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Building towards zero carbon

Sustainability is top of the agenda for construction firm John Sisk & Son and the drive towards carbon neutrality has seen the company address its energy consumption, the building materials it uses, and its overall social impact

Sustainability is now very much at the top of the agenda for international construction firm John Sisk & Son. “Sustainability is a fundamental part of our business and our methods of work are constantly challenged to drive best practice,” says Sisk head of sustainability Brian Handcock.

“The Sisk sustainability goal is to take care of ourselves, the people we work with, the environment and the community in which we work.”

In the drive towards carbon neutrality, the company is addressing its energy consumption, the materials it uses in buildings, and its overall social impact. “We are doing a lot of work around our energy use and have been purchasing electric vehicles, procuring green energy, and looking at biofuels for our vehicles and plant where they are available.”

Diesel fuel is a particular area of focus. “We are doing everything we can to make sure the kit is in as good condition as possible to optimise efficiency and we are also looking at using alternative fuels like HVO [hydrotreated vegetable oil].”

Building materials is another. “Typically, the client specifies the materials,” Handcock notes. “We are seeking to influence that in terms of what we build and how we go about building it. We have made progress over the last two or three years but there is more to do. We are getting better at measuring and reporting our energy use, for example. The other piece is our social impact and what we can deliver there. We are being challenged to improve the broader communities where we work.”

Ian O’Connor is energy manager with Sisk with responsibility for its operations in Ireland, the UK and Europe. “My remit as energy manager is to achieve a significant reduction in our carbon footprint,” he explains. “We measure energy consumption, where it’s used, how it’s used, measure its efficiency, look at how to reduce consumption, and try to maximise procurement from sustainable sources.”

When O’Connor took over the role two years ago, 40 per cent of the company’s energy consumption was onsite diesel, 35 per cent was fleet fuel and the rest was mainly electricity. “We looked at it and found that we could address a big chunk of our fleet fuel by introducing EVs. The first thing we got was an electric pool car for the Dublin office for staff to take to and from office to sites. That went really well, and the best moment was when Steve Bowcott, our chief executive, used the car to go to a meeting. After that, the board of management committed to providing EVs to any member of staff that wanted one instead of a standard vehicle and we started putting chargers into all sites.”

EV fleet

The EV fleet has grown from one in February 2019 to 15 today. “It is growing very quickly, and we now have more EVs than chargers but that’s a good problem to have,” O’Connor says.

One of the challenges the company has faced has been in managing energy consumption. “Up until recently, we were measuring at the point of supply,” says O’Connor. “That’s not good from an energy management point of view. We are moving to point-of-use measurement. We know how much fuel we take in and we have started to use telematics on pieces of plant to tell us how much fuel is used every hour, if the machine is idling and so on. We then apply the science of energy management to the data. We are also putting in sub-meters on site to show where energy is being used during the day.”

One area which delivered immediate results is the electricity usage of the rooms used to dry site workers’ clothes. “They tended to use energy very inefficiently,” he points out. “The heaters were left on all night even when clothes were dry. We put in a number of two-panel electric heaters on the walls and installed dehumidifiers as well. It takes around four hours to dry the clothes and the heaters switch off automatically. The energy savings have been huge.”

Another area was tower cranes. “These are a huge draw on power, so we put meters on them to see what was happening. We saw bursts in use, and we are now looking at using batteries to meet that demand. The batteries can be recharged by solar PV panels.”

On social impact, Brian Handcock points to one example of the company’s activity in that area. “We got a call from elderly person’s community and we revamped the communal garden for them. That involved simple things like putting a step in to improve access. They can be easy for us but make an enormous difference to garden users. A lot of that sort of activity is happening all over the business.”

Support deprived areas

The firm also seeks ways to support deprived areas. “We employ local people on our sites and take them on as apprentices. That helps the business as well as there is a skills shortage out there. It also helps make us more sustainable.”

Biodiversity is another area of focus. “We picked up an award for our Seeds for Bees programme. We gave every member of staff a packet of flower seeds. Some planted them on our sites, some at home, some gave them to friends and family and so on. We know about the decline in the bee population and this is good for pollinators. If we get thousands of employees planting seeds, it could make a big impact.”

Sisk is also working towards a zero-waste target. “Stuffing things into landfill is not acceptable,” says Handcock. “Historically, 95 per cent of our waste was recovered, reused and recycled. We are now trying to not produce the waste in the first place. That will be quite a challenge for us. We are not going to get the answer today. I don’t know if zero is ever truly achievable, but it has to be our aspiration to try to get pretty close to it. The whole industry and our clients have a wider part to play. We must challenge ourselves to build a building with half the impact, then halve it again through better design and use of materials. We will give it our best try.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times

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