Building beyond boundaries: why making possible the impossible is the urgent responsibility of the construction industry

Environmental changes are happening right on our doorstep, from devastating floods to the unprecedented storms battering our coasts. BAM’s COO, John Wilkinson, argues that the construction industry needs to take a leading role in tackling impossible challenges triggered by climate change.

In recent months, the UK has been confronted with an undeniable reminder of nature’s power – from the devastating floods to the unprecedented storms battering our coasts. With the construction industry responsible for roughly 40 per cent of global carbon emissions, it’s important to view these events not just as news stories; they are urgent reminders for industry leaders to act, and act quickly.

But how can we make the biggest difference? In my view we need to reconsider our approach to nature. For centuries we have been trying to reshape nature to suit our needs, often without considering the long-term impact on our climate. With environmental changes happening right on our doorstep, isn’t it time we started reshaping humanity to better serve nature’s needs?


Tackling impossible challenges

In many ways, the construction industry is already leading this shift in thinking, and I have seen first hand how our industry has overcome impossible challenges driven by climate change. Our sector is helping to conceive of and develop solutions to ever more densely populated urban environments, and ever more challenging rural and coastal environments affected by climate change.

One such “impossible” challenge is the adaptation of cities to the escalating threat of climate change and the management of infrastructure to protect biodiversity as well as people, their homes, and their livelihoods.

The biodiversity crisis is deepening, and the UK sits firmly at the bottom end of the Biodiversity Intactness Index, the lowest of any G7 nation. Almost half of our biodiversity has been lost since the 1970s, much of it caused by loss of habitat to construction. Those stark statistics bring in to focus why innovative initiatives have become increasingly urgent.

Construction firms like BAM are exploring innovative water management systems, sustainable urban drainage solutions, and green infrastructure to create cities that are not only resilient but adaptive to these changes.

The Thames Tideway project is right at the vanguard of this. It is the water industry’s single largest infrastructure project, involving upgrading the existing sewer system in London to manage overflow and prevent pollution of the River Thames. We’re using 3D design models throughout the build phase, and we’re one of the first companies to have a Fulmax virtual reality cube on site. Using these, site operatives can view digital models in progress, and provide their own input to improve the build. We are also using Field 360 on iPad, allowing our mechanical and electrical engineers to complete onsite maintenance work entirely digitally. Applying technologies like these to large-scale urban projects reduces invasive time on site and the impact on the natural environment.

Delivering such complex projects starts with people. Nurturing the right talent to tackle such complex challenges is crucial and it is this blend of skill and vision that propels projects, such as the innovated solutions we have deployed in the Thames Tideway Tunnel, to the forefront of sustainable development.


Rising sea levels

Another live debate centres on tackling rising sea levels and coastal erosion. Indeed, just last year BAM delivered several coastal defensive schemes, including in Aberaeron in Wales, Hexham in Northumberland, and on the Essex coast. The combination of land scarcity and rising temperatures has led to wide interest in the notion of floating cities. These would need to be resilient to storms, tidal changes, and even tsunamis. If that sounds far-fetched, the UN is already looking closely at it through its Human Settlements Programme (called UN-Habitat). Again, the notion of large-scale, stable and sustainable floating structures seems impossible now.

Then there’s smart infrastructure – how we integrate AI and IoT into urban infrastructure to help towns and cities adapt to changes in the environment or usage patterns will be crucial as cities swell and people change behaviours.

Construction firms are now at the forefront of developing solutions for urban density, climate-change adaptation and sustainable development. Using advanced technologies such as AI, robotics and sustainable materials, we’re shaping the future of urban and rural landscapes – taking on the impossible.

Dawlish - BAM

A sustainable tomorrow

Looking ahead, we will encounter even more challenging conditions as we look to marry our needs in both the natural and built environments.

These future challenges require not only advancements in engineering and technology but also considerable investment, international cooperation, and a rethinking of current planning and construction paradigms. The feasibility of these projects depends on many factors, but chief among them will be the bravery and vision of firms like ours.

Just as the first step to solving a problem is recognising there is one, in the construction industry we’re starting to wake up to the fact that we’re part of the problem. But that means we can be part of the solution, too. It is why BAM is deeply committed to building a sustainable tomorrow via our sustainability strategy and carbon-reduction plan.

Just as project engineers of the past took brave decisions to push boundaries and make possible the impossible, we must press ahead with a similar spirit and continue what we’ve started, in proactively addressing the most pressing issues facing society: sustainable development, climate-change resilience and urbanisation. In short, reshaping humanity to better serve nature’s needs.


The article first appeared in Construction News on 19th February 2024. 

About the author

John Wilkinson COO - BAM

John Wilkinson

Chief Operating Officer of BAM UK & Ireland


John is Chief Operating Officer of BAM UK & Ireland. 

John started his career in 1989 as a trainee engineer and progressed through senior engineer, site manager and project director roles, before gaining his first managing director role in 2008. 

He held senior positions within leading construction and civil engineering companies Laing O’Rourke, Kier, May Gurney and SNC-Lavalin, before joining BAM in 2020. 

Client focused and strategic, John has a clear focus on governance, team development, driving business reputation and revenue growth.