effects of construction on the environment

Effects of Construction on the Environment: Why Sustainability Is at the Forefront

Jane Marsh - December 27, 2019

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In construction, sustainability means building structures from long-lasting and renewable resources, ensuring energy-efficient operation and practicing good stewardship of the landscape over the building’s lifetime. Expanding and maintaining humanity’s “built environment” in a conscientious, low-impact and cost-effective way today means future generations will be able to meet their own needs tomorrow. But we need to put sustainability first. Here are the effects of construction on the environment.

Longevity and Sustainability of Materials

All the signs indicate that “greening” the construction supply chain doesn’t have to come at the expense of economic growth.

In the United States in 2015, the construction industry sent almost 550 million tons of construction and demolition (“C&D”) materials to landfills. This is over twice as much waste as was collected by municipalities that year and represents about 50% of the waste that winds up in landfills. In a further breakdown, the EPA noted that just 10% of this waste comes from construction processes — the remainder was demolition byproduct.

There is a vast range of construction materials in use in the world today. These include:

  • Asphalt
  • Wood
  • Concrete
  • Gypsum (the key ingredient in drywall)
  • Silicates (for making glass, bricks, stucco, etc.)
  • Plastics
  • Metals (including aluminum, steel, zinc and others)

The fact that construction and demolition generate twice as much waste as our municipalities is not sustainable. This is why the construction industry must focus on dematerialization and reduce the amount of short-lifespan building materials that are brought into being — and the amount of material that’s discarded after just one use.

For instance, manufacturing fewer carbon-heavy petroleum products, like asphalt roofing shingles, means designing homes and buildings with longer-lasting steel and aluminum options that don’t require replacement as often as asphalt shingles.

Then, there’s a huge variety of secondhand building materials available for those who bother looking. Reclaimed wood, bricks, cinderblocks, glass bottles, plastic, aged timber beams, “upcycled” doors and more can add character at a low cost and don’t contribute to manufacturing’s energy and carbon footprint.

Reduction of Energy Use (and Expansion of Renewable Energy)

Reducing the impact of materialization and waste generation in construction is step one. Step two is ensuring the built environment uses energy in a sensible, sustainable manner over time.

Research indicates that the built environment represents 40% of raw material consumption, 30% of greenhouse gas emissions and 33% of energy consumption globally. In some parts of the world, like Africa, buildings consume as much as 56% of available energy.

Some of the methods the construction industry can embrace today and continue to develop in the name of saving energy include:

  • Make homes and buildings “smart” from the ground up: From zoned climate control to inexpensive sensors, buildings can and must incorporate data-focused technology from the ground up to ensure each of its systems performs at peak efficiency or (as with smart lighting systems) only when residents are present.
  • Explore all possible renewable energy sources: Not every location is a match for every clean energy technology. But designers and landowners probably have more options than they realize. Building shapes and orientations can be optimized to take advantage of passive solar energy and save on heating. 
  • Use green roofs and green spaces: Green roofs are popping up everywhere. In parts of the world, they’re even mandatory for some new construction. Green roofs feature a layer of vegetation on top of layers of waterproof and water-channeling materials. The greenery doesn’t just look nice — it also significantly improves the building’s ability to regulate its own temperature even with variable outside conditions.

Whether it’s using data to ensure maintenance is delivered proactively before climate control systems start dragging energy efficiency downward or using the building’s surroundings to its advantage, there are lots of options when it comes to saving energy in the built environment.

Water Management and Emergency Preparedness

Cities that invest in green spaces can reap a number of important benefits, not the least of which is improved attitudes and mental health for citizens and visitors. Green spaces aren’t just for our headspaces, though. They’re also important for retaining water during heavy rains.

As climate change advances upon us, storms will only become more damaging. Green spaces are a flood prevention feature that ensures cities don’t see their infrastructure overwhelmed or destroyed by natural events. There isn’t anything sustainable about building and rebuilding the same city blocks and streets. The push to incorporate more of these spaces will inform urban planning and construction company strategies for a long time to come.

There’s also the problem of reducing our use of water overall — and the construction industry is in an ideal position to help us solve it.

Low-flow and efficient fixtures like showers, toilets and sinks are low-hanging fruit by now. Some other projects go further, like the Nature Research Center in North Carolina.

The Center is designed to use just 17% of the municipal water a comparably sized building would use — 130,000 gallons against 778,000 gallons. It does this through smart rainwater collection and filtration as well as condensate collection mechanisms within its climate control system.

The Future of Sustainable Construction

This is just a brief look at the future of sustainable construction. We haven’t even touched on other technologies that are coming of age right now, such as 3D printing. Additive manufacturing using industrial-scale printers should bring about a renaissance in affordable home structures built from sustainable materials, such as concretes mixed with clay.

Then there’s next-generation material science that’s working hard to perfect all kinds of interesting and earth-friendly building products. These include insulation made from fungi or plant-based foam, and walls made of cork. We call the current period of economic and technological development the “fourth industrial revolution” for a reason, and construction looks to be a significant beneficiary of what it has to offer.

As the issues we’ve talked about here today gain more attention and momentum, the construction industry will have even more opportunities to prove it’s forward-thinking and future-minded.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.