What is Sustainable Construction?

Green construction

The construction industry consumes a majority of the planet’s natural resources. Climate change has created a need for the construction industry to reduce its environmental impact, with the government stepping in to ensure sustainability. 

Embracing sustainable construction is a bittersweet undertaking as it presents both challenges and benefits.

What exactly is sustainable construction or green construction? 

Sustainable construction is the use of renewable and recyclable materials in construction to reduce energy consumption and wastage. Sustainable construction primarily exists to minimize the impact of construction on the environment. 

Sustainable construction encompasses the building project and design to ensure that the finished building has a minimal environmental impact. In addition, sustainable construction demands that the materials and elements chosen benefit the environment. Sustainability in construction includes solar panels, energy-efficient roof hatches, and energy-saving insulation. 

Green construction is another term commonly used that can feel quite broad, with many meanings and understandings. According to the Building Owners & Managers Association (BOMA) of Oakland and East Bay, green construction may be defined as looking “beyond the readily apparent aspects of the office or building to create a space that addresses the comfort, health and broader environmental impacts of the construction/remodeling process.”

Importance of sustainable construction 

Sustainable construction is essential because the construction industry significantly impacts the environment. The construction industry not only industry consumes a lot of energy but also has the potential to infringe on wild habitats. The construction industry contributes 36% of the world’s energy usage and accounts for 40% of the world’s CO2 emissions.

The industry uses heavy machinery and equipment that relies on fuel. Additionally, more efficient electricity usage is necessary to prevent unnecessary fuel combustion. The shipping and fabrication of construction materials further increase carbon emissions. Mining raw materials have been found to cause water pollution, and concrete manufacturing results in tons of CO2 emission annually. Finally, the improper management and disposal of waste can cause pollution and affect local communities. 

Benefits of sustainable construction

There is a lot of opportunity for sustainable construction. Sustainability is now more accessible than ever and worth the initial investment. Sustainability is a viable investment with a measurable ROI, not a mere PR stunt. The benefits of sustainable construction are divided into environmental, social, and economic benefits. 

benefits sustainable construction

Environmental benefits 

Waste reduction

Global warming has become a growing concern worldwide over the past decades. As a result, pollution is widespread, and natural resources are facing rapid depletion. 

The construction industry can use sustainable technological advancements to help slow down the adverse effects of climate change. In addition, renewable resources and methods can significantly reduce waste and ensure a clean planet. 

Reduction of carbon footprint 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), buildings are responsible for 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the US. Large corporations are continually adopting and supporting green initiatives in the United States and the rest of the world.

Property owners and large businesses are opting to impose sustainability which is positive for society and businesses. 

Social benefits 

Promotion of healthier living

Our environment affects our health; physical, mental, and emotional. Sustainable architecture has been proven to improve inhabitants’ overall quality of life. Modernized thermal conditions, lighting and power sources, air quality, and ergonomic features have significantly improved inhabitants’ health, quality of life, and stress levels. 

For instance, operating in cleaner environments reduces exposure to toxic chemicals and materials. That means workers have lower worker compensation claims, can stay active in the workforce longer, and can live healthier, happier lives in general. In the long run, this makes construction a better industry in which to work, which could help solve some of the labor shortages with which building has been plagued for years.

Global Impact

Businesses that adopt sustainable construction contribute to creating a more sustainable planet, which impacts future generations. The global social impact of sustainable construction is more significant than the benefits to businesses and local communities because it sets an example for the entire industry. 

Better reputation 

The market for sustainable buildings is growing steadily with increasing public awareness. As a result, the size of the green construction industry doubles every three years. Smart construction business owners understand that building a reputation for sustainability is essential to attract more business. 

Economic benefits

Boosting the economy

According to the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), the green building industry generates over $134.3 billion in labor income. This means sustainable construction boosts the American economy by providing employment opportunities to meet the increased demand for construction workers. 

Cost efficiency

Sustainable buildings have significantly lower maintenance and operational costs. These buildings are fitted with specially engineered elements to reduce energy and water bills. While the initial investment in sustainable buildings can be expensive, these elements prove cost-efficient in the long run.

Lower cost of materials 

Sustainability involves using eco-friendly construction materials while maintaining quality and structural integrity. In addition, recycling and reusing materials help reduce the money spent on materials. 

Increased productivity 

Sustainable construction practices improve productivity by streamlining project workflows, reducing rework, minimizing delays, and reducing the need for maintenance.

The challenges of sustainable construction

The main challenges of sustainable construction are cost, the need for more awareness, and resistance to change. The goal will be almost impossible if the client’s attitude and budget do not allow for sustainability. 

