The construction industry typically revolves around two components: time and budget. With commercial projects expected to be delivered quickly and affordably, contractors are typically working to incredibly tight deadlines before work starts on the next site where the same demands have to be met.
This desire for things to happen as quickly as possible has traditionally led the industry to lean towards tried and tested construction methods, leaving less opportunity for sustainable construction and design practices to be implemented.
The use of more convenient – and often cheaper – resources means that buildings are currently responsible for a huge amount of global energy-related carbon emissions, with the World Green Building Council reporting this to be nearly 40% worldwide, and a staggering 75% in London.
While every industry has its own responsibilities, there is an opportunity for the construction industry to embrace more sustainable building processes and reimagine the way we procure the construction of commercial property.
As organisations look for more sustainable solutions, we’re highlighting some of the latest sustainable building practices. These processes would help the construction industry move away from high levels of waste to embrace reuse and improve our awareness of what resources are already available rather than seeking new ones.
Changing the way things have always been done is a huge obstacle, especially in an industry that is traditionally slow to adopt new advancements in technology. These challenges, be it budget, policies or education, are all interconnected and need to be viewed holistically if the industry is to drive a greener future.
Although there have been movements of change in connected industries – for example, RIBA’s (Royal Institute of British Architects) 2030 Climate Challenge – the government has been slow in developing new policies to help the construction industry transition organisations onto a more sustainable path.
According to the UKGBC, embodied carbon from the construction and refurbishment of buildings currently makes up 20% of UK built environment emissions, yet they are currently unregulated and only typically measured on a voluntary basis. Without these regulations in place, it’s difficult for architects, builders and developers to understand what’s expected in terms of sustainability.
Additionally, a sustainable building usually requires more approvals and clearances, which means more time and often more financial resources are needed to create them. When you compare this with the ease and cost of using more traditional resources, and also consider the absence of incentives encouraging sustainable construction, it’s unsurprising that the industry has been slow to adopt circular approaches.
While upfront costs for sustainable construction may be higher, there’s a long-term financial benefit to be had because sustainable buildings have a longer lifespan. The connection between initial construction costs and long-term operating costs is often overlooked in the industry, again leading to the use of tried and tested resources.
Focusing on long-term economic benefits is crucial because it will help those involved in construction understand the real costs and benefits of sustainable buildings – from the initial build for contractors to the operating costs for landlords and investors. In practice, this could be the difference between refurbishing a building and demolishing it, because the latter is currently viewed as the easiest and cheapest option.
Without well-defined standards, the quality and consistency of secondary materials can vary widely. Construction professionals need clear specifications and standards to ensure that these materials meet safety and performance requirements. The absence of these standards can lead to uncertainty, making those involved in construction hesitant to use secondary materials in their projects.
This challenge could also impact the demand for sustainable buildings in a wider context, because the uncertainty around second materials is likely to impact how potential tenants view a sustainable building and how willing investors are to put funding into a project without guarantees of its quality and longevity.
The red thread in the challenges facing the industry is policy. From education on economic benefits to incentives for adopting sustainable practices, there needs to be clear benchmarks and guidelines to help promote a greener approach for the industry. Until those policies make it clear what’s expected of the industry, we can start to make changes from the bottom up. A mindset shift needs to happen from linear processes to cyclical ones, but what does that look like in practice?
Urban mining is the practice of recovering materials from our urban environments instead of buying/creating new materials. Instead of demolishing a building, the raw materials like steel, bricks, concrete and metal from the property can be ‘mined’ and used in other buildings.
The argument for urban mining is that if we already have access to these resources, we should be prioritising their reuse to reduce waste in the construction industry. Preventing core building materials from going to landfill or being broken down into lower value products means that less waste is being created.
Urban mining also offers greater sustainability from the point of reduced emissions due to the materials already being located within cities/towns where the other properties are being built. Locally sourced, circular resources are what sustainable construction is calling out for and this is a solution that could help make buildings more environmentally friendly.
Another way of looking at the way we reuse materials in construction is to build them with the purpose of dismantling them and reusing them. Moving towards more modular construction methods and seeing the components of a building as Lego bricks makes it easier to break them down and use them again.
Building with modular elements means that from the beginning of a project, there is already one eye on the next phase of that material’s life cycle. As it currently stands, the construction industry is trying to create a circular economy while still using building methods that were established without that circularity in mind. For sustainable construction methods to be adopted, we need to think differently about our manufacturing processes and how we build.
Material passports are digital or physical records that detail and track the materials used in construction projects. They contain essential information such as the material’s origin, characteristics, and environmental impact to promote resource-efficient construction.
Material passports can also detail current conditions after construction and wear and tear. In doing this, they lead to more durable buildings, reducing the need for frequent replacements or repairs, thus decreasing environmental impact.
There are many ways these can be presented (from complex databases to a traditional pen-and-paper approach) but, crucially, in aligning with a circular economy where materials are kept in use for as long as possible, they can greatly reduce the demand for new resources.
The need to have everything delivered in the quickest time frame and for the lowest cost is a problem that the construction industry needs to address. For sustainability to become more commonplace, we must tackle inadequate policies and procedures across the built environment industry.
Construction is traditionally slow to change, and without regulatory pressure, it will remain a challenge to make green buildings the standard across the industry. New policies can act as a catalyst for transforming the industry by encouraging circular approaches and driving industry-wide change.
A mindset shift needs to happen, from projects being about the physical space to a focus on the bigger picture. Positioning a project in the wider context, educating the industry and striving for greater accountability will help drive a greener future.