*Updated September 2022
It seems inevitable to start yet again with another 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.
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 construction materials and practices, what they can offer, and the implications of eco 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 the construction materials be sustainable, but so should the way the project is designed, built, operated, maintained, and finally, renovated or deconstructed.
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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.
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 include performance, quality, and cost, but the criteria of sustainable construction have other priorites:
- keeping the environment healthy;
- avoiding resource depletion;
- fighting back against environmental degradation.
These criteria also affect the material selection and manufacturing processes, as certain technical specifications need to be satisfied before a material or technology can be deemed sustainable. 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 requires the innovation and utilization of green technology, renewable energy, energy-efficient practices, and sustainable materials. Before going over some concrete examples of these sustainable construction materials and technologies, let’s 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.
Eco construction relies on eco-friendly materials, innovations in waste-to-energy, and other cleantech that would not only make the construction process greener but also improve the way that people live in and maintain those buildings. As we already mentioned, for a structure to be considered sustainable, its entire lifespan ought to be considered. So, 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, multifaceted, and flexible enough to be useful for any industry. This includes the textile, agriculture, medicine, and - you guessed it - construction industries. That's what makes hempcrete one of the best sustainable materials out there.
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 cleans the air from carbon dioxide.
Though hempcrete lacks 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 applied. 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.
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 lengthen 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?
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, 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 materials: they are recycled, sustainably sourced, 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.
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.
As we’ve already covered, recycling and repurposing are some of the core principles of sustainable construction. and recycled aggregate concrete is no exception. The numbers add up like so: the coarse aggregate content is decreased by 20%, the natural coarse aggregates are cut by 50%, and then they're all replaced by recycled concrete aggregates.
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.
Waste-to-energy is one possible solution 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 spending.
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).
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.
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 in developing countries, electricity is still a luxury. Renewable energy would make construction easier to undertake in such locations and overall improve the locals’ quality of life.
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 of eco houses, as in other types of eco construction, relies upon both sustainable materials and the building process. It’s about choosing the right design and materials that would reduce energy waste; it's about making the facilities, amenities, and sources of energy eco-friendly; but it's also about the lifestyle of its dwellers.
Here are some characteristics of an eco house:
- It’s positioned to face the south, so as 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;
- Water is conserved and repurposed, and rainwater is harvested;
- There’s a composting toilet 😕;
- Everything suitable is recycled, composted, or reused by the family;
- Ideally, there’s a permaculture vegetable garden and compost heap.
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 the use of sustainable construction and sustainable materials.
Sustainable construction methods, practices, and technologies don't only show 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, eco construction gives us the opportunity to cut over a third of the current carbon emissions and pave the way for a cleaner, brighter future.
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