Sustainable construction is costly, and contractors need help to adopt sustainable construction practices with severe budget constraints. However, green buildings are worth at least 7% more than traditional buildings, a fact that contractors can leverage during the tender stage to get a better budget. 

Steps to a More Sustainable Future in Construction

Whether you’re new to going green or have already taken a few measures, here are a few steps that will help the world, improve your process and save you big bucks in the long run.

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Step 1: Get Rid of Paper

Getting rid of paper is hands-down one of the best places to begin your environmental transition. Consider how many stacks of blueprints your company prints on an annual basis? Paper uses massive amounts of raw wood, and even the recycled version still requires numerous chemicals and fresh water in the production process.

Plus, paper is expensive. Compared to digital–which includes only the costs of construction software and Wifi, and programs are run on devices your company usually already has on hand–it’s an enormous waste of money.

Finally, paper is unreliable. Using digital resources to track plans, communicate, and keep records is light years faster and more efficient. It means significantly less rework and fewer wasted resources. All in all, adopting construction software to replace paper is a must.

Step 2: Adopt Lean Construction Principles

We referenced Lean construction principles above, but what are they, exactly? According to the Lean Construction Institute, “Lean methods seek to develop and manage a project through relationships, shared knowledge, and common goals. Traditional silos of knowledge, work, and effort are broken down and reorganized for the betterment of the project rather than of individual participants. The result? Significant improvements in the schedule with dramatically reduced waste, particularly on complex, uncertain, and quick projects.”

Lean construction is, in essence, just a different way of thinking about construction–one in which you evaluate your process much more carefully with an eye to where you can maximize efficiency, reduce waste and optimize at every step of the way. Its benefits include less fire-fighting, smoother operations, and improved quality.

Better yet, the environmental benefits of Lean construction have been proven. In fact, Lean construction has resulted in dramatically less of an environmental impact by reducing material waste by 64%.

Step 3: Become LEED Certified

Getting certified to build green is one of the biggest steps forward you can take as a company. While there are some steps involved, it’s a very accessible process, and the U.S. Green Building Council is there to help you out with instructions and tips.

Note that LEED certification applies to buildings, not companies or individuals. That means for each building, you must apply for certification and submit the proper materials. If your project is approved, you can call your building LEED-certified, which increases its value and proves your commitment to the environment. While it might sound like a hassle to do this for each project, the process becomes pretty routine after you’ve done it a few times.

Step 4: Adopt Eco-Friendly Materials, Processes, and Structures

Adopting greener materials and procedures takes a long-term commitment. Overall, there are countless steps and substeps you can take to accomplish this, so don’t expect to knock it out all at once. Instead, keep your eyes open for ways to adopt new environmentally friendly construction materials, processes, and structures. While each adjustment you make may lead only to incremental savings, those will add up significantly over time. Plus, if you discover an area or process with rampant waste, you could potentially save big too.

A few areas to explore include:

  • New, green building materials such as bioconcrete and laminated timber
  • Passive heating and cooling
  • Reduction in the use of toxic materials
  • Rainwater collection
  • Energy-efficient lighting
  • Green roofs
  • Stormwater management
  • Optimizing building systems

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Sustainable construction practices

There are several practices to make construction projects more sustainable. For example, building materials reduce mining and processing costs. Contractors can also reduce fuel consumption by sourcing materials near a construction site. There is also a need for efficient project management systems to minimize downtime. 

sustainable construction practices

Materials and resources

In 2010, researchers from the Schools of Architecture at the University of Seville, Spain, and the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK, discovered new and greener ways to produce wool and clay bricks. Wool and clay bricks reduce pollution through greenhouse gases are they do not require kiln fires. 

Plastic is known to harm the environment but can be very beneficial if used appropriately in construction. Plastic materials do not degrade over long periods and require less replacement and maintenance than traditional building materials. Therefore, manufacturers should incorporate recycled plastic to create durable recycled construction materials. 

Wood only requires a little energy to produce. However, we must manage forests properly to provide wood as a renewable construction material and preserve wildlife habitats.

Contractors can use straw bales for insulation as they offer a greener alternative to concrete and plaster. In addition, straw bales are sustainable and affordable. 

Energy efficiency

Renewable energy is an excellent way to promote energy efficiency in construction. The modular battery system is popularly used to power vehicles, machinery, and electric power tools. The modular battery system deploys quickly and recharges via solar panels. The system benefits the environment by offsetting tons of carbon dioxide and approximately 100l of diesel weekly. 

Sustainable buildings are designed to consume as little energy as possible. Energy efficiency can be as simple as good insulation to maintain a certain temperature level and consume less power for heating and cooling. Energy-efficient buildings also make the most of sunlight to keep the building warm. Building designers can achieve energy efficiency by using low-reflective glass and double-glazed windows to let in natural light while reducing the need for electricity in the daytime.

