The Economic Impact of A Better Environmental Model
Sustainability in construction goes beyond the initial design and delivery. To make an environmental impact, it must encompass a building’s life cycle. According to the World Green Building Council, the construction industry accounts for 36% of global energy consumption and 39% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Those percentages will only increase as the population continues to grow.
If the construction and building industry is to make a significant contribution to sustainability, it must focus on the environmental, economic, and social impact of its methods. As evidenced by the Paris Climate Agreement, the environmental goal is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. The social implications of sustainability center on maintaining ethical standards and practices that ensure safe living and working conditions. Economically, better environmental construction models must transition from a linear to a circular economy.
A circular economy is a system that focuses on the reduction, reuse, and recycling of building materials. It looks to renewable energy sources, material and waste recycling, transferable technologies, and adaptability of the built environment for increased sustainability. In a circular economy, the objective is to accomplish the following:
- Design Out Waste and Pollution
- Keep Products and Materials in Use
- Regenerate Natural Systems
Implementing these three principles moves the construction and building industry closer to a cradle-to-cradle (C2C) approach to a built environment.
The Cradle to Cradle (C2C) sustainability model is also known as the circular economy. It is the process of “take, make, use”, and then finding a way to reuse an item. That is instead of the Cradle-to-Grave (C2G) approach, which is take, make, use and dispose. The primary focus of C2C is to eliminate waste and maximize sustainability. Its ideology involves looking at waste as a resource rather than a liability.
The C2C model seeks to mimic nature in how to design products and systems, which continuously benefit the environment at every stage.
In the construction industry, the C2C approach would mean using materials that are safe and healthy, and following practices that are designed to provide a restorative impact on the environment. There is a positive economic impact as well, reuse saves money.
Designing Out Waste and Pollution
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 80% of the environmental impact in construction occurs during the design phase. By evolving the design mindset—architects, engineers, and builders can change the environmental impact and improve its economic impact.
It is estimated that by 2025 global solid waste will exceed two billion tons per year. Of that waste, half will come from building materials. The EPA suggests that reducing waste would:
- Create employment and economic activities in recycling industries
- Reduce transportation costs with onsite reuse
- Lead to fewer disposal facilities
- Provide increased business opportunities within the local community
- Reduce overall building project expenses
Designs should reflect the building’s lifecycle as well as possible reuse in the future. Using adaptable systems allows a building to conform to the requirements of the people using it. Not only are spaces easily disassembled, they can also be reconfigured to the specific need. Structures such as partitions or modular raised flooring is an example of designing for the future.
Keeping Products and Materials in Use
In addition to designing structures that maximize the use of materials, engineers and builders can reuse and recycle materials to keep them within the circular economy. Significant progress has been made in the recycling of construction materials such as concrete and steel.
- More than 95% of concrete and asphalt concrete waste is recovered.
- Over 650 million tons of steel are recycled every year.
- About 98% of the steel used in construction and demolition (C&D) is recycled.
It’s estimated that the process of recovering and recycling materials generates more job opportunities than traditional waste disposal openings. Using recycled products and materials can save money and increase profitability. Companies can save on the cost of new materials, and their transportation and disposal expenses can be reduced.
For example, the recycling and reuse industry in Austin, Texas, created 6,300 jobs and $1.1 billion in economic activity in one year. Participating contractors took the time to recycle materials rather than dispose of unused materials. Their efforts made the economic impact possible. Austin is one example of how keeping materials in the circular economy can benefit the construction industry and the surrounding community.
Regenerating Systems Follow A Better Environmental Model
Regenerate in the built environment means a design that mimics nature through restoration and renewal of energy sources and materials. Its focus is on doing more good rather than doing less harm. By concentrating on doing more, design becomes a proactive agent for sustainability.
Different organizations may use different terms to describe the regenerative design framework, but the crucial elements include:
- Net-Zero for energy and water consumption
- Carbon Balancing
- Health and Wellness
- Materials Transparency
- Social Equity
Regenerating also encompasses the ability to return materials to their natural environment for renewal of the ecosystem. An environmental construction model no longer uses a cradle-to-grave approach but a cradle-to-cradle mindset supported by a circular economy. Rather than disposing of products, materials, and structures (C2G), they are designed for reuse while still on the drawing table (C2C).
A regenerative approach considers not only the environmental impact but also the economic and social impacts. Designing buildings that are resilient minimizes the need for complete demolition and enables transparency in materials used. Both resilience and transparency contribute to the economic impact created by a circular economy.
Technology can accelerate the economic impact of an environmental construction model. For example, technology can help track and adjust energy use in buildings, making for increased energy savings. The deployment of IoT devices throughout a building makes it easier for companies to adjust to environmental changes in and around a building. Mobile applications such as Gridd® Mobile can help companies be more productive.
Accelerated use of digital technology can increase the development of circular business models. It is estimated that in the next five years, the following phases of environmental construction models will see sustained growth:
- The design phase will show a 20% CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate).
- Operations will see a worldwide growth of 13%.
- The end-of-life phase will see a worldwide CAGR of 27%.
Embracing technology will have a significant impact on the viability of the construction industry.