Sustainable construction is a concept that has grown in importance in recent years as the negative consequences of climate change become more and more apparent. Sustainable building practices emphasize efficiency, reducing waste, and using materials with a low environmental impact.
At its core, sustainable construction seeks to create structures that are capable of being maintained over a long period of time without causing significant harm to the environment or depleting natural resources.
In this blog, we’ll explore this approach to construction, what it can look like in practice, and how it relates to our other favourite approach: Lean Construction. But first, we have to get specific.
What does “Sustainable” even mean?
As the climate crisis continues to escalate, it’s been an extremely common talking point in media and public discourse. This has resulted in related buzzwords like “green” and “sustainable” being used so frequently that it can sometimes be hard to concretely define them.
In the context of construction and industry more generally, sustainability means finding solutions that meet the needs of people in the present, without compromising the needs of people in the future.
So rather than “sustainable” being a euphemism for de-growth or growth-limitation, it merely means finding ways of growing that benefit or don’t harm one’s community, society, and the ecosystem, in the long term. It’s not about how much growth or development is permitted, but about how that growth occurs.
It’s also worth pointing out that “sustainability” isn’t an exclusively environmental or ecological goal, it also means doing things in a way that can continue for as long as possible with minimal impact.
Now that we’ve got the abstract idea out of the way, here are some more specific principles that make a project sustainable or not:
While this may also sound vague, it’s a fairly simple idea: consider the ecological impact of the project. In addition to cost, longevity, and customer preferences, project leaders need to consider how their choices will affect the surrounding environment and community (or communities).
Options which will result in adverse ecological impacts need to be avoided or minimized, and plans which involve unavoidable impacts on the environment need to include planning for mitigation.
One surefire way to minimize adverse environmental impact long-term is to choose non-toxic materials over potentially hazardous options. The most obvious example of this in construction was the shift away from asbestos during the latter half of the 20th century.
Conserve & Reuse
We’ve all heard the slogan: “reduce, reuse, recycle,” but it applies to construction and other industries as well as our personal lives.
Sustainable construction requires minimizing resource use for two reasons: 1) minimizing the amount of resources removed from the natural environment at the start of the supply chain, and 2) minimizing the transport of materials.
1) Minimizing extraction
By minimizing resource use, a project contributes less to resource extraction at the start of the supply chain (e.g. forestry, mining, drilling). Reducing extraction allows renewable resources like trees time to replenish, and makes the most efficient use of truly limited resources like oil and metals.
2) Minimizing transport
Minimizing resource use also minimizes the amount of energy that needs to be spent to transport the resources to your project site, minimizing carbon emissions and resource usage this way as well.
Reuse & recycling
In addition to procuring the minimum amount of materials needed for a project, substituting old or recycled materials for new ones allows you to further minimize resource use and waste production.
This could mean a controlled, gradual dismantling of a structure to gather usable parts rather than a quick demolition; or using materials made from recycled products instead of brand-new ones. Sometimes it means merely renovating or remodelling an old, but otherwise viable building instead of demolishing it and building a new one in its place.
Another result of minimizing resource use is minimizing the amount of waste material your project produces. While some amount of waste is inevitable, minimizing the waste produced minimizes your contribution to dumps and landfills, indirectly resulting in more efficient use of the spaces designated for these purposes.
It also limits the energy that needs to be expended to process the waste, including transportation to the processing or storage facility.
Build High-Quality Projects
By building at the highest quality possible, sustainable builders aim to create structures and infrastructure with the greatest possible longevity and durability, requiring the minimum amount of repairs and maintenance over its lifecycle.
While, as this blog post intends to argue, there are more and less sustainable ways to complete construction and repairs, some amount of energy use, carbon emission, and waste production in any construction work is inevitable.
Thus, minimizing the number of times you or other builders need to come back and repair the structure also contributes to the goal of minimizing resource and energy use, in addition to better customer satisfaction and industry reputation.
Sustainable Construction and Lean Construction
As a movement or approach, sustainable construction has a large degree of overlap with another approach we favour here at Bilt: Lean Construction. Here are just some of the similarities:
- Minimizing the use of new resources through efficient planning and resource reuse also satisfies the Lean Construction goal of efficiency in construction.
- Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), one of the core strategies of Lean Construction, is a great way to improve the sustainability of a project by bringing the designers and builders together to find the most efficient, feasible, and sustainable solutions. The most sustainable construction practices in the world won’t count for much if applied to execute an inefficient or unsustainable design.
- Lean Construction’s emphasis on the “Pull” flow of resources, rather than the more conventional “Push” flow, makes projects more resource and cost-efficient, minimizing use and waste.
Sustainable Construction is a holistic approach to construction for efficient, responsible construction focused on minimizing resource use and waste production at every step of the process. Its goals overlap greatly with Lean Construction principles and strategies, leading to more efficient, cost-effective projects that also reduce their environmental impact.
At Bilt, we are passionate about creating safe and sustainable work environments, so when it comes to construction projects we always strive for the most efficient and sustainable solutions. Contact us to learn more about our approach.