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How can we move towards sustainable construction?

Discover the meaning of sustainable construction as we take a look at its importance, how you can implement it, the principles of sustainable construction and offer some examples.

Sustainable construction

Construction is a key part of the way we live today; buildings are essential to many aspects of our daily lives. But with our planet in crisis, we need to be able to do this in a way that protects the environment and doesn’t contribute to climate change. 

In this article, we will provide you with a definition of sustainable construction, take a look at the principles of sustainable construction and discuss how sustainability can be implemented within the construction industry.

What is sustainable construction?

Before we begin, let’s start with a definition of sustainable construction. We can define sustainability as the actions we take to prevent or reduce any harm inflicted on the environment or living creatures. Essentially, sustainability is all about meeting the current needs of our environment without compromising the planet for future generations. 

Knowing what it means to be sustainable, the term sustainable construction may start to make sense to you. Sustainable construction is a living term and varies depending on the scenario. But, to put it simply, sustainable construction is any building or construction work that is carried out in an environmentally-friendly manner with the aim of reducing any negative environmental impacts. 

The main goal of sustainable construction is to reduce the construction industry’s impact on the environment. We’ll look at some of the ways sustainable construction can do this throughout this article. 

Why is sustainability in construction important? 

With the global population constantly rising, our planet is expected to reach 8.5 billion people by the year 2030. Preserving our non-renewable resources is crucial to the planet’s survival, and sustainable construction does just that. Green construction practices can be implemented by both public and private developers to address environmental challenges.

Sadly, traditional methods of construction can have quite a harmful effect on the environment. Non-renewable resources are often used to carry out construction, and more often than not, construction produces a lot of waste. So, how can we combat the harmful effects of construction? 

Construction and building cannot be avoided, but we can reduce the impact of construction by implementing sustainable methods and being more environmentally conscious. Let’s look at just a few of the reasons that sustainable construction is important: 

  • Waste – the pressing issue of waste needs to be addressed – the UK alone produced 222.2 million tonnes of waste back in 2018. There are an array of environmental repercussions of sending waste to landfill, including loss of space and injury to wildlife. The construction industry is a large contributor to waste production; in 2016 it was estimated that 120 million tonnes of construction, demolition and excavation waste was produced. 

  • Energy – the use of energy is also a critical issue. We are using forms of precious non-renewable energy sources to power many of our daily activities. This is dangerous as the use of energy contributes to emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants, amongst other issues. The buildings and buildings construction sector contributes to nearly 40% of total CO2 emissions, so the industry has quite a heavy impact in this area. 

  • Pollution – as well as the use of energy, construction tends to involve the use of hazardous chemicals and can produce dust and residue from working with certain materials. Another thing to consider is the noise pollution produced from construction sites – although it may not seem as serious as the other issues, noise pollution can harm local wildlife. 

When we consider all of these risks, we can start to see how harmful the consequences of construction can be. Especially with the population soaring, we will have even higher demands for buildings in the very near future. This is particularly worrying because buildings contribute to almost 40% of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions

Sustainability in construction allows for a healthier, more sustainable way of living that helps us work towards a sustainable future. As well as protecting the environment, sustainable construction could draw more attention from investors and home buyers. There are also financial benefits to going green within your home building; less water and energy usage makes for reduced utility bills. 

As sustainability becomes ever more crucial, interest in sustainable living increases alongside it. Younger generations are more invested in sustainable choices, and impact investing is rising in prominence.

Sustainable construction practices

When we hear the term sustainable construction, it’s easy to just imagine the manual process of building and constructing. However, the biggest difference can be made during the planning and designing process of construction.

To implement a sustainable construction plan, every step of the construction process must be considered carefully. Let’s look at some important sustainable construction practices: 

Design and planning

Central to any construction process is the planning phase. During these stages, the building is designed, materials are chosen, and energy-efficient technologies are planned out. Therefore, sustainable building design should take into account all elements of a building and plan for optimal environmental performance. 

