For a generation practically spoon-fed on green initiatives the words sustainability and construction should be synonymous. Unfortunately, that’s still not the case.
But the number of architects and construction companies keen to ‘green up’ buildings is increasing. This is no doubt prompted by the fact Generation Z will be the would-be homeowners purchasing those New Builds within the next decade. They will also be the future entrepreneurs seeking out new business premises.
And it’s not just Generation Z that sustainability initiatives are important for – many Millennials and Baby Boomers feel equally as keen on doing their bit in preserving the planet and attempting to reverse climate change.
Sustainable construction: what’s involved
So what exactly does sustainable construction mean? Well, of course, it’s about using recycled materials as much as possible during the build. That way the planet is allowed to retain its valuable resources for longer and without fear of them drying up completely. Also, by leaving natural materials in their original landscape it lessens the likelihood of damage to surrounding ecosystems.
Sustainable construction is also focused on cutting energy consumption (ie using renewables). This is both during the build and afterwards for the building owner (who will benefit from lower utility bills).
Prior to the build there is energy used in transporting the materials and then again in the actual build itself. Heavy machinery, in particular, is often run on fossil fuels. The result is often a large carbon footprint. In fact, according to a recent report by the UK Green Building Council, around 10 per cent of our carbon dioxide emissions can be attributed to construction sites. According to the International Energy Agency, the global figure is 40 per cent of CO2 emissions, with a further 36 per cent on energy usage.
Another environmental crime construction plays is in the pollution caused by hazardous waste at landfill. And it’s not just the landscape that suffers, but the health of those living near it too.
Ideas for a more sustainable build
Where possible, construction sites can try to switch to equipment powered by electricity rather than petrol or other fossil fuels.
Proper insulation and using renewable energy in the form of solar panels and air source pumps lowers the ongoing environmental impact of a building over its lifetime. Rainwater collection and living roofs are other sustainability initiatives designed to make a home more self-sufficient, less reliant on the grid and, in the case of the latter, warmer too.
Sourcing ‘green’ materials
It is possible to manufacture parts of a build in a factory and move the components to the plot of land, rather than produce them on-site. Insulated Concrete Form Homes (ICF), for instance, involve pouring concrete into pre-assembled polystyrene moulds build in a factory and delivered to the site. Not only does this mean that any spare materials are more likely to be recycled, but that there is less impact on the actual environment too.
Eco-friendly brick bags are growing in popularity too. These are bags filled with organic materials such as nearby soil. Plenty of self-builders are experimenting with bamboo, logs, mud, straw bales and in some cases, wool. There are also container homes and soil-insulated homes which are built into hillsides.
Factory-built, carbon-negative, timber-framed homes can be built which are 10 per cent more energy efficient than an average UK home. Any use of wood should always be from property managed forests.
Using alternatives to concrete in the form of plastics and recycle materials can actually halve CO2 emissions per project. And yes, plastic does have its part to play – provided it is used responsibly. That’s because plastic won’t degrade so will last for longer, meaning it won’t have to be replaced with other more environmentally-valuable materials at a later stage.
Considering a building’s lifespan
Looking at a building’s future purpose down the decades ie its lifespan and seeing how it can be repurposed is big in certain sustainable construction circles (and, in fact, this is referred to as ‘circular design’).
It means simply reusing rather than demolishing a building after its first ‘life.’ In doing so, it reduces waste going to landfill and saves more raw materials from being used up. A project near Aarhus in Denmark involves builders creating building systems to be constructed, taken down then rebuilt into new buildings. Their goal is to reuse 90 percent of the materials without the building falling heavily in value.
Challenges to green construction
According to the 2018 Smart Market Report nearly half (40 per cent) of UK companies cited affordability as the reason they weren’t ‘greener’ in construction. And yet, 34 per cent did admit that clients were asking them for more sustainable builds and practices.
Benefits of ‘green’ building to construction companies
What this means is that construction companies really have to take a long and considered look at future working practices. But that needn’t necessary be a bad thing. There are many benefits for construction companies in building green.
Apart from the kudos involved in becoming a sustainable and more planet-friendly company there are government grants available to encourage sustainability practices in construction.
Then there are the savings companies can make themselves. It’s not just the eventual house owner who benefits from using renewables. Using electric or rechargeable battery-run tools and vehicles means lower utility and fuel costs.
Using more recyclable materials too means that less waste will need to be taken to landfill, meaning costs here will reduce too.
‘Green’ buildings can command a much higher premium – up to seven percent more - than standard constructions. And the reason for this is what we touched on in our introduction – that today’s New Build and first-time buyers are far more likely to opt for a sustainable home over a traditional build every time. They are also happier to pay more for the privilege; in cash, that is - definitely not natural resources.
Construction companies who can’t provide sustainable credentials over the next couple of decades, are likely going to see their reputations – and customer base – crumble.
Media from Wix