More sustainability for your money in closer client-consultant collaboration


Sustainability is at the top of the agenda in the buildings and construction sectors. Tender requirements stipulating closer collaboration between parties on high-complexity projects are becoming more popular and can realise sustainability gains that would otherwise have been lost. These are the findings of COWI's screening of a range of large infrastructure contracts put out to tender. 

In just a few years, sustainability has climbed to the top of the agenda when clients in the buildings and construction sectors put important large-scale projects out to tender. Often, project owners' requirements for CO₂ reduction and environmental consideration go beyond legislative requirements, which makes it particularly important that the criteria stated in the tender documents generate the most sustainability for their money from a societal perspective. 

COWI recently screened tender documents for 11 large infrastructure contracts across Scandinavia as well as the UK, identifying any requirements that went above and beyond any legislation in the area. The screening revealed two approaches to requirements for CO₂ reduction and management on major infrastructure projects:

  1. Specific requirements address the end product or parts of it. For instance, a requirement to prepare a life cycle analysis, to achieve a total CO₂ reduction of XX per cent, or observe a maximum emission factor for individual parts or materials. 
  2. Requirements address the process, the collaboration and continuous optimisation. For instance, by setting up a ’partnering contract’ – as opposed to, e.g., conventional main contracts or turnkey contracts – that includes objectives and requirements for collaboration, or requires the introduction of innovation processes that focus on cutting CO2 emissions. 

The first approach is the most widespread. Today, most projects include some type of specific requirements for documentation of CO₂ emissions. Some stipulate a CO₂ budget that must be observed for the entire project or parts of it, whereas others may specify specific solutions for the execution phase such as electrified machinery etc. 

This type of requirement is immensely effective if projects are relatively simple, and the client has vast knowledge of the specific project and thereby is able to set requirements that move the industry without being unrealistic. Such requirements presume knowledge, known technology and well-described solutions. 

However, the matter of sustainability is not always black and white, and that is precisely where the second approach can really make a difference, according to our screening. For instance, cutting CO₂ may affect future reuse of, e.g., composite materials, and making efforts to protect biodiversity may lead to higher CO₂ emissions. Usually, the complexity of these solutions and their effects do easily translate into unambiguous specific requirements; rather, this involves balancing a number of conflicting considerations. 

The screening reveals a clear link between project complexity and an increased need to regularly and jointly tackle sustainability requirements. There are several examples of projects where many optimisations lie in the interfaces between the parties. An idea might be born with one party, but needs nurturing and knowledge from other parties to become reality. 

This innovation dynamics does not emerge until disciplines meet and, therefore, cannot be specified from the get-go of a project. 

Sometimes, specific requirements actually hinder the introduction of knowledge or technology that was not known when the requirements were defined. 

Given the current spotlight on sustainability, we are expecting to see useful knowledge and solutions develop continuously. As for large projects that span decades, an obvious choice would be to set up a clear framework for how parties may incorporate innovation and new technology as the project progresses.  

Indeed, the screening showed that many kick off projects while recognising that you cannot specify everything from the outset. We are seeing a shift towards continuous collaboration and optimisation as a means to achieving the most sustainability for your money. 

It goes without saying that this less specific approach must not translate into limitless flexibility. It is important that expectations for the process and for any contribution to continuously developing the project are clearly described in the tender documents. It is equally important, though, that the client exercises these principles through visible leadership on the project. This can be done through kick-off workshops and by demanding that alternative solutions be presented when critical decisions are to be made. 

So, what is the right thing to do? Well, that depends on the project complexity, the client's knowledge about the work to be carried out under the project, and the maturity of the value chain. Project owners must refrain from stipulating simple and very measurable requirements as they might jeopardise the possibility of maximising the sustainability effects they can get for their money.

By Randi Christensen, Technical Director, Sustainability, COWI
Brought as op-ed in Danish news media Licitationen

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 Søren Kragh Pedersen

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