Constructing a sustainable built environment requires more than efficient design, equipment and materials — but processes and workflows that say exactly where and how these assets combine to streamline processes as much as possible.
The built environment contributes nearly 40 percent of net global carbon emissions. According to a McKinsey report, the construction ecosystem is responsible for a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions and 600 million tons of waste every year.
10 billion people will live on the planet by 2050 — and with them an unimaginable buildout of homes, offices, roads, stores, factories, schools and more. At the current rate, raw resource use for buildings is expected to double by 2060. Construction and sustainability haven’t historically gone hand in hand, but the sector is seeing a sea change: A recent Autodesk report showed that all of the 198 European construction companies it surveyed have at least some focus on sustainability; and over a third of them center their business model around it.
But according to a yearly UNEP buildings and construction report: “Decarbonizing the buildings sector by 2050 is critical … To reduce overall emissions, the sector must improve building energy performance, decrease building materials’ carbon footprint, multiply policy commitments alongside action and increase investment in energy efficiency.”
Transitioning to renewable energy is the linchpin for decarbonizing the built environment, but in the meantime, job sites around the world need to make rapid efficiency gains while expanding the built environment — from homes to high rises to highways.
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“The big underlying factor in all of this is the continued shift to renewable energy,” says Dietmar Grimm, VP of Corporate Strategy and Sustainability Solutions at Trimble — a connected construction-technology company bridging the physical/digital divide to drive greater efficiency in planning, building, and operating buildings and infrastructure. “But in the near term, how can we reduce current emissions now while we’re waiting for the continued expansion and ultimate replacement of high-carbon energy?”
Sustainable Brands® sat down Grimm to learn more about how connected construction is transforming the way the world plans, builds and operates the built environment.
Digitization driving efficiency
Technology is the primary driver reducing the construction industry’s carbon footprint. For example, architects using Sefaira software can analyze how airflow, sunlight, shade and HVAC impact energy costs and emissions in building designs. Project managers are also using virtual and augmented reality tools to visualize models in real-world environments — and catch mistakes before they’re made.
Connected construction provides common data and connected workflows across all stakeholders and silos in the construction process; thereby reducing errors, inefficiencies, miscommunication and rework (fixing mistakes) — which can make up 2 to 20 percent of total construction costs and about 30 percent of the work done at a job site. Such planning mistakes can be caught and rectified by digital modeling before even breaking ground.
“[Connected construction] is a combination of tools throughout the process and having them connected so you can manage them to be the most efficient and productive and sustainable,” Grimm said. “Without digital tools, it’s inevitable that when [a blueprint] gets translated into the real world, there will be some mistakes. We fix this by connecting the physical and digital worlds.”
In Colorado, a Trimble-enabled laser scanner analyzed concrete pouring in real time, comparing it with plan designs and pointing out errors before they were covered by concrete. The scanner identified so many errors that cost savings resulted in a 1500 percent return on the scanner investment. The same technology can be used to digitally model and plan prefabricated retrofits for existing structures, such as new insulation. In one study, Trimble-optimized compactors saw 26 percent carbon reductions and labor savings up to 40 percent.
Municipalities often base road-replacement cycles based on the average life expectancy of roads in their area. However, this does not account for use and wear factors unique to individual roads. With digital tools, the same municipality can design and maintain each road separately for maximum efficiency — thus, greatly reducing costs and time spent on repairing or replacing all of the roads in a single cycle. These same geospatial tools help plan and map infrastructure, taking note of sensitive natural areas that need to be protected from development.
Constructing a sustainable built environment requires more than efficient design, equipment and materials — but processes and workflows that say exactly where and how these assets combine to streamline processes as much as possible. Connected construction technologies do this by breaking down silos on building projects — for example, providing common data and workflows facilitating communication and collaboration between contractors, subcontractors, suppliers and more.
Avoiding the Jevons Paradox
Efficiencies drive sustainable behavior, at least in the short term. But with any increase in efficiency looms the specter of the Jevons Paradox: Resource-use efficiency can result in an overall increase in resource use. One way to head this phenomenon off is to cap the resources of concern (in this case, buildable space and carbon emissions).
Cheaper gas, for example, is correlated with driving farther and more often and burning more fossil fuels. Similar phenomena can exist in construction, Grimm said; though he noted several important, rate-limiting restrictions — such as limited buildable space. It’s important to note, he said, that “restrictions'' need not be natural (finite natural resources or developable land, for example), but can also be imposed through policy.
“We need to cap and understand the amount that we can take sustainably,” Grimm said, “and not just drive for more efficient production.”
With limits in place, efficiency should drive additional efficiency, Grimm explained; so he expects gains in the construction sector that go beyond “reduced harm” to net positives — such as carbon-negative concrete and wooden construction using regenerative and carbon-sequestering timber.
“For a lot of these sectors, sustainability becomes this confusing term — sometimes politicized,” Grimm concluded. “People have to start seeing that this is something central to what they do; and we need to start celebrating it … at the end of the day, the construction sector must see and start unifying around being a leader in reducing overall global emissions.”