The challenge is on to switch to sustainable construction. First and foremost, the sector has the most substantial potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gases compared to other industries (1). The built environment accounts for around 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint and almost 50% of this comes from the energy used in buildings and infrastructure (2). Indeed, the Government’s new legislative goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 will not be achieved without addressing the impact of the building sector.
The rewards of decarbonisation, however, are clear from increased asset and brand value, healthier working and living spaces, energy efficiencies and a higher return on investment.
Read on to find out how the construction industry is making the transition to a low carbon, circular built environment, and how Building Information Modelling (BIM) usage is integral to embedding sustainability in this sector.
The business case for low carbon
Let’s start with the bottom line. We know from the Paris Climate Agreement that we must strive to keep temperature rises to 1.5°C to mitigate the drastic effects of climate change, but how does it affect the return on investment of a construction project?
With the construction industry facing productivity and efficiency challenges, low carbon solutions - such as reducing waste and improving energy efficiency - can help to deliver the most cost-effective solutions for both the business and customers.
As well as cost savings, the UK Green Building Council also points to brand and reputation, talent and retention, and customer satisfaction. Improvements in employee recruitment, retention, absenteeism and productivity have all also been linked to sustainable business practices. Embedding sustainability into internal and external brand values makes good business sense, with reputation one of the top three risk factors for companies (3).
A building’s asset value can also increase when it offers a greener, energy-efficient, healthier working environment for business. Two-thirds of respondents to a recent study agreed that sustainability measures increase the value of a property (4). Companies can achieve economic savings both from resource-efficient building design and operation, reduced staff turnover, and increased productivity. For instance, in the Netherlands, tech business Plantronics purchased the green building they were a tenant in, saving the developer €624,000 in financing costs. It was win-win, as, in turn, Plantronics has reported increased employee productivity at €2.1m per year (5).
Businesses also need to mitigate the risk by anticipating future regulations which may restrict unsustainable practices or involve carbon disclosure. Such changes could also bring opportunities; with the Government pushing for 2050 net zero, construction firms which can demonstrate green credentials could be placed in a strong position in public service tenders.
The evidence is there to show a return on sustainable construction, but there seems to still be a knowledge gap around the value of green buildings in some instances (6). Nonetheless, sustainability is gaining traction, with 57% of Project Managers stating that more than half of future projects would be green. (7)
What are green buildings?
A ‘green’ building is one that, in its design, construction or operation, reduces, eliminates or offsets, carbon emissions - with net zero being the target. The World Green Building Council (WGBC) has launched the Advancing Net Zero Campaign, which has set goals for all buildings to be net zero by 2050 and all new buildings by 2030 (8).
But how do we calculate the sustainability of a construction project? For starters, there are two types of carbon emissions in buildings, which need to be addressed – operational and embodied.
Operational emissions are the amount of carbon dioxide emitted over the life of a building, such as heating, cooling and lighting, which accounts for around 30% of emissions in the UK.
In terms of reducing operational carbon, there are energy efficient structures that integrate passive strategies, such as using air flow to cool interiors rather than air conditioning, efficient fabric and shading design, daylighting and ventilation. Developers aiming for sustainability design the building to enable net zero carbon for operational energy. Smart energy management, on-site renewables and renewable power purchase agreements (PPAs) can offset the carbon released in the construction process.
Embodied carbon refers to the manufacture, transport, building materials and demolition, which can account for up to half of the carbon impacts associated with the building over its lifecycle.
The process of making cement, steel and rubber materials are currently highly polluting and comprise up to 60% of a building’s emissions from extraction, transport and usage on-site. Fossil fuel extraction and electricity make up almost half of all source emissions from buildings (9). Projects can opt for sustainable materials, such as timber, straw or compressed earth with a lower carbon footprint than cement. The video below shows that wooden skyscrapers could be the future of our cities.
Embodied carbon is currently not regulated, and one construction leader, Skanska, which has committed to zero carbon by 2045, has called for the inclusion of supply chain data from carbon calculations (data from fuel, electricity, materials, and waste, and all parts of the supply chain and sub-contractors).
Interestingly, where data could not be obtained, Skanska has developed a methodology to estimate emissions, which uses figures from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and Bath University’s Inventory of Carbon and Energy. This data allows Skanska to match their construction activities with emissions estimates and is honed to a granular level so they can link the emissions to a particular project (10).
The new Net Zero Carbon Buildings Framework is in consultation about adding a whole life concept alongside construction and operational energy (11). This framework also marks a change from the recent policy as it looks at retrofitting existing buildings too, which is vital as, by 2050, around 80% of our buildings will still be in use. (12)
How BIM usage embeds sustainability into the construction sector
There is an anticipated rise in the usage of Building Information Models (BIM), to enable developers to gain a more in-depth environmental and economic understanding when embarking upon construction projects. Significantly, using BIM can help to embed a sustainable approach from the design and planning stages through to managing construction and providing data that can inform future projects.
Fundamentally, there is increased transparency around sustainability when using a BIM integration. The tech allows stakeholders to engage in real-time collaboration and the opportunity to review the carbon emissions of materials, energy and design and their impact post-construction. At this planning stage, partners can alter plans and re-evaluate with sustainability in mind but without additional project costs.
Live 'as-built' imagery (such as the high-resolution photographic records from our Lobster Pots) can help to ensure the project plans are being met. 3D BIM modelling offers the opportunity for troubleshooting, with every step in the workflow monitored and managed. Such visualisation helps to manage labour usage, reduces waste from ordering excess materials, saving time and money. It also, importantly, cuts the need for on-site visits, which reduces the project’s carbon footprint.
Once the construction work has been delivered, with BIM data, detailed operational insight can be shared with the owners to identify ways to keep the building running efficiently.
This is one of the key elements of the Digital Twin concept, which creates a digital dynamic copy of a building, using sensors and captured information (including photographic). How can Digital Twinning save money, time and energy? For instance, a Digital Twin can identify when a light bulb needs to be replaced in a building, without calling on maintenance teams to check or conduct a risk assessment. When this kind of predictive maintenance saving model is rolled out in the construction sector, the impact will be huge.
To conclude, for the construction industry, decarbonisation is essential to not only help meet climate targets but also reduce costs, increase asset and brand value and mitigate risk. Technology comes to the rescue here, and through using a BIM integration, such as our BIM-enabled time lapse tech, sustainability can be built in from start to finish and the data used to improve future builds. When we focus on energy-saving, efficiently-built buildings, that people want to work, learn and live in, the value of low carbon seems clear.
Would you like to find out more?
If you would like to learn more about the benefits of BIM to your business, grab your copy of our free BIM in a Nutshell e-book or get in touch. We’d love to chat about how BIM can help embed sustainability into your construction projects.
Sources and further reading