The construction industry is currently responsible for roughly 10% of the UK’s total carbon footprint – producing more greenhouse gas emissions and waste, while using more energy and resources than any other industry. And that’s before you even take into account the “in use” carbon footprint. This has seen the government, through the Construction Sector Deal, challenge the construction industry to reduce its environmental impact. But is a more robust approach to sustainability even possible?
According to the Built Environment Trust, an independent organisation exploring innovation in the built environment, the linear “take-make-dispose” operating model used by much of the construction industry is energy and resource intensive, uneconomical and unsustainable. They believe the construction industry needs to make some big changes and implement an operating model closer to that of a “circular economy” – designing buildings with materials and components that can be reused, remanufactured or recycled.
From net-zero energy manufacturing and on-site renewable energy to carbon-absorbing concrete and even air-purifying, fungal-based insulation – sustainable, low-emission construction methods and technologies are in development everywhere. But they aren’t being adopted fast enough.
“An approach like the circular economy is only part of the solution”, insists Prof. Michael Benfield PhD, founder of Benfield ATT Sustainable Building Solutions. “More sustainable construction practices will only gain traction when stricter building regulations, clearer environmental standards and government legislation enforce a change. Until then, stakeholders in the construction value chain have little incentive to alter the way they think about materials and processes.”
While the construction industry is becoming increasingly successful in reducing operational energy (and thus carbon emissions) in the built environment, more needs to be done to reduce the carbon emissions of the structures themselves (“embodied carbon”). The materials, construction process and demolition of a structure can have a significant impact on the “whole-life” carbon footprint of a project.
Built asset sustainability assessment schemes are currently one of the main drivers for measuring embodied carbon. Whole-building lifecycle assessment (LCA) standards, lifecycle inventory (LCI) databases, and commercial tools are also making it possible to look at all phases of a building – from material extraction and processing through to construction and end-of-life decommissioning.
Bettina Bertossi of Böhme Bertossi Architekten believes, “The use of resources and materials should always be thoroughly considered. Just because it can be recycled doesn’t mean it is environmentally friendly.”
Several studies have shown a circular economy approach to construction, if fully realised, could be achieved without putting greater financial or operational strain on the value chain. Potentially, it could open up additional avenues of income as well as offering greater advantages for contractors, developers and end-users in terms of waste management, maintenance and value over the lifetime of the building.
Nick Moss, co-founder of SixTwo Architects and president of the Manchester Society of Architects, thinks architects have an essential role to play in helping to create a more sustainable built environment. “While constructing truly net-zero carbon, or even energy-positive, buildings is possible, it’s still a long way off from becoming commonplace. However, with the help of better modelling systems, greater accountability and a conscious effort to specify more sustainable products, I can see it happening in the near future.”
As the global leader in building envelope solutions, Kingspan believes product manufacturers should set an example for the industry by developing more sustainable products and business practices. That is why, along with producing products designed to improve energy efficiency, the Kingspan Group have invested heavily into achieving 100% renewable energy use and zero waste to landfill across 129 manufacturing sites operating across the world.
We have already taken the first steps on the journey to net-zero carbon construction in recognising the need for a shift towards a more sustainable operating model. However, more needs to be done, because the built environment of tomorrow is already being built today.