In this article, we explore Green Construction – practices, techniques, and materials that can help alleviate the environmental cost of the building industry.
By Evelyn Long, editor-in-chief of Renovated
Construction is necessary for society to grow and thrive. However, it is also a significant contributor to climate change. Professionals can take steps to upgrade their processes and create an eco-friendly industry.
Recent research from the United Nations Environmental Program found carbon emissions from the industry at an all-time high, making officials question the validity of their 2050 decarbonization goal. However, progress is ongoing to improve the built environment for the planet and its residents.
Constructing and repairing buildings, bridges and other infrastructure is inherently messy and often relies on inexpensive tools and materials damaging the environment. Climate change is already showing global effects, including the following:
- Extreme weather events devastate ecosystems and require rebuilding structures.
- Warmer, drier air increases drought and damages crops.
- Rising sea levels minimize the amount of liveable land for humans and other species.
- Air pollution contributes to lung conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD).
- Dirty water poses a threat to human health.
According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), there are two steps to tackling climate change: mitigation and adaptation. All industries must work to reduce the number of carbon emissions they contribute, and people must acclimate to changes already present.
The need to reduce and reverse climate change is more prevalent than ever. Technological advancements, in-depth research and broader accessibility make it easier for construction companies to adopt green practices.
Green Construction: Eco-Friendly Upgrades
The following seven environmental upgrades can cut the carbon emissions used throughout the building process, from conception to completion.
Adopting environmentally friendly practices and procedures doesn’t begin on the work site. Using planning tools and software can reduce the risk of potential delays during construction.
Many companies are implementing virtual and augmented reality to experiment with different designs, reorder construction phases and work through potential safety problems without ever leaving the office. Working out the kinks beforehand means less time is spent on-site figuring things out. Work delays often lead to waste that increases the risk of air and water pollution.
Virtual and augmented reality is also beneficial during training, which can have a chain reaction. It’s easy to zone out during a lecture or fail to read a training manual. However, creating simulations to work through technical or safety challenges ensures workers can handle them when they happen on the site. Visual and kinesthetic learners may find performing a simulation can help the information sink in. Addressing potential issues reduces the chances of a project delay, minimizing energy use.
Small things can also add up around the office. Something may seem insignificant if one person does it, but multiple team members participating can reduce a company’s carbon footprint. Cloud technology and virtual files minimize paper waste. Having a recycling program, using smart lighting and temperature control, and discouraging single-use packaging can reduce a business’s environmental impact.
Materials are vital to a project’s success. Industry professionals must be made aware that environmentally friendly construction materials are not weaker or too costly. There are many efficient options companies can feel good about working with.
- Bamboo: Bamboo regrows quickly and requires little to no processing to transform into a tough but malleable material. It’s also lightweight, making it easy to transport. Companies often use it for support, roofing and scaffolding.
- Reclaimed wood: Construction companies reclaim leftover wood from other projects to prevent deforestation and keep it out of landfills. They use it in place of fresh lumber.
- Precast concrete: Precast concrete is factory-made to exact measurements, reducing emissions and waste. It’s durable in various weather conditions, making it an excellent choice for bridges, parking garages and commercial buildings.
- Laminated timber: This form of timber is prefabricated from kiln-dried dimensional lumber. It’s stronger, more water-resistant than traditional wood and has a lower environmental footprint.
- Adobe brick: Manufacturers can create adobe brick from clay, straw and soil without carbon emissions. It’s an insulating material that reduces deforestation while providing optimal temperature control.
Choosing better materials during the planning phase can create well-designed, energy-efficient infrastructure. Clients may see the advantages of touting a sustainably made structure in project proposals. Advertising eco-friendliness can impress their customers, making a sustainable building pitch potentially profitable. They may choose an environmentally conscious bid for that reason alone.
It’s easy to rely on mass-manufactured building materials, but doing so can harm the environment. The large number of gases released during production damages the ozone layer and increases the amount of radiation penetrating the atmosphere. Many of these items can also come from smaller manufacturers.
Some of the pieces needed during construction, like trim and framing, can be custom-made for floors, doors and ceilings. Likewise, crown molding is rising in popularity in residential projects once again, and choosing a specialized option can be a way to preserve the planet and impress clients.
