Building a more sustainable future

Construction companies want to ensure their projects are delivered not only on time, to budget, and with a great return – but are also under pressure to monitor environmental indicators such as air quality, water usage and resource wastage in order to comply with the environmental standards set by statutory bodies.

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The UK government has committed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels, and to halve them by 2025. In order for construction to actually be sustainable, it must meet society’s current needs for domestic housing, commercial properties, and infrastructure etc without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs across environmental, economic, and social pillars.

The construction industry must shift to a more sustainable model to meet these regulations and for the benefit of the environment and its long-term endurance. Considering the global extent of construction and urbanisation today, and taking into account the pace at which the planet is being further developed, it is even more important that whatever is constructed adheres to a less wasteful and more environmentally friendly model.

In the UK

  • 61% of all waste produced comes from the construction and demolition of buildings.

  • The construction industry accounts for approximately 55% of the total annual material consumption

  • 13% of products delivered new to construction sites are sent directly to landfill without ever being used. It produces three times more waste than all UK households combined.

  • The construction and operation of buildings account for 50% of total CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) emissions.

  • The construction industry is responsible for 30% of annual water usage.

Construction has faced a huge productivity lag over the last 30 years, but due to digitisation and unprecedented technological advancements, we’re seeing construction enter a dynamic new era. The sector now has a unique opportunity to ensure that green business lies at the very core of the industry’s future progress.

How can the construction industry move to a more sustainable model?

1. Consider modular construction

Modular construction is the manufacture and pre-assembly of construction components before they are installed in their permanent on-site location. Once modules are delivered to site – pre-fitted with plumbing, heating, electrics etc – they are carefully assembled into position on-site. Reductions in vehicle transportation and machine usage encompass a significant decrease in the emissions caused throughout the traditional construction process which means that offsite construction uses a lot less energy.

Offsite construction is also up to 50% quicker than traditional methods, allowing companies to deliver projects on time. China has been a good example of what can be done in terms of efficiency; the Mini Sky City in Changsha took just 17 days on-site to assemble. On-site production innovation is on the increase in the UK. MACE’s factory in Stratford is proving that the UK construction industry can incorporate sustainability in all aspects of construction.

2. Incorporate technology to increase efficiency during the design and construction phases

Working with highly detailed virtual models during a project’s design phase enables planners to avoid design clashes and re-build. Plans can be easily shared seamlessly in the cloud, and used for real-time collaboration across all stakeholders. This improves efficiency, enhances design and reduces errors. Other tech companies are exploring real-time tracking such as costs and resources in order to smooth project management. From estimating to layout and ongoing project management, every step in the design and construction workflow is reviewed and enhanced by digitisation. Thus providing a means for construction’s environmental impact to be reduced.

3. Material longevity

Technological innovations are transforming the way physical materials are used in global construction projects. In the renewable energy sector, for instance, 3D printing has led to changes in how wind turbine blades could be developed. Carbon fibre has additionally given developers newer, lighter avenues to explore. 3D printing is just one of the increasing trends towards many alternative and recycled building materials. Among the recycled metals used today for green building purposes, copper and steel are the ones with the best properties. Elsewhere, studies continue to look into future innovations such as self-healing concrete. Concrete is the world's most popular building material, however all concrete eventually cracks, and under some conditions, those cracks can lead to collapse. This self-healing concrete, which was developed in the Netherlands, would have the ability to repair itself using bacteria without the need for human intervention.

4. Water wastage

In the UK, the construction industry is a major user of water resources. Water is used throughout the construction life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials to the manufacturing phase, and during the construction phase. Nowadays the world is looking for green systems and the efficient use of water is climbing up the sector’s agenda - many construction companies are implementing processes to use water more wisely as part of general efficiency gains such as cleaning-in-place solutions and domestic facilities like aerated taps, audits to identify leaks and poor practices, and using lower quality sources such as rainwater to reduce reliance on the mains.

Benefits of having a sustainable business

1. Increased productivity and reduced costs

Through the development of more sustainable business practices - efficiency in operations will increase and efforts become more streamlined. By implementing water and energy efficiency practices, recycling, reusing and reducing waste, costs can be reduced while ensuring the business operates in a sustainable way.

2. Increased resource efficiency

Many of the resources previously considered renewable, such as forests and fresh water, have become finite now that human demand exceeds our ability to replenish them. As resources become less available, businesses need to plan for increased costs in the future, the cost of adapting to climate change, and consider the impacts of government policy that is becoming increasingly hostile towards CO2 emissions. With better use and conservation of resources, overall costs will decrease and wastage will be reduced.

3. Improved brand image

Environmental mindfulness and sustainability have become mainstream with more and more people searching for ethical and sustainably produced products and services. Employees, especially Gen Y and Gen Z, seek work that is meaningful and provides value to society. By embedding sustainability and environmental care into business practices and culture, it will be easier to retain and attract top talent over competitors who don’t.

The construction industry is taking positive steps in the right direction. It’s clear that there are not only significant long term benefits on the environment with sustainable construction but also to the sector itself. As the construction sector develops and adapts to meet changing government policies, it will be interesting to see how companies work to meet environmental and social responsibilities whilst remaining profitable.