• Drew Wilson


Construction often has a staid image of not being progressive or innovative, perhaps even inflexible and traditional. But with Eco Eng I’m on a mission to change that. Sustainable construction and social change go hand-in-hand and as civil engineers we have a responsibility to encourage our clients, contractors and the supply chain to think bigger. The new generation of built environment professionals get it. Now it’s time for the older generation to start acting sustainably.

In my mind there’s no doubt adopting a culture of sustainability is in the interest of everyone, and built environment professionals must take the lead for the greatest impact. When we do, the communities we serve will be empowered to be more self-sufficient, educated and enjoy a better quality of life.

There are many things we can do on our projects to make a difference, and here are just two to start with today:

#1. Sustainable job creation

Are we ensuring the jobs we create on our construction sites are sustainable? Do our SMME subcontractors leave better equipped to take on bigger jobs or can they employ more people?

The construction industry is a massive employment provider significantly contributing to the people of South Africa and the country’s overall GDP! But as with other industries, construction’s contribution to employment is linked to market activity which can be unpredictable, especially in the context of our developing economy. We can’t ignore that our construction sector has fallen on tough times recently, just look at the headlines and you’ll see regular retrenchment drives and weekly closures. But in spite of the market’s cyclical nature, my belief is that we can affect long-term change if we create sustainable jobs.

For this reason, all initiatives need to focus on one thing: increasing employability. Are we creating opportunities for employment beyond the project? Although there is a push from government to create jobs, this shouldn’t be a box-ticking exercise. There is huge potential to redirect millions of allocated funds for this very cause in more meaningful and sustainable direction. If every civil engineering project in South Africa prioritised the employability of its labour, we’d see a huge shift.

If you don’t know where to start, look at your programme and timeline. If there's a lot of anticipated concrete work in six months’ time, for example, start an employment initiative in advance to identify local people who can be trained to do the work when the time comes. Employ professionals to plan and manage your CPG or SMME training and expenditure. Contractors are seldom equipped or inclined to genuinely focus on this aspect of their project, especially on large-scale projects where their expertise is required elsewhere. I can guarantee with the right approach and reporting of success, your client will be singing your praises!

Onsite training programme for local plumbers - Durban, KwaZulu Natal.
Onsite training programme for local plumbers - Durban, KwaZulu Natal.

#2. Preservation of the environment

Developing countries tend to focus on building infrastructure to sustain the economy, without which economic progress is limited. In South Africa, we have a huge need to deliver services in our urban and rural areas. Unfortunately we’re a country of two halves and similar standards are not always upheld both sides of the fence.

Developed countries perhaps have the freedom to focus on ‘softer’ issues like CO2 emissions or material reuse and recycling. But with the right skills and leadership, our developing country status needn’t be a barrier to achieving these same goals. Just imagine what impact you could have on local communities by leading the charge in initiatives which preserve the environment!

I’m yet to see a construction site recycle its operational or site office waste. Yes, there are a select few shining stars which recycle or reuse construction and demolition waste; but none I’m aware of that consider the environmental impact of hundreds of consultants, site staff and labourers. My point is that in all our careful Environmental Management Plans emphasis shouldn’t only be on diverting construction waste from landfill. If we aren’t responsible for our own waste, who is? Creating meaningful change beyond the confines of an isolated construction site requires a shift in culture spurred by education and leadership. We should aim to leave the construction site and its surrounds in a better condition to how we found it.

Encourage recycling on site by setting up a simple recycling station with bins for paper, plastic, metal and glass. There are a number of companies who will collect segregated waste for recycling. If you just take that first step, they’ll literally take the problem off your hands.

Waste collection and segregation for recycling.
Waste collection and segregation for recycling.

These are only two things I’ve been thinking about recently but the opportunities to make a difference are endless. We need to shift from approaching projects with a technical mindset to thinking about the bigger picture. It’s not all calculations and drawings, we’re making better communities!


Interested? Get in touch to find out how we can help you put together a skills development initiative or recycling programme.

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