Wind turbines and solar panels can generate power at the construction site and partially meet the energy requirements of a building. Solar power may not be a good energy source for large commercial buildings but can reduce energy costs. 

Water efficiency

Buildings consume a lot of water. Sustainable construction aims to reduce water consumption through recycling and reusing when possible. For example, low-flow or dual-flush toilets are now used to reduce water usage as they use up to five times less water than ordinary toilets. In addition, modern sink faucets are designed to turn themselves off and aerate water so that less is used. 

Using rainwater for landscaping and irrigation is also a great way to make a building more water-efficient. 

Indoor and environmental quality 

Sustainable construction goes beyond using the newest materials. It involves building methods that enhance renewable and sustainable efforts. These methods include constructing green buildings, cutting materials with precision to minimize waste, proper waste management, treating water on-site, recycling, conserving energy, and selecting sustainable recycled building materials. 

Innovation and design

Construction projects can achieve environmental and social sustainability through careful innovation and design whether it's through materials, technology, or new processes. For example, innovative techniques such as low-flow toilets have significantly reduced building water and energy consumption. 

Social sustainability aims to improve the quality of life of the people inhabiting a building. Being sustainable means allowing these people’s current and future needs to influence the design of a building, creating a flexible construction that can be repurposed with evolving needs. 

A sustainable design can apply to a multi story office building and a single-family home. It can be used longer and reduces the need to tear down an old building only to rebuild a new one. 

Indoor and environmental quality 

Sustainable construction aims to improve both the indoor and environmental quality of a building. Sustainability ensures that the indoor environment of a building is safe and healthy for the occupants. 

For example, workers in an office building are more comfortable and productive when they have natural light and high indoor air quality. The HVAC system must efficiently eliminate pollutants that could cause sickness, and the paint and insulation should be chemical-free. 

Site selection and planning

Site selection and planning involve the choice of a construction location that is optimal for sustainability. For example, construction is more sustainable with access to raw materials.

The location and orientation of a building play a vital role in its sustainability. For example, a commercial building too far from residential areas will harm the environment as people travel farther to get there. Buildings must be designed to use existing infrastructure and fit seamlessly into the atmosphere. 

site selection

Case studies: Sustainable construction examples

Terra Bio Hotel

Terra Bio Hotel is a 41-room hotel in Medellín that was built sustainably by reusing materials and elements from an old house. Engineers used the soil from the excavation to produce aggregates and make concrete blocks for the construction. The window design allows natural light while preventing direct sunshine entry, ensuring energy efficiency and indoor comfort. 

Additionally, the project used water that was treated and recycled on-site. The architectural design optimized bioclimatic strategies for lighting and ventilation. The Terra Bio Hotel also captures rainwater and recycles water for cleaning and toilets. It also features a solid waste management room with a composting system.

The Bullitt Center In Seattle

The Bullitt Center is a 6-story, 52000-square-foot building that operates on a net-zero-energy and net-zero-water basis. The Bullitt Center, which Miller Hull Partnership designed, has unique, sustainable features such as rainwater harvesting, composting toilets, durable timber structure, and occupant comfort and daylighting. 

The Bullitt Center was constructed using safe materials sourced locally to reduce the construction’s environmental impact. 

Passive House

Passive House is an initiative created in the 1990s to certify single-family homes. Passive House had three core requirements; modeled total energy demand, heating and cooling demands, and actual airtightness. 

Today, all Passive House buildings must meet specific sustainable construction standards. These include high insulation, verified airtightness, proper ventilation with minimal energy consumption, passive solar heating in cold climates and seasons, minimal solar heat gain in warmer temperatures and seasons, and a lack of thermal bridges. 

A sustainable construction industry

Even if this year you implement just one of these above tactics, you’re already making significant headway to adopting greener construction practices.

Sustainability is critically important to the future of our environment and our industry. But sustainability doesn’t always have to be about ground-breaking, flagship projects. Every construction firm can do their bit by making incremental changes to building methods and materials.

As public and private sector clients become more environmentally aware, firms that can fulfil these demands will win–and be ready for any future legislative change. Building for the future can benefit everyone, tomorrow, and today.

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Grace Ellis

As Manager of Content Marketing Strategy at Autodesk and Editor in Chief of the Digital Builder Blog, Grace has nearly 15 years of experience creating world-class content for technology firms. She has been working within the construction technology space for the last 6+ years and is passionate about empowering industry professionals with cutting-edge tools and leading strategies that improve the quality of their jobs and lives.