We’re confronting what seems like an insurmountable climate crisis, an emissions gap looming which our new presidential administration must face head on.
And while it seems like an uphill battle, the Environmental Protection Agency’s iconic “reduce, reuse, recycle” slogan, ringing clear, is finally catching on. A sense of doing one’s part appears to be sending shockwaves across nearly every industry:
- In the automotive industry, EV vehicles are being developed across nearly every segment. Iconic American brands like Ford, whom we associate with “Motor City” steel, the smell of gasoline, muscle car performance, and laughable MPGs are, shockingly, going toe-to-toe with EV titan Tesla. Similarly, Harley-Davidson—the big twin motorcycle brand most of us likely equate to loud and heavy “potato-potato” rumbling exhaust notes and the wafting smell of oil-drenched primary covers—is putting big money behind a dedicated EV division.
- In the consumer products industry, sustainability is being interwoven into product development—from kitchen products to beauty products to products for our furry friends.
- In the food industry, there are well-known plant-based companies like Beyond Meat®, or companies like YES STRAWS who are helping solve our country’s plastics problem.
- In the cryptocurrency industry, bitcoin mining has long been known for its excessive electricity use and massive associated carbon footprint. In response, a growing call for making bitcoin mining “greener” is being answered by innovative companies in this space, like Genesis Mining, who are piloting ways to make bitcoin mining more energy-efficient by recycling excess energy waste from crypto mining facilities into sustainable heat, and energy to power greenhouses.
And we, too, need to do our part! Put frankly, in our industry, there certainly is an imperative need for sustainable construction.
But how can the construction industry contribute to sustainable development?
With this question in mind, for our purposes in this overview article, we’ll first define and discuss:
Then, we’ll focus on a few key areas related to this subject:
- Sustainable construction materials: The eco-friendly building components that can be adopted in place of traditional, sometimes pollution-generating materials.
- Sustainable construction techniques: The various methods construction pros can interweave sustainability into their arsenal of approaches to building.
- Sustainable construction equipment: The emerging eco-friendly tools of trade that are quickly being developed and can help you tackle jobs in a more environmentally sound way.
- And finally, how advanced construction technology can be used to usher in sustainable techniques.
What Is Sustainability in the Construction Industry?
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that sustainability is built on the principle that “Everything we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.” Pursuing sustainability, they add, is to “create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations”
Pursuing environmental sustainability in the construction industry, then, requires us to rethink some of our natural procedures and techniques, as well as the components and materials we use in order to construct our built worlds in a manner that decreases the overall carbon footprint each project adds to.
To promote sustainability in the construction sector, and at your company, you will aim to:
- Protect the natural environment. Think, how might we apply the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra?
- Improve the built environment. Think, how might we improve design practices by piloting new, enhanced procedures and “green” materials?
- Foster a sense of responsibility within the construction industry. Think, how might we make a bigger impact by shaping worldviews within your organization, educating professionals/colleagues, employees, customers, partners, etc., and promoting sustainable construction methods on a wider scale?
We’ll get into sustainable construction methods in an upcoming section, but first, let’s discuss why promoting sustainability in the construction industry is so important.
Why Sustainable Construction Is Important
The construction industry is in the hot seat when it comes to pollution, accounting for 36% of final energy use and 39% of energy and process-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, according to a 2019 report from the International Energy Agency. 11% of these emissions came from the manufacturing of building materials—steel, cement, and glass.
Consider, for example, laying concrete. Concrete is a construction material that is praised for its versatility and durability, and it’s ubiquitous in civil engineering. But as the Guardian points out, it’s perhaps the “most destructive material on Earth.” A rapidly growing industry, cement production represents the third-largest source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and 8% of the world’s overall CO2 emissions according to a 2016 report by the EU Joint Research Centre.
The good news, “green concrete” is a growth category expected to be valued at 46.64 billion dollars by 2026, a 9.35% growth rate.
