What Is Sustainable Construction?

Construction By Matthew Coombes

The ‘future’ of the construction industry is almost guaranteed in some form or another. We will always need to build to accommodate for population, industry, logistics, travel, leisure and much more, so there will always be a need for construction while we have a sustained and developing population.

This is why sustainability in the construction industry is important. If construction is going to be ever-present, it needs to be able to operate in a way that isn’t going to detrimentally impact the world.

The biggest issues that the construction industry will face in terms of sustainability are:

  • Sourcing and using recyclable and renewable materials
  • Reducing emissions during construction
  • Addressing and reducing waste
  • Locating and using less ecologically damaging sites
  • Reducing the impact of buildings at the design phase

Sourcing and using recyclable and renewable materials

Everything has a cost somewhere, and different materials will have different impacts on the environment. A good example of this is that timber has largely become a sustainable building material, with some companies even moving back to timber only structures like the Brock Commons Tallwood House. Many of the negative environmental impacts associated with timber materials will likely be relating more to the transport and logistics of moving the timber, rather than the actual harvesting and reforesting required to produce it.

There are other examples of sustainability in construction materials: architectsjournal claims that UK rebar used to reinforce concrete structures is made from 100% recycled scrap steel, and that concrete is 100% recyclable as hard core, soil cement or aggregate in new concrete.

Source: Architects Journal website accessed 2022.

Recycling materials

The B1M’s video “How To Dispose of a Skyscraper” explains that the during the demolition of the skyscraper at 270 Park Avenue in New York, over 90% of the waste from the skyscraper was diverted away from landfill.

Reducing emissions during construction

The majority of vehicles (plant) that you will see on a construction site will be operating with a diesel engine. Recently, with improving battery and electric vehicle technologies, manufacturers have been looking into and even producing plant with hybrid or fully electric engines.

However, electric vehicles have their own sustainability issues: this includes the mining of the components to make batteries; ‘shelf-life’ as the batteries crystallise from use, and and disposal of the batteries. Agg-net suggests that “One of the simplest yet most effective measures that can bring substantial savings to a fleet [of plant] is idle reduction.” The introduction of hybrid vehicles (or conventional engines with additional features) with better stop-start technology could be a better step for construction plant manufacturers to take, as opposed to relying solely on electrification of equipment.

Source: Agg-net website accessed 2022

Addressing and reducing waste

A study conducted by the University of Salford in 2013 approximated that 13% of all solid materials delivered to sites were going unused. While a lot has changed in the last 9 years, 13% of materials being wasted is a staggeringly high amount. However, when it comes to reducing waste it’s not all doom and gloom. The improvements in 3D modelling technology, artificial intelligence, smart technology and the general improvements in technology mean that it’s now easier than ever to effectively plan for a project, every step of the way.

This means that not only is it possible to plan more precisely what materials you will require, you can also provide an accurate and detailed plan of each construction phase to anyone working on the site, ensuring that everything matches the design.

Artificial intelligence and 3D modelling may already be vastly reducing waste in construction, but we won’t have any studies or solid evidence for a while.

Source: University of Salford report 2013

Locating and using less ecologically damaging sites

The CPRE 2019 “State of brownfield 2019” report sums this topic up quite well. “In order to provide enough housing in England for everyone who needs it, we must be creative with our finite land. By making use of suitable brownfield sites, the homes we need can be built in the places we need them, while our beautiful countryside is allowed to thrive.”

The key findings of their report state that there is enough suitable brownfield land available to construct more than 1 million homes across 18,000 sites. This means that they have been assessed by the local authority whose authority the land comes under to ensure that they are ‘suitable’ for a housing development while considering the environmental, heritage and amenity value.

Source: CPRE Report 2019

Many of the issues with brownfield sites surround the use of the land. For example, the site of an old iron or steel works will have land which is not suitable for building or living on, due to contamination from metals, compounds, acids/alkalis and asbestos.

Asbestos is often cited as a reason that developers are not willing to work with brownfield sites. It can be very costly to properly and completely remove from a site, and its presence is found in many brownfield sites that may be otherwise suitable, such as existing shopping units which could be refitted into new shopping units or re-purposed into housing.

Source: Springer article about pollution

Reducing the impact of buildings at the design phase

Heat insulation comes up time and time again when we’re looking at the need for buildings to be designed with a consideration for sustainability. Poor insulation of buildings leads to heat loss, which then results in a requirement for more power to produce more heat.

Thankfully, double glazed and multi-layered windows are the standard for new construction, which has addressed a considerable amount of heat loss. However, many companies are still not getting the message when it comes to proper insulation.

Inadequate insulation can be caused by poor building design, not using enough insulation, and outright forgoing it to save on costs.

Green buildings

The rise of the ‘concrete jungle’ hasn’t been very good for having space for greenery, with fields, woodlands and general green spaces being replaced over time with buildings. Not only has this meant that many places suffer with poor drainage and less diverse ecosystems, it also reduces the surface area available for green spaces.

Some designers, architects, and clients are now looking to integrate green environments into construction projects. ‘Eco-skyscrapers’ have started cropping up across the world, providing a possible glimpse into the future of construction. These eco-skyscrapers incorporate plant life into the structure that will not negatively impact the building. This allows for extra capture of carbon dioxide, along with other benefits such as providing a new eco-system for animals and insects.

Future proofing

Poor planning for the use of buildings can often cause problems further on down the line. A good example of this is that many UK residences have to undergo an extensive re-wire to meet new technological demands and conveniences.

Additionally, materials used in the past can come back to haunt the future, such as the extensive use of asbestos in schools and other public buildings for anything from fire proofing to pipe covers.

Offsetting impacts

Construction can be a lucrative industry, and some organisations may choose to spend some of their profit on sustainability by investing in sustainable industries such as solar, wind, carbon capture and more.


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