Jacobs: sustainability doesn't have to cost the earth

By Stuart Hodge

Jacobs has just been awarded at the 2017 DuPont Safety and Sustainability awards in Singapore for its efforts ‘in advancing sustainability performance’ and so Business Review Asia speaks to Alan Hendry, its Director of Sustainability, on how construction can benefit both the planet and the bottom line…

There seems to be a perception in sections of the business world that sustainability is costly, that efforts to save the planet and its resources must be weighed against how it affects the bottom line. Although there can be no doubt that many companies seem to have now grasped what sustainability is all about, there is still a persisting fear with some, surrounding the cost associated with the word, let alone the action required.

Alan Hendry, Director of Sustainability with construction and engineering giant Jacobs, is adamant that the perception of sustainability as something overtly costly to companies while providing no great benefit, could hardly be further from the truth. And Hendry knows a thing or two about how to do sustainability well. Jacobs has just been awarded at the 2017 DuPont Safety and Sustainability awards in Singapore for its efforts ‘in advancing sustainability performance’.

With a massive presence across Asia, with locations and projects stretching all the way through India, to China, Hong Kong and the wider Asia Pacific region, Jacobs’s principles regarding sustainability within construction are being brought into a sharp global focus outside of its Dallas home back in the US.

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Expanding across Asia 

Jacobs is busy cementing a firm footing in Asia. In July this year, it was awarded the role of lead trackwork design consultant – as part of a Chinese consortium handling engineering, procurement, construction, testing and commissioning of track work, maintenance vehicles and work trains – for the $7bn Malaysian SSP Line after the company specifically targeted Southeast Asia.

Jacobs also recently secured the role of Reference Design Consultant (RDC) for the Kuala Lumpur-to-Singapore High Speed Rail project (KL-SG HSR), which is currently under construction. With numerous projects of similar size, touching many markets across the globe, Jacobs is keen to progress, with sustainability right at the top of its agenda. No one embodies that spirit at Jacobs more than Alan Hendry.

Hendry is passionate about the planet and it is his firm belief that we have a duty to leave it in as good a condition as possible for the generations to come, and it is this passion that underwrites his desire to ensure Jacobs is doing the very best it can with regards to sustainability.

“Sometimes the word sustainability, I don't know… people seem to think it means additional cost,” he says. “We need to ensure that people realise that it's not. It's actually about cost savings, and it's about lifetime cost savings.

“So, it may add a little bit, occasionally, to the front end of the cost, but over the lifetime of the project, it should be delivering both carbon and cost savings, if it's done properly.”

The way Jacobs tends to ensure these savings is through two principle tools which act as a constant evaluator of performance when working and interacting with clients and their projects – namely, Value Plus and Sustainability Plus.

The Sustainability Plus tool, in particular, was recognised by DuPont at the Singapore Awards earlier this month, an award which Hendry admits is a real source of pride for him and his team.

“It was a tremendous honour,” he beams. “And what was really pleasing for me was, I guess, that this recognition was from our peers for what we're doing with the Sustainability Plus programme. Internally, we've always thought a lot of it, and seen it as a differentiator, but to actually have that recognised by an organisation like DuPont is fabulous. Absolutely fabulous.”

Hendry, who originally trained as a planner in his native Scotland, broke down for us how both tools work. He explains: “The Value Plus figure is the amount of savings we've created for clients through intelligent design, and then we mirror that with Sustainability Plus (which looks at savings in energy usage and a reduction in the carbon footprint). Often when we do save our clients’ money through project management, or project design, it's usually got a resource efficiency component.

“It's about the value that Jacobs brings to our clients, and I always say to my colleagues that if you look at any of our clients’ websites, they'll all say something about their ambitions around sustainability.

“My argument is that ‘not only did we build this bridge or this railway line, but the way we did it, actually contributes to your decarbonisation targets’, so it's a win-win.”

As well as running its own educational programmes, the company holds a Global Sustainability Call each month where experts from around the globe and a wide spread of industries and specialisms are invited to talk about the key issues and sustainability challenges faced in the world today.

“Once a month, we get somebody from either government, or a major business or business organisation, to come on and talk about their passion for what they’re doing,” Hendry says.

“For instance, we've had Peter Bakker, who leads the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. We've had senior leaders from Unilever. We've had the environmental diplomatic staff from the US government. We've had Iain Gulland, Chief Executive of Zero Waste Scotland, talking about how Scotland's addressing the circular economy.

“Recently we had somebody from the Dutch Ministry of Environment talking about how they're using natural methods to address coastal erosion and flooding.

“It's about finding people who understand the topic, and talk well about it; allowing them a stage where they can actually explain what they're doing. So again, it's just part of that spreading good practice, and we’re very happy to find good practice from outside Jacobs as well as from inside.

“In doing that, I think we’re doing a bit of thought leadership. We are bringing new ideas to our client, so that call is both for Jacobs staff and our clients, to come on over to listen and learn.”

Sustainability and problem solving 

According to Hendry, one of the reasons that sustainability is now becoming an increasing area of focus across the business world, as well as the obvious environmental challenges we face globally, is due to the emergence of challenge-based procurement, which is becoming far more widespread. Having a problem-solving ethos, is therefore vital.

“We're obviously commissioned to do things for our clients,” Hendry explains. “Whether it's a new development, a tunnel, a port, and it's then about looking at how we actually over-deliver on that?  So, how do we save carbon? And what are the other services we can bring?

“Our preference is to bring solutions to clients that are holistic and add value. We may challenge what they ask us to do, and say ‘well, if you did it this way, you would actually gain future benefit’, so I think it's about understanding the context of where we're delivering our projects and looking at what the additional opportunities might be.

“We're seeing a lot more challenge-based procurement, where the client basically goes out and says: ‘I have a challenge around this job. What's the solution?’

“They don't necessarily know what the solution is themselves, so it's quite nice to have that challenge to say: ‘Well, here's how we would approach it. Here's what we would do. Here's where we'd add value to what you're needing done.’ That's conceptual, but it is something we're starting to see now.”

Given the quickening pace at which the world is changing, sustainability, like most others, is clearly an area where there are always new techniques to be learned and developed. With that in mind, something which has just recently come under Hendry’s purview is the new Global Centre of Excellence that Jacobs has created, to ensure that global best practices can be more easily shared around the company.

“The Centre of Excellence is about taking what we do best, globally, and mainstreaming that,” he explains.

“So, if we're doing something wonderful in New York City around resilience, then we should look at opportunities to replicate that elsewhere.

“It's encouraging all our colleagues to think about things with a sustainable development lens, and ensure that when we deliver services for clients we're thinking about long-term sustainability, resilience, resource efficiency, et cetera.

“I think there's probably two elements to it,” he adds. “One is ensuring that our project delivery programmes and procedures actually ensure that the sustainability is embedded, and we do that at the moment, but we’re building on that.

“It’ll be a focus for spreading good practice, so I think we'll also start to look at creating further incentives for people to be involved with Sustainability Plus. The challenge is to keep those numbers heading in the right direction, to understand, as our clients seek to achieve their sustainability, we're there to provide the right, integrative solutions that deliver that.

“And there's also the ‘hearts and minds’ element to a certain extent. I think the Paris Accord was quite a milestone in terms of the global acceptance that we need to do something.

“It's about ensuring that people are enthused by this topic, and are thinking about it, by using inspiring stories and examples to illustrate what good looks like. Because I think the topic of sustainability is best explained through examples and stories rather than as a concept, so we can actually illustrate what it means. That's the best way to do it.”


This article appears in Business Review Asia - November


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