Building the Case for Sustainable Construction
Building the case for sustainability may seem like an operational challenge. There are, of course, some preconceived notions about the upfront costs of sustainability and producing a green building. In reality, these concerns are greatly exaggerated, with one study finding actual the average marginal costs of green building add-ons representing less than 2%.
Explaining to a customer the long-term benefits of sustainable building methods and materials is the first part of changing these perceptions. Talking points include:
- Upfront costs for premium fixtures can afford predictable, steady cost-savings, like a high-returns investment; high-performance windows, for example, can allow for the use of a cost-saving, optimized HVAC system.
- Water efficiencies are created through the use of low-flow fixtures, sensors, non-portable water for irrigation applications, etc., which all help reduce your water bill.
- Minimizing the reliance on artificial lighting can decrease lighting energy use by 50-70%, reducing operating and maintenance costs of lighting systems
- Green building justifies charging for higher rent
As sustainability becomes more imperative and more contractors demand familiarity with these types of materials, building the capacity to support sustainable construction initiatives can help you win more bids.
A sustainable construction strategy calls for:
- Utilizing sustainable construction materials, where possible
- Improving processes with construction techniques that promote sustainability
- Utilizing sustainable construction equipment, where available
- Utilizing advanced construction technology in order to promote sustainability
We’ll now discuss each of these in more detail in the succeeding sections of this article.
1. Sustainable Construction Materials
Now that we’ve discussed why this topic is so important, you’re probably wondering, what are the sustainable construction materials available to you to lay the groundwork your green strategy?
There are a wide variety of sustainable building materials you can use, including:
- Green concrete: Concrete alone accounts for 8-10% of the word’s CO2 emissions, mainly due to the byproducts of manufacturing cement. Thus, changing how you manufacture cement is key to reducing the emissions involved. Green concrete substitutes a portion of the cement sand used to make cement with more environmentally friendly materials that have properties similar to cement. Ingredients might include fly ash from coal power plants; ground granulated blast slang, or slag cement from steel mills; leftover silica fume in electric furnaces; fiberglass and waste glass; burnt clay; rice hush ash; sawdust; and foundry sand. Additional alternatives to traditional concrete include:
- Grasscrete: Especially great for external landscapes, grasscrete is the process of arranging greenery in the gaps between concrete floors and sidewalks. Using grasscrete in your outdoor spaces can be aesthetically pleasing, it can reduce the overall usage/reliance on concrete (thus, reducing overall emissions of a project), and it can be used with a drainage system. The gaps needed for excess stormwater also reduce the costly damage/repairs you might experience with a traditional concrete driveway from waterflow over time.
- Hempcrete: Creating a product similar to concrete, hempcrete (as the name implies) uses the woody fibers in the inner part of a hemp plant, which are bound with lime to create a shape similar to concrete cinder blocks. The fibers they’re made of, both lightweight and strong, mean these blocks are easy to transport (and use less energy in the process). Hemp, a renewable resource, also grows rapidly.
- Ashcrete: A form of “green concrete,” ashcrete uses fly ash (a byproduct of burning coal), 9% of its components which can be recycled.
- Timbercrete: Timbercrete mixes sawdust and concrete. These mixtures can be formed into blocks, bricks, and pavers that are much lighter than concrete, and can be used in driveways and garage floors.
- Papercrete: (For fans of The Office) Perhaps Dwight Schrute can find a more environmentally friendly side business that melds his passion for paper products and Recyclops! Papercrete uses recycled wastepaper, and also is reused to manufacture concrete. While it doesn’t eliminate the use of cement, it can help reduce the emissions byproduct of manufacturing traditional concrete.
- Composite cement: Composite materials and foam beads can be formed together to make walls that are fireproof, storm-resistant, and sound-proofed.
- Mycelium: A naturally occurring (fungus) and renewable resource, mycelium can be airdried to create extremely lightweight bricks.
