A lot has been written about sustainability from a corporate point of view. However, as a mature individual, and one that has held senior positions for a number of years in a variety of industries, sustainability in the environment is a new concept and one that, at the beginning, I struggled with. Writes Barry Dilks

Having delivered a number of substantial projects, I am well aware of environmental issues. I have experienced delays and unplanned expenditure protecting wild orchids, great crested newts and slow worms. I have had to engage a would-be Swampy – camped outside a badger set to establish if it was in use. I even built a 120-room doormouse hotel that ran for 30 metres parallel to the railway so we could assess the potential impact on wildlife. Sadly, the facility was closed down when not a single booking materialised after three months.

These were all necessary steps in today’s environmental culture as a combined commitment to protect our wild life and the environment. But sustainability …. what on earth is this all about?

Corporate policy

I decided to investigate the UK Power Networks Services (UKPN Services) corporate position and, not surprisingly, discovered that we have processes, procedures and guidelines supporting this initiative. We recognise Responsible Procurement, Protection of the Environment, Waste Management, Pollution Control and Conservation, but it was clear that using the word ‘Sustainability’ meant more than that.

So I engaged with the Network Rail Thameslink Programme Environmental team who were in the process of drafting an Environmental and Sustainability Statement with a vision of linking it to a number of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

I left that initial meeting with a headache and, I will be the first to admit, a concern that I still did not fully understand what was clearly a hot topic.

It was time for some new blood and a young mind set which could establish a sensible approach and provide clarity and guidance to the delivery team and, just as importantly, me! We recruited a young environmentalist, Maria Siakovelli, and she was given the task of understanding Network Rail’s expectations, map those against our corporate undertakings and provide a gap analysis.

The good news was that the gap analysis demonstrated that our corporate view and Network Rail’s expectations were in general aligned. Phew, that was a stroke of luck – or was it?

Reporting and monitoring

Having established that we (UKPN Services and Network Rail) are aligned in strategy according to Network Rail, the rail industry and government expectations, what do we do next? Like many other companies, we are pretty poor at reporting all the good things that we do and how we do it, collating data and then ascertaining whether we can be more effective through the analysis of such reporting.

Working with the Thameslink Programme and Network Rail’s environmental and sustainability team, Maria established a number of KPIs that would be the subject of continuous monitoring and reported as a dashboard with statistics and trends. Being young, with lots of passion and bags of energy, Maria took a view that we could do more with minimal investment but it would require effort and buy-in from the project and construction teams.

It was Maria’s passion that made me sit up and listen. Not being a natural tree hugger, and having been busy delivering construction projects all my life, I sceptically viewed the concept as a risk to our delivery schedule.

I was initially quite vocal regarding the ‘supposed’ benefits. What difference can we make? We do not execute huge civil-type programmes – we are a highly competent electrical contractor, working generally on small footprints, so how on earth could we make a difference?

Leading by example

What Maria told me was: “A small contribution can make a huge collective difference.” She sat me down, debated the issue, challenged my views, brought me out of my box and took me for a walk in the potentially greener world. Maria convinced me that we needed to encourage everyone to think sustainability within the environment so they had a better understanding. We had to lead by example and tell everyone what we were doing as a company, why we were doing it and the benefits our contributions could make to the greater scheme.

Hmmmm… Knowing that typical construction crews simply want to get the job done to a high degree of quality (in a safe manner of course), I remained a little sceptical. So Maria produced an initial dashboard of what we were already doing as best practice in project management terms. She cited the usual activities such as segregating waste, recycling waste rather than sending it to landfill, utilising temporary electrical connections for welfare units rather than diesel powered generators, managing delivery logistics better, and the like.

The initial report provided statistics of actual compared against ‘what if’, and the results were quite staggering. She modelled the results against the overall number of sites we were scheduled to deliver and demonstrated we could make a difference to our environmental impact if we compiled statistics across several projects and the company overall.

OK, I was convinced. I still wasn’t exactly what you would call a tree hugger, but I have to say the statistics certainly got my attention.

Challenging Maria

But I threw Maria a curve ball and challenged her again by stating that, in everything we do, we must always ensure that expenditure and effort bring short and long term benefits. I asked her to tell me what we could do, what investment was required and how quickly would that benefit be realised.

Maria initially concentrated on ‘what can we do today that can bring immediate benefits with little or no financial investment other than time and effort?’ She set out a strategy of educate, plan, encourage feedback from the bottom up, capture data, educate some more, plan again (think outside the norm), report back on what we have done and then educate everyone again on the impact and benefits provided.

And so Maria started the education process with the project team and site crews. She stressed the benefits of what we were doing using the data from historical works and overlaying future work sites. The feedback was refreshing. Everyone thought it was a good thing to do and even provided suggestions to consider some other savings such as – why do we have empty vehicles? What about ECO cabins? Why do we scrap so much?

When we start on a new site, we initially level the construction area, remove the waste and then fill with appropriate foundations – say type 1 for construction. We looked at this process for one site, namely Ifield in West Sussex. Typically we would arrange for a tipper with a grab facility that would set off from Godstone empty, pick up the site spoil and return to base. That spoil would then be segregated, the recyclable material sent to Gatwick recycling and the remainder despatched to Smallfield landfill centre. Once the site was ready, the same company would deliver type 1 to site and return to base empty.