The importance of sustainability in construction

Alessandro Bracco
Alessandro Bracco
20 September 2019
Construction site and a crane

Construction is a massive industry today that impacts nearly every other industry across the globe. It accounts for six percent of the global gross domestic product (GDP), indicating its economic reach. With urban areas worldwide seeing increases of roughly 200,000 people per day, more housing and infrastructure are needed all the time.

According to the European Commission, the building sector produces approximately one-third of all waste, much of which ends up in landfill. As an industry, it also contributes with 11% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and its current volume of natural resource utilization is not sustainable and substantially compromises the environment for the sake of growth.

As these figures show, the construction industry faces significant challenges in reducing its environmental footprint. Climate change, resource consumption, and water management are all environmental issues that must be carefully considered when working towards sustainability in construction today.

3 steps to sustainability in construction

Designing sustainable buildings is not enough. Construction companies must also take into consideration the following:

1. Ensuring sustainability during construction

Sustainability can be one of the most challenging aspects of this industry. Buildings are constructed using natural resources. Those resources are usually thrown out when they have reached the end of their usefulness. For example, remodelling a building might result in throwing away materials used in the initial construction to accommodate the desired changes. This process can deplete natural resources at a rapid rate to substantially impact the overall environment.

The way materials are used are not the only challenge in achieving sustainability in construction. The construction process itself can also have a significant environmental impact. Building sites, tools, equipment and machinery take ample energy. Energy used for heating the building or personnel quarters also contributes to the overall consumption. The way this energy is used and where it comes from can have a huge impact on emissions. Similarly, heavy machinery used in construction often runs on fossil fuels, further exacerbating the footprint of the construction process. Land grading can also affect the ability of the ground to absorb and capture water, which changes the overall scope of the landscape and the stability of the foundation.

Reducing the amount of energy used in construction, shifting to electrically powered equipment, and improving the overall energy efficiency of the construction site could be ways of reducing the negative carbon impact.

Lean manufacturing processes in controlled environments is another way to reduce environmental impact. Manufacturing may be completed in a controlled setting like an indoor factory, where waste can be substantially reduced, and materials can be recycled instead of thrown out. The components of the building are then taken to the site and assembled, which takes less toll on the surroundings of the building.

2. Designing buildings for re-purposing

Instead of designing for a single purpose, today’s architect is challenged with the task of creating a building that can be reconfigured as needed to meet changing needs. When buildings are designed to be reused rather than demolished, we can reduce the amount of waste going to landfills and reduce the overall consumption of raw materials.

Fortunately, solutions continue to be developed that support sustainability in construction. Circular design eliminates the pattern of “design, build, use, and dispose” and replaces it with one that is more environmentally friendly. A cycle of designing out waste, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems is a more sustainable way to ensure construction keeps up with demand without the profound environmental impact seen in the past.

One example of circular design is being built in a neighbourhood near Aarhus in Denmark. Builders designed building systems that could be constructed and then taken down and rebuilt into new buildings. The goal of the project is to be able to reuse 90 percent of the materials without a significant decline in value.

3. Considering the materials used

The construction industry in the UK produces three times more waste than all UK households. Of this waste around 20 million tonnes of waste annually goes straight to landfills.

This is, in part, because building materials are not designed to be reused or recycled efficiently. This is not only problematic because of the huge amount of waste, but also because these structures are produced using raw materials. The extraction and treatment of these raw materials is taxing for environment resulting in damage on both local and global scale.

When constructing new buildings, or renovating old ones, it is important to consider the use of materials that can be source sustainable and can be recycled after use. Recycling forms a key element of the circular economy and it is time for construction to become circular.

Designing buildings with the circular economy in mind also sets a high standard for the longevity and robustness of the building elements used. Choosing building materials that are long-lasting and can serve multiple purposes lowers the cost of renovating the buildings over time and ensures consistent performance.

Change is needed

Currently, the construction industry is making a profound impact on the environment; thus, it becomes extremely important that companies work towards maximising the positive benefits while minimising its negative components. Fortunately, there are plenty of steps construction companies can take to ensure both their materials and their manufacturing processes lead to sustainability in construction. These steps are good for the environment, as well as the company’s bottom line.

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