- Ferrock: Cheap to manufacture and composed of 95% recycled materials (steel dust and silica), ferrock, besides sounding like great band name, is a carbon-negative, environmentally friendly compound that hardens and becomes like concrete, but even stronger!
- Masonry: Using alternatives to concrete, as we discussed in detail above, can be considerably more sustainable; masonry construction, for example, can be environmentally friendly. As masonry trades can tell you about how their thousands of years’ old profession has stood the test of time, stonework, and bricks of shale and clay, is made from natural materials that are mined sustainably. Stonework and brickwork offer considerable durability and aesthetic appeal. Brickmakers use renewable materials and create little waste during the manufacturing process.
- Bamboo: Bamboo is known for being both lightweight and incredibly strong, the perfect alternative to wood. Bamboo also is a renewable resource that grows extremely quickly (sometimes, miraculously, as fast as 3-ft per day) when compared to other trees. Bamboo can be used for many different applications, including tiles, trim, flooring, lumber, countertops, and decking.
- Rammed earth walls and floors (one of the oldest, most durable materials) can be used as thermal storage, capturing the sun’s warmth during the day and slowly releasing this energy throughout the evenings.
- Wool insulation: Some companies offer rolls and batts of sheep wool insulation, similar to how fiberglass insulation is sold. But wool offers a 10% greater insulating factor, able to absorb, retain, and release moisture while still keeping its thermal properties. As a result, you’ll be warmer in winter, and cooler in summer.
You can also follow guidelines to design and get your building LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified, which (in addition to being environmentally friendly) offers owners energy cost savings through upgraded, optimally installed HVAC systems, water systems, and other energy-efficient innovations. According to a 2014 UC Berkley study, LEED standards help the environment and reduce carbon, accounting for 50% fewer greenhouse gas emissions (as compared to traditionally constructed buildings). Additionally, they contributed to 34% lower CO2 emissions, 22% less energy consumed, 11% less water consumed, and 25% less energy (on average) used (as compared to commercial buildings). With LEED jobs increasingly becoming the norm, you’ll want to build your experience and familiarity with LEED processes to stay competitive.
2. Sustainable Construction Techniques
Some important questions arise when considering sustainability and construction building methods: “how can construction be more sustainable” or “how can sustainability be incorporated into construction projects.”
There are a number of sustainable construction techniques that have emerged in recent years:
- Synthetic roof underlayment: Typical of roof underlayment is an asphalt base that breaks down quickly. Replacing this layer as it ages is important to keep moisture from seeping into buildings’ interiors. Using a synthetic underlayment can offer an alternative that weighs less and provides greater durability, using polymers recycled from scrap metals.
- Green roofs: A recent innovation, green roofs serve both an aesthetic and sustainable purpose—bringing attractive vegetation to the tops of buildings that can contribute to landfill diversion, stormwater management, and improved air quality. What’s more, it adds economic benefits like creating new job prospects in horticulture.
- Grid hybrid system: A grid hybrid system offers a smart way to power buildings by storing excess energy and allowing the renewable source to function at night during periods where solar power is inaccessible. Similarly, constructing passive solar buildings can leverage solar energy as it relates to their physical environment based on movement of the sun. This helps to maximize heating during the winter and cooling during summer months.
- Greywater plumbing systems: A plumber can install a greywater system to reduce your building’s need for freshwater. Learn more about sustainable plumbing!
- Solar thermal cladding: Solar heating and cooling technologies include build methods designed to hold heat during the winter with the installation of perforated metal cladding materials to an existing external wall. This cladding retains and circulates the energy through the building. These solar thermal technologies can be used in conjunction with a sustainable heating and cooling system, installed by a skilled HVAC technician, that can optimize any number of novel eco-friendly innovations, like geothermal heat pumps; hydronic radiant heating and cooling; a smart thermostat; and a green air conditioning unit.
While these examples represent a relatively “niche” categories, it’s important to invest in building a portfolio of sustainable construction techniques like these as they grow in momentum so that:
- You win more business and aren’t left out during the bidding process (as sustainable construction becomes the norm, these techniques will be expected).
