8 minute read

Sustainable Construction: Cutting the Carbon Footprint [Download Free Report]

It seems inevitable to start another article with a dark statistic - 38% of global carbon emissions are accounted for by construction. And here’s another one: the amount of buildings getting added to the world each week equals the size of Paris. Not to mention that in a lot of places, construction - the backbone of a country’s economy - is also one of the key sectors where corruption happens - both on the part of governments and business owners.

Download - The Construction Industry Case Study →

Needless to say, a cleanup is in order. We may have started off with the bleak present, but only so to look toward a brighter future, and sustainable construction is an integral part of that solution. To cut the massive carbon footprint from building construction, we need to turn our attention to sustainable materials like hempcrete and hemp fiber, explore options such as eco houses, and definitely work on repurposing our waste, both by turning it into materials and energy.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Join us as we delve into sustainable construction and how it can help us on the road to healing some of the ecological problems of today, as well as the types of sustainable materials and practices, what they can offer, and the implications of sustainable construction in a broader sense.

 

What is sustainable construction?

The meaning of sustainable construction varies slightly as you move from one discipline or even one region to the next, but the spirit of it remains the same: building according to practices that place environmental responsibility at the forefront. This encompasses the entire life cycle of a building, meaning that not only should it be constructed from sustainable materials, but also the way it’s designed, built, operated, maintained, and finally, renovated or deconstructed.

[Related Article - Urbanization Solutions: The Top Technological Innovations for Future Cities]

The whole idea behind sustainability, in general, is to focus on innovative projects and technology - be it renewable energy or sustainable materials, that can be continuously utilized without harm to the planet, and that would ensure a decent quality of life for future generations.

Construction Industry Insights

 

Traditional construction vs. sustainable construction

On that note, let’s take a look at the fundamental differences between traditional construction and sustainable construction as framed by Charles J. Kibert from the Center for Construction and Environment at the University of Florida. According to Kibert, while the various criteria of traditional construction includes performance, quality, and cost, the criteria of sustainable construction are keeping the environment healthy, avoiding resource depletion, and fighting back against environmental degradation.

Sustainability in construction

These criteria also affect the material selection and creation processes, with technical specifications that need to be satisfied before a material or technology can be deemed a sustainable material. The energy required to extract resources, the toxins released in the process, and any associated greenhouse gases are some of the main factors that are taken into consideration.

 

The principles of sustainable construction

Another place where we can most clearly see the difference in ideology and global effect between traditional and sustainable construction is in the principles outlined by Kibert. The six principles of sustainable construction are:

1. Conserve - minimizing the consumption of resources

2. Reuse - maximized reusing of resources

3. Renew and recycle - utilizing resources that are recyclable or renewable

4. Protect nature - ensuring that the materials, material extraction, and technology utilized in construction aren’t harmful to the environment

5. Non-toxic - creating a non-toxic, clean environment

6. Quality - ensuring the quality of the natural and built environment.

In a nutshell, sustainable construction includes the innovation and utilization of green technology, renewable energy, energy-efficient practices, and sustainable materials. Before going over some concrete examples of these sustainable materials and technologies, let’s first take one final look at the problem and the solution.

 

The problem: the high carbon footprint of traditional construction

As we’ve already seen, the carbon footprint of traditional construction is staggering and frankly, disheartening. And it’s not the only grave statistic - construction waste is expected to reach 2.2 billion tons per year by 2025, while back in 2018, 600 million tons of construction and demolition debris was generated in the US alone, over twice the weight of municipal solid waste in the country.

Then, there are additional problems that traditional construction practices create. Deforestation and the decimation of forests to extract wood in an unsustainable manner for construction materials. This practice strips trees of their carbon-dioxide absorbing role, which in turn, contributes to greenhouse gases in the air, adding to global warming.

What’s more, grass and trees in parks and settlement-adjacent forests/nature areas get cut down to make room for new and often unnecessary buildings. Lastly, in many urban areas, new buildings restrict airflow when the overall urban planning and infrastructure aren’t taken into account, which is one of the reasons why some cities are so polluted.

However, what this also means is that shifting the way we design, construct, maintain, and even think about buildings can significantly alter the course of environmental health - for the better. If traditional construction accounts for 38% of the global carbon footprint, substituting it for sustainable construction could mean reducing the global carbon footprint by as much as 38%! So, enough dwelling on the problem; let’s turn to the solution.

 

The solution: sustainable materials and methods

Sustainable construction offers a multitude of green and innovative technologies that are cutting the high carbon footprint of the construction industry.

cut the carbon

As we’ve already mentioned, the tech can range from eco-friendly materials all the way to innovations in waste-to-energy and other innovations that would not only make the construction process more eco-friendly but improve the way that people live in and maintain those buildings. Without further ado, let us dive into our favorite sustainable construction materials and industry trends.

