guidance," says Ballard. Practitioners deliver the one-day or half-day discipline-specific course in each area, with delegates attending a refresher every five years covering the entire syllabus to make sure their knowledge is up to date.

Ballard explains how course content varies with the discipline. Staff in pre-construction roles, such as estimators, planners and design coordinators, receive training in all nine topics, while their colleagues in commercial activities, such as surveyors and supply chain managers, are unlikely to require training on pollution prevention and nuisance.

All the modules follow a similar structure, including an introduction to legislation and standards, though delegates are expected to do background reading before the course. The nuisance module, for example, provides an introduction to the legal obligations and guidance on mitigating the risk to the local community of dust, noise, vibration and aesthetic impacts as well as ensuring compliance with the CCS. Content ranges from what legislation, such as the Control of Pollution Act and the Environmental Protection Act, requires to standards like BS 5228 on noise and vibration control on construction and open sites. Participants are expected to read the WD nuisance and CCS guidance notes before attending. Learning outcomes are:

  • understand nuisance legislation and business risks;
  • apply practical and cost-effective best practice to projects and activities; and
  • identify the risks and benefits to the community and WD corporate image.

The biodiversity and habitat module highlights both the importance of protection and how the industry can take advantage of enhancement opportunities when they arise. The module also highlights WD's strategic partnership with the Wildlife Trusts, which is delivering mutual benefits. Ballard, who along with the firm's other professionals teaches on the environment and sustainability courses, says that it will show how WD can leave a positive legacy by mitigating its impact on habitat and biodiversity. "We discuss what biodiversity is, why it is important and how it is affected by construction and development."

As well as pertinent legislation, delegates also learn about biodiversity and habitat action plans, best practice activities, NGO engagement and simple steps they can take to enhance legacy.

Management level training tends to be project-specific and identified after a risk analysis. Subject experts usually deliver the courses face to face. Leadership level training is bespoke, depending on the needs of the division or board at the operating company, and delivered by discipline-focused strategy groups drawn from those in-house or outside (IEMA members) with the required expertise and technical competence. These sessions generally last no longer than three hours. Ballard says the training is geared towards providing senior management with knowledge for environmental protection and preparation for business resilience.

WD's senior management team have also taken part in the UK Green Building Council's sustainability leadership programme and the learning delivered through the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership.

Everybody plays a part

Like most of the UK construction industry, WD uses a large number of subcontractors. It is keen to improve environmental and sustainability knowledge among these suppliers, which number about 8,000. The company was a founder with Skanska of the supply chain sustainability school in 2012 (the environmentalist, November 2013). The school aims to help construction and facilities management suppliers and subcontractors develop their sustainability knowledge and competence.

In a further move to broaden the development of such understanding, WD has established its pre-enrolment scheme for contractors. It requires tradespeople, including carpenters, electricians, ground workers and painters, to complete an online questionnaire before starting on a site. Having been trailed over several months, WD introduced the scheme in September 2014. The questionnaire covers safety and environmental issues, including biodiversity, COSHH control (hazardous substances) and waste management, together with aspects of the CCS.

Ballard says the questionnaire, which differs from trade to trade and has multiple choice answers, has several benefits. "It ensures everyone on site has a basic understanding of the most important environmental issues. That saves the site manager a lot of time when the contractors first come on site, enabling them to focus on site matters, such as a specific archaeological issue, and the importance of things like waste management."

He explains that material and waste segregation is important as WD seeks to reduce its use of natural resources and achieve zero waste to landfill (see panel, left). "We aim to manage waste on our sites in the most efficient way and encourage reuse and recycling, and segregation. The pre-enrolment questionnaire plays a key role in this as it raises awareness about correct materials storage and waste before contractors even step on site."

Successful completion of the pre-enrolment questionnaire, which is an annual requirement, enables a contractor to work on any WD site.

WD's training facility, the 4Life Academy at Aston in Birmingham, provides another opportunity to impart sustainability knowledge more widely across the construction industry. Not only is the site used to train WD staff, employees from other organisations, such as those delivering Green Deal services, receive training there. "It's about developing a consistency of knowledge about safety and environment across the construction trades in the UK," says Ballard.

The way forward

As well as securing IEMA recognition for its training courses, Ballard says the next step is to take the training matrix developed from the Institute's skills map beyond the environment to cover other aspects of the sustainability agenda. "Environment is only one-third of the ‘triple bottom line' and we need to need do something similar to raise competence in the social and community areas," he says.

Ballard believes that any organisation can benefit from using the skills map: "You just have to make it relevant to your business."

Example: Willmott Dixon environmental training matrix

Award-winning waste management

An award-winning programme by Willmott Dixon (WD) in Wales highlights how developing broad awareness of the need to divert construction waste from landfill can produce tangible results.

The scheme, developed by assistant building manager Mark Wolverson and senior environment manager Jo Charles, involved challenging mindsets and changing the behaviour of workers on site. WD placed skips in a fenced, lockable area, with wheelie bins of waste from each contractor recorded and deducted from the "allowance" agreed during the tendering process. If a contractor produces less than their budget, WD credits their account. The aim is to encourage contractors to reuse materials.

WD compared the waste produced at two construction sites for similar new schools. It found that the site using the wheelie bins generated 50% less waste.

"We needed to change people's perceptions about common behaviour and we wanted to incentivise contractors to limit waste," says Charles.

Segregating and controlling waste in such a way requires space, so the scheme is not appropriate for every site. Nonetheless, WD group environment manager Martin Ballard confirms that the firm is seeking to roll it out across the business wherever it can.

The scheme won the innovation accolade at the Constructing Excellence in Wales awards in 2014.


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