- You establish yourself as a trustworthy provider as these techniques continue to grow in popularity.
To have the biggest impact, you might consider how you can adopt sustainable practices across your entire org; consider, for example, making your logistics chain greener by investing in a sustainable warehouse, leveraging the relationship between BIM and asset management to more efficiently manage onsite work and tool utilization, or using BIM software for sustainability.
3. Sustainable Construction Equipment
When it comes to getting serious about going green, getting rid of old technologies that are bad for the environment and replacing them with sustainable construction equipment is imperative.
Using cordless power tools in general offer the benefit of not having to worry about finding outlets, using excess electricity onsite, or creating excessive gas emissions. But aside from these innovations, there are plenty of modernizations in the equipment space that will allow you more productive while being environmentally friendly:
- Battery-powered generators. Disruptive innovations, bringing portable, on-demand power where it’s needed, help you get rid of unwieldy gas-powered, emissions-prone generators. Use them to power your corded equipment or charge your cordless tools!
- Battery-powered light equipment. With the advent and refinement of lithium-ion battery technology, a variety of equipment formerly rife with emissions have entered the scene providing better, more sustainable alternatives: cement breakers, cut-off saws, coring drills, and more.
- Battery-powered outdoor equipment. The battery and electric revolution has found major automotive companies like Ford and even tech giants like Apple racing to compete with Tesla to deliver electric cars. In the construction industry, similar technologies are disrupting the outdoor equipment space—from heavy-duty chainsaws and specialty pruners, to battery-powered push mowers, self-propelled mowers, and ride-on electric mowers.
4. Facilitating Sustainable Construction Techniques through Advanced Construction Technology
Outside of the materials, building techniques, and equipment you employ, you can also support environmental sustainability in construction by adopting the advanced sustainable construction technology available to you, like BIM software that can be used to recycle materials. There are also exciting prospects in structural 3D printing, a technique utilizing advanced welding machines, integrated with industrial robotic arms, to machine together intricate, structurally sound bridges composed of sustainable materials. Such an approach could be used on construction sites to aid in dangerous tasks.
Additionally, prefab construction and modular construction methods are generally associated with production and recycling efficiencies between design and building phases to allow for streamlining and less of an environmental impact.
Wrapping It Up: What Is Your Company’s Construction Sustainability Plan?
Sustainability and construction need to be in lockstep as we race to turn back the clock on the climate crisis and treat the damaging blows that our planet’s environment has already absorbed.
Sustainability, what’s more, is not only good for the planet, but it’s also good for the economy, creating the plethora of environmentally friendly technologies we discussed above as well as creating entirely new careers in construction, like green roof horticulturalist jobs, solar photovoltaic (solar panel) installer jobs, or wind turbine technician jobs.
So, with all this to say, do you have a sustainability plan in place for your company’s contribution to the betterment of the planet?
Sustainable construction involves us rethinking our natural construction methods in favor of, as well environmentally friendly practices.
It’s based on the basic tenets of how me might:
- Protect the natural environment
- Improve the built environment
- Foster a sense of responsibility within the construction industry.
So, are you ready to adopt a full-fledged construction sustainability plan? Remember, this will involve:
- Utilizing sustainable construction materials, like replacing traditional concrete with “green concrete” (such as “grasscrete,” “hempcrete,” “ashcrete,” “tibercrete,” and“papercrete”) or using other sustainable construction materials, like composite cement, mycelium, and ferrock.
- Utilizing sustainable construction techniques, like synthetic roof underlayment, installing green roofs, grid hybrid system, greywater plumbing systems, and solar thermal cladding.
- Utilizing sustainable construction equipment, like battery-powered generators, or battery-powered and electric outdoor equipment.
- Implementing sustainability through the use of construction technologies, like BIM for recycling materials, structural 3D printing, or Prefab/Modular construction methods.