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Subcontractor Performance Risk

Building a Construction Sustainability Team

Cheri Hanes | April 26, 2024

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The factors driving the construction industry's focus on sustainability include consumer demand for responsibly constructed buildings—in consideration of the fact that almost 40 percent of all carbon emissions result from buildings—and demand from builders and developers. Construction firms must deliver sustainability in ways that support their upstream partners in meeting their own sustainability goals; doing that well is a competitive advantage, and sustainability is also a part of successful talent attraction and retention.

Surveys show that, especially among millennials and Gen Z members, the actions a company takes with regard to sustainability matter. To hire and keep them, construction companies must demonstrate a commitment to being a responsible corporate citizen.

These factors have many construction companies focused on building a sustainability team. Here are a few ideas to consider when doing so.

The Business Case

First, sustainability must be identified as a priority in enterprise strategic planning. Ultimately, a business case should be informed by client demand. Many organizations have made big promises with regard to sustainability, and the ability to deliver on those also plays a part. If a firm is perceived to be "all talk" in this arena, then that is a massive reputational risk. If upstream partners have made big promises, such as signing a net zero pledge or pursuing climate initiatives, construction companies must understand what that means for them.

To flesh this out, one helpful exercise would be to access last year's revenue and understand what fraction of that revenue was with clients or partners that have net zero carbon or major decarbonization goals influencing their business.

Next, look to work that you hope to win. How much of that resides with organizations that have major sustainability goals? This can be a real eye opener, revealing how much of a firm's business is likely to be impacted by an upstream partners' sustainability aspirations, and that number is a powerful tool in shaping sustainability strategy.

The Team Structure

In different organizations, sustainability supports different things: strategic planning, public affairs, incorporating sustainability into proposals, project certification requirements, life cycle assessments, community impact, internal training, education, etc. Because of these variations, team shapes and sizes also vary; there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Organizational charts from the industry include single-person departments, teams composed of a director of sustainability with a sustainability manager and sustainable regional managers, and highly complex structures with multiple dotted-line reporting structures that break apart various components of sustainability. The important thing is that team structure and bench strength be aligned with the current emphasis within the company for the upcoming year.

A simpler team works for the early days of rolling out initial sustainability initiatives or starting to attack the tenets of the Contractor's Commitment, for example, but more complexity is needed in a more mature program. Early development is typically all strategic, so the teams tend to start out at the corporate level before they can be scaled up across the organization.

There are benefits and drawbacks of different reporting structures. Teams may report to the president, CFO, CEO, chief operations officer (COO), chief administrative officer, marketing/human resources, etc.

There are pros and cons to each. For example, when reporting to a CFO, a team may be more likely to get resources needed because the CFO understands what the resources will accomplish. If reporting to the COO, the team may be more likely to get good integration with operations. If reporting to the CEO, the team may be more likely to be a crucial part of the strategic vision of the organization.

Wherever a team reports, it is important to have allies in the room where decisions are made, someone who understands what sustainability means to the organization, especially the business opportunity it represents. Therefore, it is important that sustainability teams routinely have meetings with all members of the management team to develop a common language and vision, which are focused on the why, what, and how of sustainability.


Hiring for sustainability roles can be challenging, and firms have taken different approaches, including looking for entry level or experienced candidates, training them internally, or outsourcing some tasks. One is not necessarily better than the other. Hiring entry level candidates may be easier, attracting many applicants, whereas specific experience is far harder to hire for but can add value immediately if found. A broad job description, capability to work remote, and flexibility on titles, degrees, and professional certifications may make hiring easier. When crafting a job description, reflect on what is needed versus what is traditional to ask for.

Some firms have had great luck with finding expertise internally. For example, finding a technically skilled estimator or project manager who is interested in and passionate about sustainability can result in an amazing resource, with a strong connection to the enterprise that is hard to accomplish otherwise.

Future Team Needs

Sustainability teams also need to be equipped for emerging needs, such as help with tax incentives, grants, and policy programs. In 2023, an estimated $7 billion–$9 billion of new private sector investment flowed into projects through the Inflation Reduction Act alone. Construction companies must be prepared to take advantage of these opportunities, yet the need for specialists in this area has not been fully realized.

Other potential sustainability-team needs include finance specialists who understand how to leverage related programs and procurement specialists who are skilled at looking at materials and suppliers' sustainability components.

Business Integration

Once a team is built, it is necessary to have two-way communication so that corporate can drive strategies that meet the needs of diverse business units.

Every decision regarding sustainability impacts risk, preconstruction, project management and construction, the operation of buildings over time, and vice versa. If one party doesn't understand the interconnectedness, that is a recipe for an organization that dismisses sustainability as something that's unrealistic or unattainable. These factors should be incorporated broadly into business processes, decision-making, metrics, management, tracking, and reporting.

Sustainability must be integrated into every decision at the earliest possible juncture, from early design conversations to purchasing decisions, staffing, and the flow of data from the field. If the organization is not tuned into this at a strategic level, the moment for maximum impact will pass before the topic is even raised.

Corporate Communications and Training

The corporate communications and training efforts must support sustainability goals, and this should include training with the right mix of targeted and broad training.

Communications should similarly happen through a variety of channels and present information that helps an organization realize how connected and important this effort is and why. Repetition and a variety of training and communication channels are key to getting the right message to everyone.

Final Thoughts

There is no doubt that folding additional sustainability requirements into construction is a challenge, but it is not insurmountable and represents many new opportunities. Firms that focus on developing the right business case, team structure, hiring strategy, and true business integration—including training and communication across the entire enterprise—will be well prepared to take on that challenge.

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