Based on the size and location of the building, the technologies and design can vary. Regardless of the differences between each building, however, all design aspects should work together to produce the most sustainable outcomes. Things to consider when designing for sustainability include water usage, carbon emissions, effects on local communities and climate change.

Ideally, your building should successfully be net-zero if not net-positive. To be net-zero means to take away an equal amount of greenhouse gases to the emissions we produce, which makes our net emissions zero. To be net-positive is to go a step beyond that and enhance the environment more than the amount that we harm it, and make an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even further. 

Here are some technologies that can be used to create a sustainable building:

  • Solar power – this technology utilises energy produced by the sun, which is a renewable resource. Solar panels can be installed to produce electricity as an alternative to fossil fuels which contribute to climate change and push the Earth toward its tipping point.

  • Smart appliances – the installation of smart appliances in the home can greatly reduce the carbon footprint of any building. These technologies allow us to control lighting and temperature from anywhere, which means it’s easy to only use the amount of energy we need without wasting excess.

  • Smart glass – this technology allows for the control of light within a building; the glass changes between translucent and transparent to work around light sources to insulate and block light when needed. Smart glass can control heat as well as light and comes in a variety of forms.

  • Geothermal heat pumps – the purpose of geothermal heat pumps is to control the temperature of a building in a completely renewable and sustainable way. These pumps utilise natural temperatures from the ground throughout the seasons to cool and heat buildings. 

If you’re interested in learning more about environmentally friendly design, check out our Design thinking for sustainable development course.

Sustainable materials

One of the most detrimental effects of construction work is the use of materials, but we can address this by introducing more renewable resources and recycled materials. When planning for construction, many sustainable materials can be used as an alternative to harmful or non-renewable materials. These materials should ideally also be sourced from sustainable suppliers. Let’s look at some examples of sustainable construction materials: 

  • Bamboo – what makes bamboo so incredible is its ability to grow fast. Unlike more traditionally used trees such as pine, bamboo can be reforested with a high turnover. The material is also very durable and can be compressed well. 

  • Recycled wood – it’s undeniable that wood is a useful resource to build with. However, it is much more sustainable to seek out recycled or reclaimed wood as opposed to sourcing new timber for your project. 

  • Cork – this is the outer bark of a cork oak tree – it is free of chemicals, water-resistant, fully recyclable and absorbs sound well. It has elasticity properties and is an incredibly unique material that is being seen more and more for building structures around the world. 

  • Sheep’s wool – as odd as it may sound, sheep’s wool may be the answer to sustainable home insulation. It uses far less energy than other insulation alternatives and is sustainable because it is incredibly renewable and often locally sourced. The material is breathable and protects against moisture as well as helps maintain stable building temperatures. 

  • Hempcrete – this green alternative to concrete is made up of lime and hemp. Hempcrete is versatile and can be used to build a wide range of structures. Similarly to sheep’s wool, hempcrete has strong moisture resistance and condition regulation, making it another great insulation alternative.

Optimise space and materials

As discussed above, construction and buildings contribute to a huge chunk of waste being sent to landfill. Therefore, to build in an environmentally friendly way, we should optimise our materials to reduce waste levels and only purchase the amount of materials we need to carry out each project.

If you do have excess materials, you can optimise them by carefully cutting materials to the right size and utilising the remainder for other projects. Another excellent sustainability method is to optimise your space; build your project in a way that makes the most of the available space. Overpopulation is a pressing issue, and tactically building upwards or in a space-conserving manner is key to optimising any building. 

Who can implement sustainable construction practices?

Green construction is not exclusive to large companies with big projects to work with. You can also implement green construction within your own home or with small projects you may work on. You can be more environmentally friendly with your own private projects by using the right equipment, minimising waste and using energy-efficient technologies.

As well a taking a greener approach with small projects, it’s also nice to see large corporate companies focusing on sustainable construction. Office buildings are often massive contributors to CO2 emissions, so having more companies take on missions to become carbon net-zero is a significant step towards a greener future. 

The corporate social responsibility business model is rising in popularity; companies are expected to do their part and contribute to a greener society. Environmental efforts can influence the decisions and opinions of buyers, and have a positive impact on sales and interest. 

