You don’t need to look much further than the latest climate change reports and the country’s ever-growing landfills to see why sustainability has become a hot-button issue. While conversations about sustainability often focus on individual efforts and government policies, businesses have many opportunities to make a positive impact. The construction industry, thanks to recent innovations in sustainable building, is paving the way to a better future.
Sustainable building design and construction is the process of ensuring that a structure has minimal environmental impact throughout its life cycle. In the design phase of a construction project, this means thinking through the project life cycle to identify areas where sustainable practices can be incorporated—for example, choosing a location that doesn’t pose an environmental risk or planning a build that uses reclaimed materials from an existing structure.
In the construction phase, a sustainable building should use methods and materials that reduce waste and protect the environment. Both the design and construction stages should also consider ways to make the operation and maintenance of a building sustainable, such as using renewable energy sources, creating climate controlled environments that require less energy to maintain, and choosing materials with a long life span.
Sustainable building design has many benefits. Currently, the construction industry is one of the largest global sources of carbon dioxide emissions and environmentally harmful waste. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the construction industry accounts for 36% of worldwide energy use and 39% of CO2 emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that approximately 569 million tons of construction and demolition waste was generated in the U.S. in 2017.
Nearly every stage of the construction process can have a detrimental environmental impact. According to the EPA, sourcing raw materials at the beginning of a project can result in polluted water tables, and material fabrication and shipping can lead to high CO2 emissions. Heavy machinery used in the construction process results in high fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. Even the chosen location for a structure can be an issue as many developments are built over wildlife habitats, causing irreparable damage to the environment.
Some of the most significant environmental impacts come from waste at the end of a project. According to the EPA, improper disposal of hazardous construction waste can endanger the environment and the health of people who live nearby. Construction materials that aren’t necessarily hazardous can also pose a problem as materials that can’t be reused, reclaimed, or recycled end up in landfills.
In addition to environmental benefits, many business opportunities stem from sustainable building design. A European Commission study found that using sustainable construction processes can deliver more than $400 billion in savings on global energy spending in just one year—this can mean huge savings for construction companies that opt for more sustainable practices. On top of that, sustainable building can improve brand reputation by demonstrating a sense of corporate responsibility and commitment to the environment.
In order to reap these environmental and reputational benefits, construction management professionals must take action. Luckily, construction managers have many opportunities to make their projects more sustainable.
A component of lean manufacturing, just-in-time (JIT) production can be a powerful strategy for reducing construction waste. JIT advocates for ordering and producing what clients want, only when they want it, and in the exact quantities they want. By not overordering materials, construction managers can help reduce the amount of materials produced in the first place, decreasing the environmental impact of mining, fabrication, and shipping. In addition, JIT production can help eliminate costly and harmful waste down the line.
Traditional building materials like concrete, metal, glass, plastic, and asphalt can have a significant environmental impact. The sourcing, refining, and manufacturing processes that produce these materials disrupt natural ecosystems and introduce toxic environmental waste. For example, many construction materials are sourced through hardrock mining, which according to the EPA, can lead to erosion of nearby land and introduces dangerous chemicals like cyanide into the environment.
In addition, because many of these materials can’t be easily or affordably recycled, their environmental impact lasts far beyond the project life span. To mitigate this, construction managers should consider using sustainable building materials like bamboo, recycled plastic, and hempcrete (a biocomposite material made of hemp and lime).
Traditional construction methods, which rely on heavy machinery powered by fossil fuels, can come at a high environmental cost, but many innovative construction methods have been developed and popularized in recent years. Prefabricated (prefab) construction is an example. Prefab construction uses building components that are assembled at a manufacturing site and transported to their final location. Because manufacturing facilities have significantly larger infrastructure than a single building project, they can make their processes as lean and efficient as possible. Once the materials arrive at the building site, installing them requires much less on-site construction, resulting in 67% less energy consumption, according to Fieldwire. In addition, prefab buildings can be easily taken apart, recycled, and repurposed for future use.
LSU Online’s Master of Science in Construction Management prepares students to make a positive impact on the construction industry. Through classes in sustainability and leadership, students develop the skills they need to advance their careers as highly trained sustainable building experts and confident industry leaders.
British Assessment Bureau, “What Is Sustainable Construction and Why Is It Important?”
Environmental Protection Agency, Construction and Demolition: Material-Specific Data
Environmental Protection Agency, “Buildings and Infrastructure from a Sustainability Perspective”
Environmental Protection Agency, Hardrock Mining: Environmental Impacts
Fieldwire, “Sustainable Construction Best Practices”
International Energy Agency, Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction 2019
LSU Online, Online Master of Science in Construction Management
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