There is no doubt about it, if there is one industry that has to adapt to the mounting environmental concerns that are one of the defining features of our times, it’s the construction industry. Traditionally, the construction industry made use of nearly all the technologies, materials, and practices known to cause harm to the environment. Foremost among these has been the materials they use, which are diverse, can be either manufactured or natural, and which often require long distance transport to get to the construction site. For sure, in this area alone there is much that the construction industry could be doing better.
Beyond this, there is the actual act of construction itself. How sustainable is the process of construction? For one thing, there is the local environmental impact of whatever is being constructed. Depending on how large and intrusive the project is, this could mean encroachment into natural areas or the bringing of industrial processes or waste production into the vicinity of water supplies. There are also the CO2 emissions released from operating the machinery and constructing something as well – a lot of this heavy machinery can be far from sustainable when used freely and with no concern for emissions.
Finally, there is the issue of making what is being constructed environmentally friendly. We are all familiar with the increased ubiquity of solar panels on new housing projects, and this would be an example of trying to offset environmentally harmful construction practices by trying to ensure energy is saved after the fact. So-called “green buildings” are being touted as one of the best ways to improve sustainability within the construction industry. A green building is not only one that prioritises energy conservation and eco-friendly waste management when it is in use, but one for which the construction materials have been sustainably sourced.
As you can no doubt tell from the complex and varied nature of the construction industry, eco-friendly construction is a broad concept that encompasses many different things. And to truly understand what it is, it’s worth setting out just how things can be made that bit greener within each distinct area of the industry.
The Construction Process
While the concept of eco-friendly construction has been developed out of a desire to answer the pressing issue that buildings, in general, are not typically considered a positive influence on the environment, much progress has been made in the realm of how things are built – not only what is built.
For sure, it is possible to prioritise only specific building styles that have been demonstrated to be more environmentally friendly (and this is indeed a tactic used by many construction companies striving to minimise their environmental impact). Nonetheless, it is also possible to build the same types of buildings but in a more environmentally conscious way. It’s all about sourcing things properly and using machinery effectively.
For example, certain types of building projects might always require a certain type of timber. However, that same timber can be sourced locally from a lumber company that is offsetting deforestation by panting new trees, or it can be sourced far away, requiring many road or air miles to get to the site, and from a company that undertakes no such eco-conscious policies. This choice applies to so many construction materials and one of the things that sets apart a construction project, as being more eco-friendly, is the willingness to seek out these preferable options wherever possible.
Technology and Techniques
Some construction machinery is also less environmentally friendly than others. Fossil fuel-powered construction vehicles like diggers and forklifts, for example, would make significantly more of an impact than workers equipped with things like shovels, hammers and snow ploughs for alternative use wherever these are feasible. Prioritising the use of electric- over gas-powered machinery is a further example.
One of the surprising sources of innovation that construction companies, seeking to make less of an environmental impact, have turned to is actually nothing new or futuristic. Construction is perhaps the most convincing contender for the oldest profession in the world. From placing one stone on top of another to erecting the Empire State Building, humans have been building things throughout recorded history and for a long time before.
Accordingly, older building techniques such as rammed earth construction have been increasingly used as environmentally friendly construction methods. Rammed earth only requires – you guessed it – earth, which is something plentiful in nearly all locations. And as well as being a material that is very easy to locally source, it is actually a highly durable and insulating building material when effectively compressed into a material as hard as brick.
In dryer climates, there are even homes made from bales of straw. This might sound pretty ridiculous, but straw happens to be a highly effective insulator and, again, can be sturdy when combined with other materials and constructed properly. Initiatives such as these are partly what is meant by the term, “environmentally friendly construction”.
What is Built
Moving on now to the products of construction, it is worth remembering that, even if the latest eco-friendly techniques are used in the construction, there are still some buildings that exert a terribly legacy on their surroundings where the environment is concerned. A home, for example, which uses a lot of energy to heat, or a manufacturing plant that pollutes local waterways, can be an environmental disaster regardless of how it was actually constructed. Accordingly, eco-friendly construction also encompasses changing what we actually build – not only how we build it.
As mentioned, it is the inclusion of solar panels on many new-builds that perhaps represents the most notable change in this area over recent years. But there are many more examples as well as many more structural features that could theoretically become common at the point of the construction itself. Biological wastewater treatment facilities for new industrial projects are one such example, and making sure to equip new builds with non-toxic paints wood preservatives is another.
New Materials Mean New Buildings
There is also the simple issue of avoiding materials that are not sustainable. Concrete is not a polluting substance, but its production is a highly energy intensive process. Thus, simply using less concrete (and there are plenty of alternatives available) would be one way to make a structure more sustainable. What might be unavoidable, however, is that these changes will have a fundamental impact on what type of structures are ultimately produced. But then again, architecture always evolves.