Building a Sustainable Future: 10 Trends and Innovations in the Construction Industry
By its very nature, the construction industry is one of the planet's largest consumers of minerals and natural resources. In addition to contributing up to 35% of global CO2 emissions, the sector generates between 45 and 65% of waste in landfills.
Industry leaders clearly understand that needs to change. This blog discusses the innovative practices and technologies that are reshaping the industry and details how building contractors can reduce their ecological footprint by committing to sustainable and resilient practices throughout their production chain.
1. Offer Advanced Energy Efficiency Solutions
It's a simple truth: energy-efficient buildings cost less to heat, cool, and operate. With rising energy costs, building owners and operators looking for new ways to increase efficiencies. According to a recent Gridpoint survey, 90% of respondents plan to increase energy efficiency this year. (98% of facility managers rated energy efficiency as being extremely or very important to their role and responsibilities within their organization.)
The survey also demonstrates that building operators are more open to implementing advanced energy initiatives this year, including:
Carbon accounting reporting (40%)
Demand response/demand management (39%)
EV charging (39%)
Utility energy efficiency programs (39%)
Renewable energy sources (38%)
Energy-efficient construction techniques involve designing and constructing buildings to minimize energy consumption—while reducing wasted energy—during their lifecycle. This includes improving insulation, optimizing ventilation and mechanical systems, using energy-efficient appliances and fixtures, and implementing design strategies that optimize natural light and ventilation.
2. Integrate Renewable Energy Sources
Incorporating renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal systems into projects offers a variety of benefits for both the environment and occupants. Specifically, renewable energy sources:
Reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Provide a reliable energy source and protection from planned and unplanned power outages.
Lower operational and maintenance costs
Improve the indoor environment and support occupant well-being
3. Commit to Using Sustainable Materials
Sustainable construction reduces waste by using recycled and locally sourced materials. In addition to the environmental benefits, sustainable materials can provide increased durability, reduced maintenance, and improved indoor air quality. The most common sustainable construction materials include:
Recycled and reclaimed materials, such as bamboo, rammed-earth brick, hemp, and straw, which are both renewable and biodegradable.
There are also several more sustainable forms of concrete, including:
Green concrete is manufactured using waste or residual materials from different industries, requires less energy for production, and produces less carbon dioxide than traditional concrete.
Earth Friendly Concrete (EFC) / Geopolymer Concrete is a cement-free concrete that typically reduces embodied between 75% and 87% compared to standard concrete mixes.
4. Plan for Zero-Waste
The EPA reported that 600 million tons of construction and demolition (C&D) debris were generated in the United States in 2018 (the last time this report was generated). Demolition represents more than 90% of total C&D debris generation, while construction represents less than 10%
Zero waste construction focuses on eliminating or minimizing construction and demolition waste throughout the building lifecycle. This approach recovers and repurposes waste, uses non-toxic and biodegradable materials, optimizes material usage, and incorporates design and construction processes to reduce waste.
Guidelines for zero-waste construction include:
Ensuring that procedures on the construction site facilitate waste segregation and recycling.
Planning for just-in-time delivery and prefabrication to improve efficiency and reduce waste.
Surveying all materials and structures during the initial site visit and plan to reuse as many as possible. The EPA, suggests the following materials can be reused:
Doors, hardware, appliances, and fixtures can be salvaged for donation or reuse.
Wood cutoffs can be used for cripples and lintels. Scrap wood can be chipped on site and used as mulch or groundcover.
De-papered and crushed gypsum can be used, in moderate quantities, as a soil amendment.
Brick, concrete, and masonry can be recycled on-site as fill, subbase material, or driveway bedding.
Excess insulation from exterior walls can be used in interior walls as noise-deadening material.
Paint can be remixed and used in garage or storage areas or as primer coats on other jobs.
Packaging materials can be returned to suppliers for reuse.
5. Conserve Water During and Following Construction Water and sewer rates have experienced a staggering 100–400% surge over the past decade. This surge is exacerbated by the scarcity of viable, cost-effective new water supply alternatives. The result is more stringent water usage regulations in new construction projects.
The upside is that substantial savings can be achieved by adopting water-conservation measures during and after construction.
Embedding water conservation measures should be prioritized throughout all stages of construction. Since measuring is always a good first step, consider installing water meters on site. The data-based insight into on-site water consumption can drive informed decisions and optimize usage patterns. Other water consumption options during construction can be as simple as:
Using trigger-operated hoses.
Using treated grey-water for routine cleaning, hydro-demolition, and dust suppression activities.
Using dry mortar, fly ash, and water-reducing admix whenever possible.
There are several strategies to reduce water consumption following construction. These include:
Improving the efficiency of a central plant’s HVAC system can cut chiller water use by thousands of gallons.
Installing water-smart plumbing fixtures such as smart leak detectors, smart sinks and faucets, low-flow showerheads, water-efficient dishwashers and washing machines, and ultra-low-flow toilets and urinals.
Using more sustainable landscaping and irrigation practices, low-flow sprinkler heads, and smart irrigation controls.
6. Connect with Nature
Biophilic design connects people with nature in the built environment. It enhances occupant well-being and reduces the environmental impact of the building. Critical features of the biophilic design include:
Maximizing available natural light through large windows, skylights, and smart lighting controls such as daylight harvesting.
