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How should we teach sustainable construction?


The training infrastructure that supports construction needs to adjust to meet its sustainability agenda.

Industry has pledged to halve built environment emissions by 2025 while the government’s Clean Growth Strategy cements the idea that realising climate change commitments presents huge opportunities for economic growth.

Building high quality, low energy assets at scale, and driving growth in the energy efficiency retrofit market are challenges which the whole industry must tackle to achieve this ambition. However, there will also need to be investment in skills and knowledge to fill skills gaps and improve productivity, as well as the widespread adoption of new digital approaches.

The ‘dark art’ of sustainability

There’s something in the term ‘sustainability’ that still eludes us when we come to think about how to teach it, particularly in mainstream education and training. To some, it is often considered to be a specialist subject and something of a dark art.

What does sustainable construction actually mean to the hundreds of different job roles involved in constructing and maintaining the built environment? Most importantly, in a construction education system largely organised by occupation, what do people performing different roles across the supply chain actually need to know about sustainability, from the design engineer to the site worker?

Sustainability education in the spotlight

On 6 December, industry leaders came together with training providers at the Sustainable Building Training Summit to answer that very question. The Summit was hosted by the Construction Leadership Council to launch new guidance (PDF) to explain key principles of sustainable building in terms which are useful for the development of standards, qualifications, apprenticeships and training courses.

The construction industry, represented by Mark Farmer and sustainable building pioneer Lynne Sullivan OBE, set out the challenge. They were followed on stage by Bruce Boughton of Lovell Partnerships Ltd and the Department for Education’s Jeremy Benson who provided the context of policy change in education. In turn, Heriot-Watt University’s Alex Maclaren and Wyn Prichard of Neath Port Talbot College Group, shared the steps their institutions have already taken, before Rob Lambe of the Green Construction Board outlined work done to identify sustainable building learning outcomes.

Acknowledging both barriers and successes

In a series of lively debates, there was consensus that core sustainability knowledge needs to be embedded in every college, university or professional construction course, but a number of barriers were identified:

  • The need to upskill tutors and lecturers, who might be new to the principles of sustainable building
  • The need for tools to help tutors engage students in sustainability subjects so that the learning can be applied
  • Sustainability is still too often viewed as a specialist subject and content can go out of date very quickly as policies evolve
  • Qualification structures need to be more flexible and responsive to changing needs.

Speakers also shared their successes:

  • Better collaboration between built environment disciplines can be achieved if sustainability is taught to all construction professionals collectively
  • Improved awareness of sustainability subjects for tutors and lecturers can be achieved by developing practical collaborations between providers and industry
  • Students themselves are often the greatest advocates for sustainability subjects so can be effectively engaged to support the continuous improvement of content.

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