How construction is enhancing biodiversity

29th November 2019


Simone Codrington lists some of the ways the building industry is alleviating its impact on natural ecosystems

The construction industry can face a lot of negative stereotypes concerning its impact on the environment. However, in recent years, construction companies around the world have been working to change this with carbon and waste reduction targets and more sustainable buildings. They have also been doing more to protect and enhance the natural environment and biodiversity.

The term 'biodiversity' has picked up a lot of momentum during the past few years, with a new focus on areas such as natural capital and net positive gain. While construction projects are already legally expected to follow the principles of protection during construction, planning committees are asking for more action on reducing the loss of biodiversity. Prior to construction, it is standard practice for developers to have specialist ecological surveys carried out and then follow recommendations for the protection of a site's ecological features, such as trees, nesting birds and protected species. These recommendations can include carrying out works outside of nesting season and relocating species. However, many companies are now looking to enhance biodiversity beyond planning requirements by including native wildflower meadows, balancing ponds and green retaining walls in projects. Wildflower meadows are a great alternative to standard grass, as many mixes require less mowing and provide a beautiful area while also creating an ideal habitat for many insect species, such as pollinators.

National awards such as the CIRIA Big Biodiversity Challenge aim to raise greater awareness of the importance of biodiversity and demonstrate how biodiversity enhancements can be incorporated at different scales and on different projects. The awards specifically reward entries that go beyond normal business practice. For example, Andrew Gladwin from Willmott Dixon was the senior environmental manager for The Cotton End Forest School project in Bedford, winning the BIG Biodiversity Champion Award 2019 for his contributions to the project's biodiversity. Along with regular site visits, he ran a Biodiversity Roadshow to help the project team understand the 'whys' of making biodiversity enhancements above landscaping requirements. These enhancements, such as networks of swales and mixed native hedgerow planting, are often value-engineered out of projects due to budget constraints, but were included in this project's final design due to his positive engagement with the project team.

Many construction companies now create project-specific biodiversity action plans for all new developments, encouraging teams to think about what positive contributions could be made to the environment. This can include enhancements during construction as well as for the final project. If nothing can be included on the final project due to customer priorities, budget or space, then the operations team could include something as part of the site set-up, such as planters with flowers that attract pollinators. They can also offset at a local green space if there isn't provision on their own project. This could include planting trees or hedgerows, helping with the management of a local nature reserve or creating new habitats.

A method for increasing biodiversity that many companies have adopted is green roof or green wall installation; this doesn't limit the available square meterage or building size, but still produces many benefits. Significant benefits include control of water, reducing the likelihood of flash floods during heavy rainfall, and improved air quality, as the vegetation filters pollutants and particulates.

As part of their corporate social responsibility schemes and interest in leaving a lasting legacy, many companies include tree planting ceremonies as part of their new development projects. This is great for including the local community and new building users in developments and can also be an excellent educational tool for school projects. This will likely be seen more often in the construction industry and beyond as the public and private sectors start to learn about the benefits that biodiversity provides to people's health and wellbeing. These health benefits are particularly important for care homes and healthcare centres.

So, as many high profile construction projects contribute to green infrastructure, the construction industry hopes to change the negative narrative.

Simone Codrington is an assistant sustainability manager at Willmott Dixon and sits on the IEMA Futures Steering Group.

Image credit: iStock

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