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Pillars of Sustainable Development & Links to Construction

An introduction to the 3 pillars of sustainability (economic, social and environmental), and their links to construction.
The 3 pillars of sustainability: Economic, social and environmental
© CIOB Academy

So far we have looked at the concept of sustainability, its definition and importance to socio-economic growth and development. What we need to consider now is how sustainability can be placed into building construction policies, strategies, and practices. As the image above shows, sustainability is organised into three underpinning pillars, namely Environmental sustainability, Economic sustainability, and Social sustainability.

These three pillars are a powerful tool for defining and analysing the issues of sustainability. In this course, these three pillars will be dealt with individually over the coming weeks, and then brought together in week 5.

Before we proceed further, it is important to consider why the construction industry is chosen by governments around the world as the main sector focused on in the drive for sustainability.

Firstly, the construction industry is very resource intensive. At every stage of a project lifecycle, huge pressures are exerted on the natural environment for materials. Raw materials are extracted, sent to factories, manufactured into building materials, and delivered to construction sites. The construction and use of buildings up to demolition also involves the use of huge volumes of materials and creates lots of wastes.

The image below presents evidence on the nature of the impact the built environment has on the environment. Buildings for example, account for 45-50% of total global energy consumption, 50% of total global drinking water, 60% of bulk of raw materials, and 60% of timber product usage. Similarly, 80% of global agricultural land is lost to buildings.

Lifecycle Assessment of Construction site, showing where there will be resource requirements during the construction cycle (click to expand)

©Saint-Gobain

Secondly, the construction sector also accounts for a large share of global pollution. About 23% of total air pollution in cities and 50% of greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, the construction sector is answerable for 50% of global landfill wastes, and it is estimated that 75% of all known factors responsible for global environmental degradation are traceable to the built environment.

Given that the global population and rate of urbanisation are rising, then demands for housing and infrastructure will intensify. This means that pollution and resource consumption are becoming increasing problems that require urgent attention.

As well as recognising the problems caused by construction, there is also a general consensus that the sector also holds the key to possible solutions to some of the global environmental challenges. For example, the image below shows buildings offer the least cost option for driving reductions in carbon emissions, and is an illustration of the significance of built environment sector to achieving sustainable development. You can also read a fascinating article on the topic here.

Graph of emissions. demonstrates that buildings offer the least cost option for emissions reductions compared to agriculture, industry, energy and transport (click to expand)

© World Resources Institute

In addition, sustainability is mutually beneficial to both the natural environment, and the sector. For instance, the effects of rapid natural resource depletion are already being felt by the construction industry, forcing scarcity and price increases of critical building materials. this feeds into project delays and overall building costs. With sustainable practice these problems for the environment and sector could be avoided.

These are reasons why the global construction industry should adopt sustainability as its logo. If you were to design a strapline for construction sustainability, what would it be?

© CIOB Academy
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Sustainable Construction and Development

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