• Drew Wilson

IN THE WORDS OF ENGINEERS - Part 1 of 2: What is sustainability to you?

Updated: May 31, 2021

I’m a true advocate of the sustainability role imposed on engineers. As the mediator between all stakeholders in the project, civil engineers have a responsibility to consider the social, environmental and economic impact of their projects and how sustainable their approach is. This week’s blog is the first in a two-part series uncovering the attitudes towards sustainable construction in South Africa…

Professional responsibility

I know I must do everything in my power to make sure my clients and project team act in a responsible and ethical manner. This is my personal standpoint, yes - but the SAICE code of ethics reminds us it’s an expectation of our profession too. We must be aware of our impact on the environment and society, consider present and future generations, engage with communities and continually further our knowledge (CPD and training). These are the umbrella principles of sustainability so when engineers tick one or two boxes, they often fall into the trap of genuinely believing they’re designing or constructing sustainably. But are they really?

One thing I realised during the course of my master’s thesis on Sustainable Construction Applications was that sustainability is a difficult concept to define in one sentence. When I asked construction professionals to define what sustainability meant to them, each of the 80 respondents gave a different answer.

There were similar threads and themes with all the buzzwords you’d expect, just like SAICE code of ethics above. But, most of all, it was apparent the ‘beast’ of sustainability is a hugely diverse topic. Even my literature review of published research and academic journals threw up multiple explanations and redefinitions throughout the course of history.

So, what does sustainability mean?

  1. It must have a long-term objective.

  2. It should improve the social fabric of the community it is intended to serve.

  3. It must consider the social, economic and environmental impact of the project over the immediate and entire project lifecycle.

  4. It must balance social, economic and environmental aspects. (This is easier said than done as often these three aspects clash.)

  5. It must go beyond best engineering practice.

The last point is perhaps the one I like the most. Sustainability to me is doing something which isn’t the norm; going over and above. By default many projects assist local communities, or comply with environmental laws, which are otherwise ignored in the project vicinity. But how often do we go above and beyond to sustainably improve the areas and communities where we work?

There are many reasons (and excuses!) why engineers aren’t doing more, and some can be argued legitimately as these excerpts from my thesis suggest:

“We have to focus on delivering a project to high quality standards, within budget and on time.”

“Our normal day job keeps us busy enough let alone trying to focus on another add-on that needs to be done to get the ‘greenies’ off your back.”

“We are doing things sustainably in any case. We just don’t report it as such.”

“To be honest I feel sustainable construction methods would just be another set of rules for contractors to follow in an already difficult environment. The client needs to make provision for this and make it worth the contractor’s time, and the contractor should be compensated for this.”

Going the extra mile

These respondents aren’t wrong. If you’ve ever been involved in a site meeting, you’ll know the scale of information that has to be reported on a weekly and monthly basis. But, a lot of this information could be repurposed to report on the sustainability of the project. However our clients aren’t insisting on these, so no-one gives it the attention it deserves.

Sustainability is seen by even the most enthusiastic engineers as a nice to have, not an essential. That’s not to say there aren’t individuals who see merit in doing things differently; those who are committed to going the extra mile. So perhaps this is the approach sustainability reporting should take; a brief report on how the project is going the extra mile or above and beyond industry standards.

Let’s work together to meet today’s needs without damaging or negatively impacting the environment for future generations. This attitude and reporting approach could be the difference which finally gets the attention of the clients we’re so desperately trying to impress!


If you enjoyed this blog, please get in touch or join our mailing list! Or to let us know what you think, send your feedback to drew@ecoeng.co.za or leave a comment in the section below.

Stay tuned for part two of this sustainability series: IN THE WORDS OF ENGINEERS - Part 2 of 2: How do the sustainability needs of a developed country differ from those of an undeveloped country?

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