How can the construction industry become more sustainable? Hege Schøyen Dillner, Chief Sustainability Officer at Veidekke, shares her experiences.
When the various actors in a construction project work together, they can literally move mountains. And they do not need to emit a single ounce of carbon dioxide when doing it.
Take this example: In 2018, Veidekke joined the TGB Smestad–Sogn tunnel project in Oslo. There, everyone agreed that the entire project would be fossil-free.
“The contract was already signed; we didn’t need to do it. But we suggested that this was something we could do, and we got the customer on our side,” says Hege Schøyen Dillner.
She is Chief Sustainability Officer at Veidekke, one of Scandinavia’s largest building contractors and property developers. The company builds nearly everything that can be built, including commercial buildings, houses, schools, tunnels and more. It is also a heavyweight in industry, and Norway’s largest manufacturer of asphalt.
Dillner has the overall responsibility for ensuring that production is carried out in the most sustainable way possible. Veidekke has set ambitious targets. Even before the Paris Agreement was drawn up, the company decided it would halve its own emissions by 2030, with the aim of a 90 per cent cut in emissions by 2050.
To achieve the cuts, the company has worked hard on materials with low greenhouse gas emissions, fossil-free construction sites, energy-efficient buildings and sustainable land area development. It is all about choices, large and small, related to logistics, project framework conditions, equipment and heavy machinery. These choices must be made during the planning phase – as well as every day on the construction site.
As a contractor, Veidekke deals with long value chains, large-scale investment and relations with a multitude of customers. Each contract involves numerous partners, suppliers and subcontractors.
“So, I am not the one driving sustainability at Veidekke,” Dillner emphasises.
“It is the staff involved in the projects and everyone in the business units who make it happen. I am a catalyst and cheerleader, someone who ensures that discussions on sustainability take place and who gives people a push.”
But that is all that is needed. The result can be a fossil-free tunnel project – and an entire industry becoming more aware of its ecological footprint.
In a company as large as Veidekke, with such a number and diversity of projects, it cannot be the task of just one person to force through directives and practices to cut emissions.
“It is not about being a dictator, but rather setting a course. It is about motivating and working together with the various units to find sustainable ways of doing good business and delivering added value to our customers.”
As a contractor and property developer, the environmental gains Veidekke achieves depend on the framework set by their customers.
“In most projects the customer decides. We can try to influence them, but at the end of the day we have to deliver what they have asked for. If we try to do something that costs more, and the customer does not want to pay, things become difficult.”
“If we, on the other hand, manage to get our customers to push for sustainability, then they turn to us with high demands.”
In Dillner’s experience, it is easier for Veidekke to carry out good, sustainable projects when they can assist the customer in making the right choices as early as possible.
“In many projects I see we could have done things better if we had been allowed to give input at an earlier stage. Everything starts with the building owners, so it is important that they make the right order. My experience is that collaborative construction contracts, with room for early feedback, help us to achieve more.”
Dillner is particularly proud of the team at Veidekke’s which has put together the company’s arsenal of heavy-duty, electric construction equipment: diggers, loaders and much more, including the world’s first 25-metric-ton all-electric excavator.
“But it is not only about buying new equipment. It is not sustainable to simply throw out well-functioning machinery. That is why we are also looking at which machines can be shifted from regular diesel to palm-oil-free biodiesel.”
Veidekke is not only making advances when it comes to construction sites. The company is also working hard to ensure that the finished buildings are environmentally friendly and energy efficient. Several buildings constructed by Veidekke score high on the BREEAM certification, the world’s leading environmental certification scheme for buildings.
“We have, for example, built Horten upper secondary school, Norway’s first school to achieve BREEAM Outstanding at the design level,” says Dillner.
Although it is satisfying to earn the label of Outstanding, it is not necessarily Dillner’s aim to achieve that standard for as many buildings as possible. When it comes to sustainable buildings, her philosophy is that it is more important to ensure consistent quality rather than one-of-a-kind, stand-out buildings.
“The point is not to invest only in individual stand-out buildings in big cities, but to make sure that more buildings, both in urban areas and outlying districts, are built with higher environmental ambitions, without being the best of the best. But stand-out buildings have an important purpose as they make us push the envelope and develop expertise.”
Although Veidekke has achieved a lot, Dillner admits that there is much to be done in the contracting industry. In particular, she misses greater investment in the circular economy.
“We lack a well-functioning market to buy and sell used materials. We know way too little about the materials found in existing buildings. We need a proper database of materials, with accurate information about when the building was constructed, what materials it was built with, how long they will last and what can be reused,” she says.
Although the construction industry has a long way to go until it is both emission-free and circular, Dillner is not discouraged.
“It will take time,” she says simply.
“We are talking about long and large value chains that have to change direction. But by working in a targeted manner with enthusiastic people who want to get things done, we test new solutions and see if they work. When they do, we achieve change.”
As of 1 July 2019, Dillner will become head of social relations, members and international activities at Green Building Alliance. There, she will continue her efforts for a sustainable construction industry.