 

Sustainable construction materials

Hemp is so popular, beloved, and praised for lots of good reasons - it’s eco-friendly, tough as nails, and so multifaceted and flexible that it’s pretty much useful for any industry. Including textile, agriculture, medicine, and - you guessed it - construction. This makes it one of the best sustainable materials out there.

 

Hempcrete

Hempcrete, or hemp concrete, is one of the most promising uses of hemp. Hempcrete is made by wet mixing the dried, wood-like hemp fiber from the core of the plant’s stalk with water and a lime-based binder. The mix can be cast just like regular concrete or applied in its wet form and allowed to harden.

While regular concrete and its cement binder are responsible for 8% of our annual carbon footprint, hempcrete is responsible for the opposite: it can actually sequester the production of carbon dioxide. Twenty-eight days into its existence, a hempcrete block achieved “a carbon sequestration of 307.26 kg of CO2 per m3 of LHC.” Of course, there’s also the fact that growing hemp also cleans the air from carbon dioxide.

Though hempcrete lacks the sufficient mechanical strength to carry huge structural loads, its insulating and absorbent properties make it ideal for use in walling - in fact, it outperforms many materials that are currently used. By adding hempcrete as insulation in building walls, we could reduce the need for air conditioners and other heating/cooling devices that require a lot of energy to operate and this makes hempcrete one of the most exciting sustainable materials on the market.

 

Recycled plastic

Plastic, the scourge of the environment, a sustainable material? Don’t write us off just yet - everything that’s awful about plastic in nature is what makes it good in construction. Because plastic takes eons to naturally degrade, it means that it could also elongate the lifespan of buildings. Plus, we’re talking about recycled plastic here, and recycling is one of the principles of sustainable construction. Isn’t it better for it to end up in our walls than in landfills?

 

Bamboo

We’re about to talk about wood, so let’s start with a disclaimer: so long as trees are sourced sustainably, they can significantly help reduce the carbon footprint that’s generated in the manufacturing of materials like concrete and cement. Bamboo is one contender as far as sustainable materials are concerned, as it’s flexible, resilient, and strong.

 

Laminated timber

Laminated timber, a popular subtype of the mass timber method, includes gluing together slabs of different types of wood and using them in construction - they can be used for pretty much any part of the building like the wall, ceiling, or floor.

In fact, these slabs can “match or exceed the performance of concrete and steel.” Using laminated timber in construction reduces waste, carbon emissions, and labor costs. It also performs well in fires and earthquakes.

 

Sustainable construction industry trends

As you’ve seen so far, the principles of sustainable construction are evident in some of the sustainable materials, as they are recycled or otherwise eco-friendly. Of course, one of the main attempts of sustainable construction is to reduce waste - both solid waste and the waste of energy. Let’s take a look at some sustainable industry trends to get a better picture.

 

Waste-to-product

Many startups are working on creating building materials by recycling and repurposing solid waste. For instance...

 

Hemp fiber and recycled aggregate concrete

In addition to being used in the creation of hempcrete, hemp fiber is also added to recycled aggregate concrete for reinforcement. This method combines two types of sustainable materials: hemp and recycled aggregate concrete. 

The ratio of how it’s mixed is with the coarse aggregate content being decreased by 20% and the natural coarse aggregates being cut by 50% and replaced by recycled concrete aggregates. And as we’ve already covered, recycling and repurposing are some of the core principles of sustainable construction and recycled aggregate concrete is no exception.

Fly ash

There’s waste anywhere you look - but it’s especially prevalent at coal plants. Fly ash is a by-product of coal combustion, and as such, it was considered industrial waste for a long time. However, it’s shown great promise as a product for the construction industry and can be used in the manufacturing of sustainable materials such as tiles, blocks, roofing, etc.

One example of a startup utilizing this sort of waste-to-product method is ReTo Eco-Solutions, a company based in the British Virgin Islands that creates sustainable materials from mining waste and fly ash.

 

Waste-to-energy

Waste-to-energy is one of the proposed solutions on how to manage municipal waste, and innovations in the sector have proposed many different eco-friendly methods of varying success to reduce the carbon footprint generated by landfills. In addition to the manufacturing of the materials, the process of constructing the building - operating heavy machinery, transporting materials - as well as the process of living in the building, i.e. operation and maintenance - also put a strain on the environment via energy spendings.

Waste-to-energy plants are one possible way to supplant energy needs and reduce energy waste in the life cycle of a building (construction to deconstruction).

