4 Construction Trends for Reducing Embodied Carbon

Hand holding green eco house in front of empty field

Nowadays, both governments and consumers are increasingly looking to reduce their carbon footprints. In the construction world, most of the attention has focused on designing more energy-efficient buildings or incorporating alternative energies like solar and wind.

But recently there has been more buzz around what’s called “embodied carbon.” This term refers to the greenhouse gas emissions that are inherent in our built environment. Simply put, since the production of many building materials results in greenhouse gas emissions, these materials automatically come with a “baked-in” carbon footprint.

Examples of materials that require a lot of CO2 to produce include steel, cement, and concrete. Other contributors include glass, aluminum, and insulation. In fact, a United Nations report estimates that about 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from manufacturing building materials.

Fortunately, this increased awareness of embodied carbon is driving some interesting trends in the construction industry. Here are four of them.

Timber towers

Most buildings you see are built of concrete and steel. But over the last 10 years, we’ve started seeing more mid- and high-rise buildings made from timber-concrete and timber-steel hybrids. Thanks to engineered wood, timber can now be made fire-resistant and has gradually been given the green light for bigger and bigger projects.

A recent CBC article points to a number of such projects underway in Canada. These include a 14-story tower at the University of Toronto and a 19-story condo building in Vancouver. Also in Toronto, there are plans for the “first-ever mass-timber district in the world,” which will feature a dozen timber buildings ranging from three to 30 stories high. Australia is also getting in on the action, having made changes to building codes in 2016 that approve mass timber in mid-rise buildings.

Some developers say timber makes construction projects more complicated, requiring more man-hours to complete. Meanwhile, others say it can make projects go much faster, with fewer deliveries to the work site. Whoever you believe, the lower carbon footprint associated with these buildings means that this trend is probably here to stay.

Waste materials in buildings

We’ve all seen home improvement shows where they take a sledgehammer to the walls. Within minutes, the teams start tearing down cabinets and fixtures that are destined for the garbage bin. This type of destruction can be fun to watch — but it’s also incredibly wasteful. In fact, it’s estimated that renovations and demolitions account for about 100 million tons of waste per year.  

Consequently, it’s no surprise that we are seeing a rising trend of using waste materials in new construction projects. For instance, the so-called “Waste House” at the University of Brighton was built using about 90 percent waste materials. While this total included thousands of smaller items such as video cassettes, DVD cases and even toothbrushes, about 65% of the materials came from construction industry waste.

And lest you think this was just a niche project — the building ended up being shortlisted for the 2015 Stephen Lawrence Prize from the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Plastic roads

Concrete and asphalt have been the building blocks of our roads for over a hundred years. But more recently, highway engineers have been experimenting with a wide range of recycled materials that lessen dependency on natural aggregates from pits and quarries.

These materials — whether they be scrap tires, used asphalt roofing shingles, or mining industry waste — help reduce the processing of natural materials, though they do not replace them entirely.

However, a European company named PlasticRoad wants to take the idea even further, with a vision of building roads from virtually 100 percent recycled plastic. The company’s idea of light-weight, prefabricated panels is expected to extend road life by 2-3 times, speed up construction time by up to 70 percent, and leave a much smaller environmental footprint. And while this vision is still at a very early stage, the company launched its first pilot project last year: a 30-meter bike path in the Netherlands.

Modeling technology

Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology is increasing in popularity worldwide. In the pre-construction phase, it helps brings drawings to life through 3D technology. This gives engineers and architects an intelligent way to input and analyze data on a given project.

One of the key benefits of this technology is how it can analyze a project’s carbon footprint and help identify lower-carbon options throughout a building’s life cycle. And as this article states, it can also make on-site construction a lot leaner. Four- or five-dimensional models streamline work and reduce waste, “turning construction into a tightly choreographed number with a slimmer environmental footprint.”

Construction: an innovative industry

As the construction industry evolves, companies must stay at the forefront of new trends in efficiency, safety, technology, and environmentalism. And when it comes to environmentalism, the push to reduce embodied carbon doesn’t appear to be going away. As governments and consumers become more educated about this movement, we’re sure to see further innovations in the way our environment is built.

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