Incorporating green spaces like gardens, terraces, and green roofs. (Live plants and living walls improve air quality, reduce stress and anxiety and improve occupant well-being.)
Using natural materials like wood, stone, and bamboo.
7. Rethink Roofing
Green roofs include a layer of vegetation planted over a waterproofing system installed on top of a flat or slightly–sloped roof. They are a perfect embodiment of sustainable construction practices.
Although installing a green roof may mean higher upfront costs than a traditional roof, the long-term economic benefits more than makeup for any initial outlay. (A University of Michigan study showed that more than 50% of the cost associated with installing a green roof would be returned in the form of lower maintenance and reduced energy usage over the roof's lifetime.)
Specific benefits include:
Reduced energy consumption and costs: Green roofs reduce building energy by cooling surfaces, providing shading, thermal mass, and insulation. A typical 2-3 story building could experience 15-25% savings in summertime energy costs.
Improved stormwater management: Green roofs can help cities with stormwater management by absorbing rainwater before it hits the streets. An EPA study found that green roofs can remove 50% of a roof’s annual rainfall. This helps reduce flooding and erosion and improves water quality. The roof's growing medium and plant material also act as filters, helping to neutralize acid rain and trapping dust and airborne particles.
Improved building insulation: A dark, heat–absorbing roof surface increases demands on mechanical systems. Since green roofs remove heat from the air (through the process of evapotranspiration), they improve building insulation which, in turn, reduces the energy needed to provide cooling and heating. Cooler roof temperatures produced by a green roof also enhance the efficiency of rooftop mechanical equipment.
Reduced Urban Heat Island Effect and Improved Air Quality: ‘Urban Heat Island Effect’ occurs when you replace large swaths of nature with high steel, concrete, and asphalt concentrations. Paved surfaces in cities absorb solar radiation and re–radiate it as heat. Green roofs help reduce the urban heat island effect by absorbing sunlight that would otherwise bake into the building’s roof deck, adding to exterior and interior heat. (A modeling study found that adding green roofs to 50% of the available surfaces in downtown Toronto would cool the entire city by 0.2 to 1.4°F.
Lower Greenhouse Gas Emissions: The reduction in cooling loads also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion associated with using HVAC equipment. Adding plants and trees to the urban landscape increases photosynthesis, reducing carbon dioxide levels produced by vehicles, industrial facilities, and mechanical systems. It also increases oxygen production. A recent Aerosol and Air Quality study showed that green roofs can absorb as much as 1.79 kilograms (almost 4 pounds) of CO2 per square meter every year.
Extended Roof Life: A green roof can increase the life expectancy of a roofing system by protecting the roofing materials from direct ultraviolet radiation and extreme temperatures. As a result, the roof structure requires less maintenance which can extend the life of a roof by two or three times.
Improved Biodiversity: While plants and vegetation are their most noticeable feature, green roofs can provide habitats that support wild bees, butterflies, beetles, fungi, and many other beneficial organisms. They also provide a safe place for birds and other animals to live and nest.
8. Consider Alternative Construction Methods
3D printing is revolutionizing the construction industry by reducing material waste, accelerating production times, enhancing design flexibility, and printing building components on-site. This technology creates eco-friendly construction materials and even entire building structures.
Offsite construction involves manufacturing building components in a controlled factory environment before transportation to the construction site. This ensures consistent production and higher quality standards than on-site construction, which is often subject to weather conditions. And, since off-site construction occurs simultaneously with site foundation work, it speeds up the build process.
Offsite construction provides a safer environment for construction workers and a far more predictable setting for hazards.
One of the most substantial advantages of offsite construction is a reduction in carbon emissions. Since off-site construction doesn’t require as much heavy machinery and uses much less energy than traditional construction methods, it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 – 30%. Additionally, off-site construction dramatically reduces the generation of solid waste materials that often find their way into landfills.
9. Utilize Just-In-Time Materials Delivery
The delivery of products and materials is a critical issue for the construction industry. Recent studies suggest improved logistics can reduce construction waste by up to 35%. In addition to minimizing waste, just-in-time (JIT) construction delivery helps to keep project costs down.
The JIT delivery method ensures materials, products, and equipment only come when needed, so timelines aren’t delayed. Any materials requiring on-site storage would benefit from JIT delivery. It's important to note that JIT requires that suppliers and contractors collaborate closely and that all project supplies are up to standard.
10. Secure Green Building Certification
Adopting green building certifications like LEED and BREEAM has gained traction, emphasizing energy efficiency, water conservation, indoor air quality, and materials selection.
Studies show that buildings with sustainability certifications result in substantial savings and increased tenant satisfaction. According to a study by the U.S. General Service—the largest operator of office space in the country—green buildings consume 23% less energy and 28% less water, decrease building operating expenses by 23%, send 9% less waste sent to landfills, and increase in tenant gratification by 2%. They can also sell for 16% more and tend to have an occupancy rate 4% higher than non-green buildings.
The construction industry is undergoing a significant transformation towards sustainability. From integrating renewable energy and reusable materials to using advanced technologies like 3D printing, the sector is reshaping its practices for a more eco-friendly future. Embracing sustainable design, energy efficiency, water conservation, and waste reduction benefits the environment, boosts the economy, and creates a healthier built environment. As the construction industry continues to evolve, it promises to create a brighter and greener future for all.