 

Renewable energy

Even more so than waste-to-energy, the hopes for a cleaner planet and future rest on developments in the renewable energy sector. There are many incredible renewable energy startups that aim to replace or supplant traditional power plants. Methods include solar and wind energy, hydrogen and methanol fuel cells, microgrids, and other types of innovative tech. In any case, most renewable energy companies are ready to team up with partners for all sorts of sustainable projects, including building construction.

Renewables for the win

Once more, the growth of interest and investments in the renewable energy sector could mean finding ways to power entire communities living in those buildings, including people from parts of the world that don’t have access to electricity. For 13% of the world’s population and especially so in developing countries, electricity is still a luxury. Renewable energy would make construction easier to undertake in such locations and would certainly improve the locals’ quality of life.

 

Eco houses

Eco houses or eco homes are designed and built with the environment in mind. They’re meant to have a low carbon footprint, low environmental impact, and low energy consumption and needs. Once again, the sustainability in eco houses, as in other types of sustainable construction, is not just about eco-friendly building materials, but also about the building process. It’s about choosing the right design and materials that would reduce energy waste, make the facilities, amenities, and sources of energy eco-friendly, as well make it about the lifestyle of its dwellers.

Here are some features of what makes an eco house:

-It’s positioned to receive regular sunlight and reduce the need for electricity and heating;

-Power is generated from renewable sources like geothermal energy, solar panels, and wind turbines;

-Good thermal insulation made from sustainable materials is a must;

-Water is conserved and repurposed, with rainwater being harvested;

-There’s a composting toilet;

-Everything applicable is recycled, composted, or reused by the family;

-Ideally, there’s a permaculture vegetable garden and compost heap.

Construction Industry Insights

 

Are we there yet?

No government or corporation can afford to turn a blind eye to the problem any longer. Especially when we take into account the considerable negative impact that the construction industry has on global warming and the human-generated carbon footprint. It seems urgently necessary that we begin to change what’s mainstream in this sector, and change it fast towards increased sustainable construction and sustainable materials.

Sustainable construction methods, practices, and technologies are not only showing great promise for the future but are also here, today, ready to be used. From start to finish, from the birth to the death of a building, sustainable construction gives us the opportunity to cut over a third of the current carbon emissions and pave the way for a cleaner, brighter future.

If you’re into all things sustainability, you’ve come to the right place. Sustainable solutions and technologies are the new market and business opportunity that will not only be good for the environment, but also good for your bottom line. But trying to figure out how to invest in sustainability, innovate, and go green can be difficult as where do you start?

With Valuer, we are trying to make this process far easier, and we think we are doing a pretty good job of that. Through our platform we are using an AI algorithm to comb over our massive database of information to find whatever solution, technology, industry insight, and/or startup that meets your sustainable needs. 

Try platform for free

Innovation is difficult, that’s why we are here to help. You can take our platform for a spin for free and see if we can help you find your next business opportunity.

Identifying New Business Models and Technologies within SDG 11[free report]

Discover businesses working within the SDG11 - sustainable cities and communities - and view new business models and technologies identified by Valuer.

Technologies That Transformed the Energy Industry [free case study]

Data-driven technologies have transformed the energy sector presenting sustainable methods of production. Valuer gives examples of how to innovate within.

Sustainability Challenges and Broadband Technology: The Future of 5G

The future of 5G broadband technology and the ways in which 5G IoT will transform various industries, allowing for better sustainable practices globally.

Innovating Sustainability: The Future of Energy Management [Download Report]

A list of corporations and startups using innovative technology in energy management in order to make the energy production industry more sustainable.

Innovating Sustainability: The Future of Energy Generation [free report]

The startups and corporations leading sustainable innovation in the energy generation sector, with tech like tidal power and thin-film solar panels.

Innovating Sustainability: The Future of Transport [FREE REPORT]

Covering sustainable solutions in the transportation industry and companies that use big data technologies and transportation software for urban mobility.

What You Should Know About Ocean Sustainability As We Start to Celebrate World Oceans Day

For this year's World Oceans Day we cover ocean sustainability, energy transition to sustainable energy systems, and big data technologies role.

Innovating Sustainability: The Future of Manufacturing [download report]

Highlights companies innovating sustainability in manufacturing technology. Covers innovation in industrial automation and sustainably sourced materials.

Innovative Smart Grid Technologies for the Future [Download Report]

Innovative smart grid technologies and smart grid solutions for an efficient and sustainable future of energy management and use.

The Valuer Top 10: The Top Sustainable Startups in Transportation List

Using the Valuer platform we generated a list of the top 10 sustainable transportation startups innovating in various technologies.