Many small businesses produce custom cabinetry and doors made in small batches and focused on consumer needs. Local companies can also make windows on-site and customize them to a specific project.
Researching small manufacturers near a construction project can save money and reduce production and transportation emissions. Using as many job-produced materials as possible is an easy and efficient upgrade.
How teams access energy can greatly reduce the amount of carbon emissions a project causes.
More construction sites are using solar and wind energy to operate equipment. There are many benefits to having an off-grid power source at a work site. Companies can harness the sun’s rays to convert for their electric needs using photovoltaic panels. Doing so removes strain from the grid and the emissions caused by inefficient energy production.
Wind energy is also becoming a popular venture for construction companies. Nearby wind farms produce fast, clean power. It may be impractical for some projects, but long-lasting builds may consider using a residential wind turbine for production.
Construction equipment is also going green. Many electric and hybrid vehicles have hit the market, producing little to no emissions to operate. Experts predict they will soon be the industry standard, but companies don’t have to wait to implement them in their projects.
Low-emissions forklifts, excavators, dumpers, bulldozers and access platforms are some equipment that has already transitioned.
Companies might use more water than they realize. It’s used to maintain hygiene, wash tools, keep dust at bay, perform groundwork, complete hydro demolition, clear paths, and mix wet materials like concrete and plaster.
Taking steps to reduce water use throughout a project can remove some of the billions of wasted gallons in the United States alone. Creating and implementing a conservation plan can minimize unnecessary usage while keeping the project safe and productive.
Collected rainwater can clean construction sites, eliminating the need for a main water line. Greywater gathered through sustainable urban drainage systems supplies toilets and hoses.
Companies can eliminate the water used through main lines by implementing automatic sensors, hoses with control triggers, low-flush toilets and aerated sink taps. They can perform regular inspections and maintenance to avoid leaks. Some sensors can detect potential problems and shut down part or all of the system until it’s repaired.
Officials should consider filtering and reusing water on the site to create a closed-loop cycle that cuts the number of gallons used during the project.
Nearly 145 million tons of landfill debris comes from construction. Better-managed sites can reduce the amount of waste projects produce.
On-site recycling bins encourage employees to use them instead of trash bins. Plastic, paper, cardboard and glass are often byproducts of day-to-day operations, and collecting them for recycling stops the materials from idly sitting in landfills and releasing carbon emissions.
Companies can collect leftover lumber and steel for future projects or donate it to an organization that will. Instead of eliminating old or broken machinery, they can sell it to a private contractor who will work on and use it for personal projects.
Businesses can reduce waste by producing materials with exact measurements. For example, industrial 3D printers enable creating structural elements without making extra cuts.
Deconstruction is a valuable technique that modern machines can implement to take old structures apart in larger pieces to be used for another project. Implementing this technique keeps materials out of landfills and saves money that would have been spent replacing them.
Waste doesn’t just refer to trash. Loose dirt and debris entering the air and water are other common pollutants. Companies can minimize this by laying natural mulch or gravel on dusty areas.
Companies can implement many technologies on a work site that will reduce environmental impact.
Cloud communication and documentation can be used on the work site. Many managers laminate physical blueprints to protect them, making them impossible to recycle. Virtual blueprints allow them to manage the project, produce edits, and send notes via tablets or smartphones.
The cloud can provide real-time updates to crew members as the project proceeds, reducing delays and loose papers. It also can protect sensitive information that could end up in the wrong hands.
Worker management and safety technology can also impact a project’s environmental impact. Sensors can determine who is in an area and manage scheduling and distribution. Enough people efficiently completing a task helps the project finish faster and minimizes extra days of emissions.
Training is critical to ensuring all workers can operate on-site technology. There is a symbiotic relationship between older and younger construction workers. Younger generations grew up with the Internet of Things (IoT) and are more proficient at using it. Meanwhile, older people can serve as mentors.
The construction industry is vital, but many practices contribute to climate change through pollution and carbon emissions. Technology is combating the detrimental environmental impacts through energy-efficient sensors and machinery.
Embracing natural products and new designs leads to sustainable projects. Materials that require little processing can reduce a company’s carbon footprint and help them build a successful future.
Evelyn Long is a writer and the editor-in-chief of Renovated. Her work has been published by NCCER, Build Magazine and other online publications.