REPORT FROM VICE-PRESIDENT, GAVIN DUNN
Once again it is my turn to share with you my insights from the Vice-Presidential perspective and this month I thought I might get out my crystal ball (and soapbox) to share with you some reflections as to future direction of our industry. In particular, when I last wrote I introduced the idea of how, as we move toward zero carbon buildings, we have to start considering in much greater detail the impact of other aspects of building design and especially the construction process. I thought this month I would reflect further on this, and in doing so I have drawn on a recent presentation I saw by Michael Deane, the Chief Sustainability Officer of Turner Construction. So what is the role of the builder in the ‘post carbon
economy’ and, specifically, how might we imagine and create the net
zero energy jobsite?
For the last 20 years when speaking about the impact of buildings on
the environment, the construction industry has primarily focused on building operating energy and designers, particularly services engineers, have led the conversation. This makes perfect sense as conventional wisdom tells us that a building’s operating energy accounts for roughly 80% of a building’s life-cycle environmental impact. Builders are often seen as functionaries in this process (‘just’ the builder) and have often been left out of the conversation. We have focused on the product and not the process, on what we build and not how we build it!
Today, as we build more and more buildings that can achieve net zero or near zero operating energy we have, in theory, taken care of 80% of the problem. As a result, the 20% of impact from construction materials and emissions related to the construction process itself have become an ever greater percentage of remaining environmental impact. In a true net zero building they would, in fact, become 100% of the overall environmental (albeit smaller) footprint.
Illustration of the relative importance of embodied impacts in low and zero carbon buildings (Courtesy of Michael Deane, Chief Sustainability Officer, Turner Construction)
And those impacts are largely controlled, either directly or indirectly, by the builder. The builders’ role thus becomes more important because, while they may not specify materials, they do procure, construct and control the construction process. Going forward, contractors and construction managers will be responsible for a significant portion of remaining environmental impacts and collectively we must step up compared to current practice. I believe that the construction industry has both an obligation and an opportunity to imagine and create the ‘post carbon jobsite’ and I believe market forces exist that make this possible to do so in the foreseeable future.
So how do we get there from here? Several things are critical: First we must shift as much jobsite power as possible to electricity and source that power from renewable sources, shifting all mobile and stationary equipment to electric, hybrid, battery and other nonpolluting technologies. Secondly, we must rigorously examine all construction processes to eliminate waste and inefficiencies in order to reduce overall impacts of all types. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly for the long term, we must also implement a process and culture of continuous measurement, benchmarking and improvement. Finally, we must together create market demand for this change and to support this by increasing our sector’s investment in R&D to help make this reality. The good news is that such actions also reduce costs and increase margins, so why wouldn’t we want to get on with this now?
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As always, I continue to believe that we as an industry do have the technology necessary even if not currently deployed in current practice and that Building Engineers with their mix of technical standards and practical expertise are well placed to help the industry deliver these emerging challenges.