Skanska’s Journey to Sustainability Leadership in Construction

Skanska’s Journey to Sustainability Leadership in Construction

Phil Puccio

Sustainability is an ongoing journey for construction companies, something each firm must pursue at their own pace, working toward learning and process improvement over many years. For construction and development giant Skanska, that journey started more than a quarter-century ago.

A New Beginning Following a Challenging Project

Skanska’s path to becoming a global sustainability leader in construction started with a challenging project, at least from an environmental standpoint. In 1997, the company inherited a complex railway tunnel project in Sweden, after another company had failed to complete it due to its immense technical challenges. Unexpectedly, some of the grout products Skanska used wound up leaching into the groundwater, resulting in contamination and grinding work to a halt.

With Skanska facing this disappointing reality, the company found itself at an inflection point.

“We had to figure out where we were going to go from there as a company,” said Steve Clem, Head of Sustainability for Skanska’s U.S. Building Operations.

The company turned its focus to compliance, becoming the first international general contractor ever certified under the ISO 14001 standard. Companies under this framework continually improve their environmental performance and ensure compliance with any new regulations or legislation.

“That became the foundation of how we looked at doing the right thing, both by the planet and by the communities we worked in,” Clem said.

“Instead of thinking about how to do less harm, we started thinking about how we can do good by the environment, how we can ingrain sustainability into our core values, and how we can leverage the supply chain and everything else we influence to make a difference.”

A Slew of Sustainability “Firsts” for Skanska

Skanska has since racked up an assortment of other sustainability firsts in construction and development. The list included building the nation’s first LEED Gold-certified full-service hospital (Providence Newberg Medical Center in Newberg, Oregon), the world’s first LEED Gold-certified airport project (LaGuardia Airport Terminal B, New York), and the first Envision Platinum transit project in the U.S. (Exposition Light Rail Phase 2 in Los Angeles, California).

Skanska also developed the first building in the U.S.‒and third in the world‒to achieve LEED v4 Platinum Core & Shell certification (Bank of America Tower in Houston, Texas). The company also took the lead as the first construction and development company to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change. 

Skanska also co-created a pair of tools to help empower more energy-efficient building choices: Insight, which allows owners, architects and builders to evaluate LEED® certified projects in their city; and the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) Tool, developed with the Carbon Leadership Forum, an open-source tool allowing Skanska to work with owners and architects to source and identify project materials containing lower embodied carbon. 

This lesser-discussed form of carbon consists of emissions associated with extracting, transporting, and manufacturing construction materials. The EC3 Tool has accelerated the conversation around embodied carbon in construction, which represents approximately half of all CO2 emissions in the industry.

Skanska has also completed four fully-certified buildings around the U.S. as part of the Living Building Challenge (LBC), more than any other construction and development company. LBC is at the vanguard of the green building movement, challenging companies to push sustainable building to new heights. This effort sparks conversations industry-wide around what is possible in green construction. 

The company has been deeply involved in the Living Building Challenge almost from the start. It actually co-authored the 2008 financial study with the International Living Building Institute that is used to this day as a guide for companies getting involved in sustainable building.

Skanska has actively been involved in the evolution of Envision, a sustainability rating system for civil infrastructure in the U.S., becoming a Charter Member of Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI) in 2015, one of only two construction companies to do so. 

Paying Sustainability Knowledge Forward Lifts the Whole Industry

Today, Skanska operates across numerous market sectors, serving a diverse range of clients around the globe. Although different clients and markets prioritize sustainability with varying degrees of enthusiasm, Skanska itself is on track to be 70% carbon-neutral by 2030 and net-zero by 2045, so the benefits of its own internal efforts to reduce carbon are by default incorporated into any project they do. 

“We don’t do work for folks that are actively working against our sustainability goals, but if they’re not as committed, we still do what we can as a company. ISO 14001 is still what we employ on every project: reducing our carbon footprint, our impact, our pollution. We do these things as part of our normal process even if the customer didn’t fully engage,” Clem said.

The most fruitful engagements, he notes, come from clients who are looking for help incorporating sustainability into their projects but don’t necessarily know themselves where to start or how to get the most out of their efforts.

“Our feeling is with our body of work over 25 years we’re able to drive pretty good value there and often see our projects meeting and exceeding our clients’ goals, whether that’s taking them from one LEED certification level to another, increasing performance and efficiency of their buildings, or improving building health and air quality,” he said.

From the earliest project phases through handover, Skanska listens intently so it can devise what specific solutions or teams are best suited to help each customer achieve their desired result.

“We assemble teams with sustainability expertise and provide a number of resources, whether it’s subject matter experts in mass timber, embodied carbon, energy efficiency, net-zero mechanical electrical approaches, or anything else,” Clem explained.

Throughout each project, Skanska is able to keep sustainability in the forefront as one of the decision factors when weighing project costs against a customer’s green goals.

“Something might be a little more expensive up front but have a really quick payback and other long-term benefits. We bake that consideration into our recommendations to customers as far as what might be best for their building,” said Clem.

Small Changes Pay off in Big Ways

While fully acknowledging that different companies are at different spots in their journeys Clem said there’s nothing wrong with starting small. Companies looking to get serious about their sustainability efforts can first start by tracking and measuring their environmental impacts and learning about key emission sources in their operations and supply chains.

Skanska itself set 2015 as a baseline. Although it took a few years to get the data collection process in place, the company has since been able to benchmark performance using that metric, quickly identifying areas in need of improvement. 

“Without data, you can’t really make any informed decisions,” Clem said. 

Saving the planet is a big lift, so Clem recommends that companies start with things they can control.

“Your own office, your own procurement, the electricity you use for your office. Can you enroll in a cleaner power option from your utility? Can you look for different fuel options for your vehicles? Even if you have diesel equipment right now, there are plenty of renewable options out there,” said Clem.

Lastly, there are many important and unexpected lessons workplaces, in general, can take away from the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. For instance, whether commuting five days a week is strictly necessary or whether flying employees around to monthly team meetings is essential to a company’s bottom line. The potential carbon savings alone from rethinking certain pre-pandemic assumptions could quickly add up.

“We need to be on-site for certain activities  in construction. But if you look across industries, I think if you take a step back and take a deep breath after all of the terrible challenges COVID has put in front of us, and really take inventory of whether to keep those policies in place, we can get some pretty big benefits.”

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