Taking care of the environment, in construction, means considering the environmental aspect of every detail of everyday operations. Driven by a team of forward-thinking solution seekers, Graham is a general contractor rooted in its mandate to care for its clients while mitigating the impact of its construction footprint and protecting the Earth.
Headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, Graham is steadfast in doing whatever it takes to improve how it works from its fourteen offices across North America. The company provides general contracting, design-build, integrated project delivery, construction management, public-private partnerships and development services in the buildings, industrial, infrastructure and project finance sectors. According to Graham Kaptein, Project Manager, the company works with an impressive selection of discerning clients across Canada and in select U.S. states.
While sustainability and environmentally responsible construction have become buzzwords to many, Graham has been embracing the ethics of environmental sustainability for decades. The company has always operated its business sustainably, but about three years ago, Graham stepped up its existing efforts to meet the planet’s need for better resource management by employing an environmental manager—a bold move toward meeting the future of responsible construction head-on. The woman holding that title, Annette Gear, is as passionate as she is proactive.
The Graham team is no stranger to taking on sustainability issues on a scale that many of its competitors do not yet address in such depth. “Corporately, I think there is a big initiative driving down to the operations staff that the environment is definitely up at the forefront now and should be monitored on all projects moving forward,” says Kaptein.
The company’s traditional health and safety department has become the HSE (Health, Safety and Environment) department. “The environment is at the forefront of our day-to-day discussions on how we’re going to affect not only people’s health and safety but also how we’re [impacting] the environment,” Kaptein adds.
Every project builds a site-specific environmental management plan that provides guidance and standards that are to be followed to ensure environmental impacts are mitigated. An example of this would be the waste management plan, which identifies how all waste is managed; recycled or disposed of correctly, mitigating environmental risk as far as possible. This is supported by assessments to ensure that all requirements are met for health and safety as well as environmental permits and approvals. Environmental training also forms a part of all the company’s project training. In addition, several of its employees are qualified in doing erosion and sediment control inspections, which are performed weekly on all its sites.
At Graham, Earth Day is not only celebrated on April 22. Instead, the entire week is set aside for raising awareness throughout the business. Every year, the team selects an environmental topic that is relevant across all jobs. It includes subjects like spillage and its corresponding response training and other skills refreshers. While some teams treat the theory of correctly disposing of hazardous waste in detail, others take part in spill response practice. Of course, every training session takes into account all COVID-19 prerequisites for gathering safely like social distancing and limiting the size of groups. Several challenges also call the team to act on matters such as waste management.
“We have a sustainability policy that really looks back to Graham’s values. We want to be ethical, protect the health and safety of our workers and the environments that we live and work within. [The social and governance aspects of the policy] also consider community initiatives, sustainable supply chains under its corporate sustainable vendor charter that stipulates Graham’s commitments as well as its expectations of its vendors,” says Kaptein. That means that it procures all materials and subcontractors as close to its project sites as possible, cutting unnecessary transportation and the greenhouse gasses that would have been emitted as a result of long-distance haulage.
Practical steps in the field include separating waste that is sent for recycling. All of these actions are tracked to monitor and prevent waste materials indiscriminately ending in landfills. Strict perimeters are also set up around each site and carefully monitored in case of water run-off to prevent flooding surrounding areas with silt. This is achieved with the help of silt socks, manholes, and more.
“I’ve seen superintendents create immaculate signage on their waste bins so that you know exactly what needs to go where. I’ve seen them come up with ways to minimize the number of generators they need to run a site until they have power. That reduces fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. It’s cool to see that though we have a lot of corporate direction, there’s a lot of buy-in at the site level. Those guys really want to do the right thing,” Gear says proudly.
Entrances to sites are also controlled to keep dust and dirt to a minimum. This significantly eases the impact of the construction site on surrounding communities. Gear describes the tremendous efforts to which field professionals go to prevent their sites’ light and noise pollution affecting surrounding inhabitants as truly inspiring. Graham’s teams treat these measures seriously and not simply as a nice extra feature.
To ensure that it has a good grip on every dimension of its projects—especially the environmental and safety aspects—the Graham team prefers being there at the start of each one. This allows it more scope in which to ensure that jobs run leanly and efficiently.
“When we are involved in the upfront process during design and pre-construction, we’re able to give input to all stakeholders about the constructability of a project which will minimize the cost and schedule and overall impacts. We take pride in [contributing] to these types of projects to ensure that our impact on society, in general, is minimized as much as possible,” says Kaptein.
