To do or Not to do:
Facilitating Decision-Making for
Sustainability in the Building and Construction Sector

Hari Srinivas
Management Tools Series E-005. June 2015
Making the building and construction sector sustainable seems to be a forgone conclusion. But attitudes still need to be changed, more than anything else.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) [ 1 ] were initiated in late 2015, spurring global attention on incorporating sustainability in all our actions from global to local.

In its entirety, SDGs present a significant opportunity to move towards sustainability and live within the means and resources available to us [ 2 ].

The reduction of greehouse gases (GHGs) and issues associated with climate change is a part of this move towards sustainability. This particular challenge has become central to a number of global initiatives and multilateral environmental agreements [ 3 ], especially the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC).

As we spend more than 90% of our time indoors [ 4 ], whether at work or at home, buildings have emerged as a key sector to support the SDGs and change our lifestyles and consumption patterns towards sustainability.

Why buildings?
Buildings form a key component of cities.


- generate 80% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP),
- produce 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions
- house more than 50% of the world’s population.

Over half the world’s population now lives in cities?and the global trend towards greater urbanization shows no signs of letting up. Whether pulled by job opportunities or pushed by unfavorable conditions in rural areas, 75 million more people per year are joining the ranks of cities across the globe.

While urbanization holds promise for accelerating progress to a world without poverty, urban population growth also carries risks in the form of sprawl, pollution, and environmental degradation.

- World Bank

The processes involved in a building's lifespan - conceptualization, design, construction, use, maintenance and demolition - have immense implications for the GHGs produced in terms of resources and energy consumption. Building and construction processes can be subject to the principles of sustainability, and help reduce the risks of climate change.

What would this mean to local governments? What are the key elements of a sustainable building and construction policy? What policies and programmes are needed to ensure the success of such a policy? Who needs to be involved - up and down the supply chain, besides local governments themselves?

Incorporating sustainability principles in the building and construction sector is critical, but the decision-making process is fraught with mind-sets that resist the change towards making the sector more sustainable.

There are a number of reasons that are used by building owners, developers and architects/engineers to resist change and switch towards sustainability in the building and construction sector, particularly in developing countries and emerging economies.

Multistakeholder Partnerships for Sustainability
in the Building and Construction Sector

The following table illustrates some of these common "reasons" and the strategies that we can use to change such mind-sets and decision-making processes.

Common reasons for lack of action Strategies for change in decision-making processes
"It’s too expensive ... "

- Owners and Developers
  • Some initial costs may be high, or may be perceived as unnecessary 'extras'. But money will be saved in the long term from energy efficiency, costly remedial action, maintenance etc.
  • Costly litigation may be saved by ensuring all aspects of a building's environmental impacts are considered (including the activities that take place within a building - for example, through an ISO 14001 certification process [ 5 ])
"One person (or one building) cannot make a difference! ... "

- Owners and Developers
  • But by embracing sustainability principles, we can be leaders and role models in the field!
  • All action starts small - one step at a time - which eventually leads to its broad adoption within the entire industry sector
  • Proper publicity and media coverage may educate clients to 'copy' a good green or sustainable building, the best pressure that can put pressure on building and construction professionals to 'go green'
"Banks and clients always focus on bottom lines and high profits ... "

- Banks, owners, developers
  • Banks and clients need to be made aware of sustainability's positive externalities and long-term costs of not taking action
  • Environmental and sustainability aspects need to be included in budgeting and investment processes, and can in itself be used as a 'selling' point.
"Building codes (functional efficiency, comfort) are not favourable towards sustainable buildings and construction ... "

- Architects
  • This is changing, and international action towards SBC is increasing (for example an SBC code is being developed by ISO [ 6 ])
  • Sometimes current building codes and standards have to be interpreted to extract its sustainability implications
"Professional ethics is very weak, so implementing SBC is difficult ... "

- Architects
  • Sustainability has to made an integral part of the education of professionals involved in building and construction sector
  • Continuing education programmes, on-the-job training, awareness building workshops etc. should be used to place emphasis on sustainability principles
"Each stakeholder pursues his/her own goals, ignoring others ... "

- Local Governments
  • We may want to work in collaborative teams to ensure better understanding of other stakeholders
  • We have a responsibility sometimes to 'educate' the client, whether it is the developer, financier or user, to think life-cycle
  • Providing services of all stages of the building's life-cycle may, in itself, be a business opportunity
"Social development is more important than environmental issues ... "

- Local Governments
  • Many times, action needed for solving environmental problems can generate income or create jobs!
  • Environmental management has many externalities in ensuring good health, better air quality or efficient water usage.
"I don't benefit from making this building easily disassembled ... "

- Architects and Developers
  • Some construction companies now provide services directed at the full life-cycle of a building, thus benefiting, for example, from making provisions for disassemble in design.
  • Professional ethics may force us to think of all stages of a building, not only on the stage we are concerned with

Ultimately, the contribution of the building and construction sector in our move to sustainability [ 7 ] is huge - both due to the size of the sector itself, and the role it plays in the key sustainability strategy, namely changing our lifestyles and consumption patterns (that take place within buildings).


[1] See GDRC's SDG Dashboard for more information on the latest news and trends.[Return to body text]

[2] This issue is well illustrated by the concept of "ecological footprint," defined as the land area needed to provide the food and other resources each of us consume, and absorb the wastes/emissions we throw away. See GDRC's feature on ecological footprints [Return to body text]

[3] There are more than 200 such multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) signed between national governments to solve global problems. See GDRC's Repository on MEAs [Return to body text]

[4] Source: European Commission Joint Research Center - Science Hub (EC JRC) [Return to body text]

[5] For further details, please see GDRC's feature on Cities, EMS and Everything [Return to body text]

[6]For more information on ISO - the International Standards Organization, please see [Return to body text]

[7] See GDRC's section on green construction in its Urban Environmental Management programme. [Return to body text]

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