To find out more about how your company can make a difference, check out our course on how to measure, reduce, and offset your company’s carbon footprint.

Examples of sustainable construction

Many companies and architects are already implementing sustainable construction tactics into their current building design. Now that we know the basics of sustainability in construction, let’s take a look at some examples of sustainable construction in action. 

The Crystal

Siemens constructed the building named ‘The Crystal’ in Royal Docks, London. Set up as an events venue, this building is a perfect example of sustainable construction at work. As one of the world’s most sustainable buildings, it has been accredited by the BREEAM award; an award for the most rigorous sustainably designed buildings.

The Crystal boasts solar panels, triple-glazed solar glass, and a roof designed to collect rainwater and store it underground for future use. Due to this sustainable design, the building produces around 70% lower CO2 emissions than comparable UK-based office buildings. 

Bullitt Center

Another excellent example of a sustainable building is the Bullitt Center, a Seattle-based commercial building exclusively built upon energy-efficient features. The Bullitt Center goes above and beyond in terms of becoming net-zero; the building actually produces more energy than needed, so it’s considered a net-positive building.

The main material used to construct the Bullitt center is locally sourced timber, and most materials used were left in their original state to avoid any toxins. Some of the Bullitt Center features include an airtight seal due to a triple-glazed curtain wall system, 575 rooftop solar panels, and energy-efficient lighting.

CopenHill

Copenhagen is considered one of the world’s most sustainable and energy-efficient cities in the world. Amongst their many sustainability efforts is the implementation of the CopenHill building. This unique building is a waste-to-energy plant fitted with a ski slope, hiking trail and climbing wall.

This sustainable power plant turned recreation centre is the perfect example of utilising space to make the most of an environment. The machinery within the power plant is strategically aligned to create the sloped rooftop that acts as a base for the ski slope. CopenHill can also convert 440,000 tons of waste into heating and electricity for 150,000 homes each year. 

How can we move towards sustainable construction? 

Sustainability in construction is more important now than ever before; the Earth is at risk and the need to move towards greener methods is essential. We’ve explored the principles of sustainable construction and looked at some examples, but what are some other ways we can start our sustainable construction journey? 

Measure the effects 

Measuring the various effects of sustainable construction is a great way to gauge just how sustainable a building is. We can determine just how effective a green building is by measuring energy outputs and the success of eco-friendly technologies. By doing so, we’ll be able to see if the buildings we work on are, in fact, net-zero.

There is a range of assessment tools and standards that allow us to assess the environmental performance of buildings. We mentioned BREEAM briefly when we spoke about The Crystal, but there are many other accreditations and tools available. These include LEED and the code for sustainable homes

Spread awareness

Despite the clear benefits of sustainable construction, there is still pushback from some developers and construction workers. There is often the misconception that sustainable features cost far too much to implement, those who dislike change and those who are unaware of current climate issues we are facing.  

If you’re in a position to do so, spreading awareness about the clear benefits of green construction is a great way to work towards a sustainable future. Those who are currently uninformed could take up sustainability in construction themselves and also assist in bringing the construction industry forward. 

Maintain sustainable construction sites

Whether you’re building a brand new skyscraper or you’re modifying a pre-existing building to be more sustainable, there will always be a construction site involved. Making adjustments to buildings to increase energy efficiency and sustainability efforts is a great step towards a sustainable future, but we should also be conscious of the impact we have within construction sites.

You can create a sustainable construction site environment by being conscious of energy usage, taking care of waste appropriately, and recycling waste where possible. You can also encourage sustainability on-site by implementing a silt fence, or filter fence, to retain the quality of the local environment during the construction process. 

Final thoughts

While construction cannot be avoided entirely, we can do our best to minimise the effects and work towards a sustainable future. It’s clear that sustainable construction is the way forward for the construction industry. 

We hope that this article has provided you with a deeper understanding of construction sustainability, and perhaps encouraged you to start your own sustainable construction journey if you have the means to.

If you’re interested in learning more about sustainability in construction, check out our Sustainable construction and development course.

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