Graham has always been an early adopter of technology to keep its projects running efficiently. To this end, its proprietary software called Toolbox has been in operation for nearly two decades providing real-time information that makes handling logistics easy. The company is currently in the process of implementing the latest upgrade, Toolbox Next Generation, based on a system called InEight that is set to improve its systems even further.
It also used the past year to implement its new Graham Management System throughout the company to ensure that its entire operation runs on an integrated operations plan. This sophisticated system considers all certifications standards like International Standards Organization (ISO) and others, providing checklists for each phase of a project ensuring thorough completion and on-time delivery.
“[The Graham Management System] is not changing what we do. It is just a formalized approach to ensure that all of our projects have the same execution strategies [across all divisions],” says Gear.
With its in-house HSE staff and field safety personnel working alongside its crisis management team, the company ensured that there was always information available to its people and that projects continued to run as smoothly as possible within the parameters of the governing legislation. “The willingness of our staff to be able to deal with the restrictions and the new procedures we had to put in place for people to be able to continue together safely [became] a whole company effort. Without that, we wouldn’t have had as successful a year,” says Gear. This meant that the company could operate with minimal impact to its usual business routine.
“Overall, I think Graham has done a good job of responding to COVID-19 because of our on-going commitment to HSE. We do have a health group, so we have a number of nurses. Between [them] and our safety [team], we were able to make sure that the information was available and additional protocols were quickly established and implemented to be able to continue our work,” Gear says.
The company’s history goes back to 1926 when P. W. Graham & Sons Construction started doing business in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. At the time, it was building railway stations for its first client, Canadian Pacific Railway. Then in 1985, the company was sold by the Graham family to its employees, and has since evolved into an employee-owned powerhouse.
Throughout its history, Graham’s healthy financial situation allowed it to move ahead when others were lagging during economic downturns. This has allowed it to invest in a vast fleet of equipment that has given it strength within the market. Despite its size, Graham is still lauded for its personal care and quality on every single project.
Environmental stewardship is not a recent mandate for Graham. The company has been dedicated to exploring ways of integrating responsible building practices for nearly a decade. “[Protecting] the environment has been part of Graham’s standard operating procedures for quite a long time. [But] in the last five years, we’ve definitely experienced a ramp-up in the level that it is discussed throughout the organization,” Gear says.
The company has won several awards for its excellent work. In February this year, Graham won the Toronto Construction Association’s Best of the Best Awards for Medium-Sized Project Achievement for its work on Oakville, Ontario’s Trafalgar Community Centre. The 45,000-square-foot, energy-smart property with its beautifully landscaped grounds and community park is comprised of a gymnasium, fitness studio, walking track, fitness center, and aquatics center with two swimming pools and a pavilion with covered seating. Some modern features include solar panels, cooling and heating provided by geothermal units, and charging points for electric cars. It has also maintained its Platinum status of Canada’s Best Managed Companies since 2012.
There are several ways in which the company fulfills its environmental responsibilities. A sustainability committee handles corporate social responsibility as well as environmental social governance.
“I can get involved in pretty much any of our projects—buildings, infrastructure, industrial—in different capacities—permitting and approvals. A lot of it is making sure that, from a compliance perspective, that we have things in place. From a risk perspective, that we’re evaluating environmental risk prior to doing projects or even bidding projects, and much more,” Gear explains.
The company is also in the process of updating its HSE management system and ensuring that its systems are following the new ISO 45001 that guides occupational health and safety and ISO 14001, which controls environmental management systems. While it typically treats each project’s needs individually, the new Graham Management System does still allow for scalable standardization.
The company’s people are as efficient as its technology, and hiring the right people is the first step. “The [company’s] culture makes the difference. If you look at our executives, a lot of them have been at Graham for decades. They have worked in various parts of the company and continue to work here today,” says Gear.
Kaptein agrees, pointing out that employees do better when they have a vested interest in a business. “People in construction—and definitely my teams—are passionate about what they do. They’re here for a reason. They’re proud of what they build, and everyone is happy to be able to give back to society in general,” he says.
When it comes to giving back, Graham chooses to support charities in the communities in which it works and lives. The company prefers region-specific giving and looks at what is needed in every area, donating and sponsoring accordingly. Beyond this, the company also supports large organizations like Habitat for Humanity.
Exploring the world ahead, Graham is invested in becoming an even greater leader in sustainable contracting driven by its culture of commitment, integrity, and reliability. The firm is devoted “to being an all-around good citizen. It aims toward being a company people want to work with and work for,” Gear declares.
Considering the list of large projects on its current to-do list, from the new CAD$475 million campus expansion at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario to the USD$51.5 million Prosser Memorial Hospital in Central Washington, and several others in between, there will be much news to follow over the next two years.