The construction industry is one of the main pillars of economic progress and modernisation, but it also has an inevitable impact on the natural environment.
To minimise this and take account of public sentiment, both developers and construction companies involved in the sector are now making much greater efforts to design and construct environmentally friendly projects which emphasise the importance of sustainability.
China State Construction International Holdings Limited (CSCI), one of the largest construction companies in Hong Kong, realises the important role it has to play in this respect. The company designs and completes multi-disciplinary projects from sinking the foundations to final construction of building and civil engineering works and has made it a priority to adopt "green" practices and policies.
Lee Kam-shing, general manager of CSCI's safety and environmental protection department, says this means taking steps to prevent environmental pollution, reduce construction waste and minimise the consumption of natural resources. It also entails taking all necessary measures to ensure strict compliance with legal requirements and to strive for continuous improvement.
To achieve these aims, CSCI established an environmental management system (EMS) in 1997, which was awarded ISO 14001 certification the following year, thus making it the first construction company in Hong Kong with an EMS conforming to an internationally recognised standard. The system consists of four major elements: planning, doing, checking, and taking action. This requires close supervision at every stage of a project and the joint cooperation of all the parties involved.
"As a contractor, we recommend environmentally friendly measures from the earliest design stage right through the different phases of construction," says Mr Lee. "However, a lot will still depend on the final decisions of the developers or clients. To implement whatever is decided, we then have to cooperate with client representatives, subcontractors, the on-site workforce and members of the public."
Overseeing things is the company's environmental protection committee, which is chaired by the chief executive and attended by representatives from all departments. They meet twice a year to establish objectives and policies and hold company performance reviews. There is also a working group responsible for implementing the agreed environmental protection measures. It coordinates and monitors the work of different units and suggests relevant actions or necessary changes. The objective is to make continuous improvements, while introducing best environmental practices for the industry whenever and wherever necessary.
Mr Lee explains that many of the measures relate to the abatement of noise emission, control of dust and water pollution, and management of construction and demolition waste. Special attention is also given to making individual construction sites less of an eyesore while work is in progress. Besides that, the company will use the most environmentally friendly materials for construction. In some cases, this approach may lead to higher construction costs, but the important thing for CSCI is to persuade developers and other parties involved to take the long-term view.
"In addition to benefiting the environment, our innovative measures can also help to save on energy and maintenance, thereby lowering operating costs in the long run," Mr Lee explains. He admits it has not always been easy to get this message across, but says that the general level of awareness in society has definitely improved in the last few years.
The company tracks a number of indicators which show the overall effectiveness of its own environmental performance. These include whether there have been any cases of legal non-compliance, complaints received, the amount of waste generated and total resources used. More often than not, people present the biggest obstacle to performing in strict compliance with an environmental policy.
"The more people are involved, the more difficult it is to implement," Mr Lee says. "They may break the rules simply out of ignorance or for reasons of convenience."
Therefore, he stresses the importance of education and promoting the concept of environmental protection among employees. To do this, the company organises competitions and site visits, and takes part in educational and promotional programmes run by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), the Hong Kong Construction Association (HKCA), the Business Environmental Council (BEC) and other related bodies.
"Since one of our sites was selected by the EPD to shoot a promotional video not too long ago, that has also created a positive impact on staff and shown that their efforts have been recognised," Mr Lee adds.
The company will continue to participate actively in different industry working groups to promote environmental protection and will work closely with the EPD, HKCA, BEC and other interested parties to come up with good and feasible environmental practices in the construction industry.