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How To Be Environmentally Friendly In The Construction Industry

There is currently a crisis looming globally: impending, dramatic climate change that is set to bring about unprecedented environmental damage. Left unchecked, the current trends in climate change are going to leave us with large parts of the world uninhabitable within the next fifty years without reliance on more energy-intensive artificial cooling. We could go on about the possible dangers, but you’ve likely heard them. The time for the ‘are humans causing climate change’ debate is over, with a resounding, urgent, yes.

Predictions place us reaching oil extraction capacity within 20 years – meaning oil supply will decline, which in turn means we won’t have fuel for the vehicles we need to run. And not just fuel, we won’t have the resource we need to create really useful plastics (such as medical and precision computer equipment).

It’s no good anymore to shift the blame onto consumer habits, and pretend that climates are changing because people aren’t using their recycling bins enough.

We need dramatic change.

Yet, dramatic change needs the strength of industry, and industry needs the strength of fuel, tools, and materials – so what’s the solution?

The solution must be met by industry, and is in three key considerations.

Environmentally Conscious Design

The first, arguably most important, consideration, is in design. Buildings need to be designed with environments and environmental impact in mind – and this doesn’t mean relying on carbon-offset promises. It doesn’t help a local town, environmentally, if you build an industrial estate on a woodland and pay another company to plant a thousand trees in a different part of the world.

It does help a town, both environmentally and economically, if you design green belts into this industrial estate, build around wildlife corridors, and make use of living-wall designs in order to filter air all around the area.

And if you’re wondering what living-wall designs are, they are structures that are able to sit on top of walls (such as trellises) and support plant life. These can then be used to grow hardy perennials, such as ivies or mosses, with little-to-no maintenance. This not only looks great, but it turns a plantable surface area of, say, 25 square meters, into the surface area of the outside of a building’s walls and roof. Thus multiplying the positive effect of planting at least fourfold.

Alternatively, earth-integrated construction is a really interesting way to reduce a building’s displacement footprint, while still providing space for flora and fauna to thrive. That is, building downwards rather than upwards.

Make way for renewable energy!

Aside from the physical design of the building, its reliance on resources must be accounted for. That means having a firm idea of how and where things like water and electricity will be used, so that you can consider how their use can be optimised. Water, for example, can be filtered and recycled on-site rather than being immediately sent to a municipal water treatment facility.

When it comes to electricity, there’s usually a benefit to generating on-site through things like roof-mounted solar panels – at least for things such as lighting and computer use.

All environmentally-conscious design must consider a structure’s purpose within the context of its surroundings, as well as the environmental impact of its construction methods and materials. What’s more is that these usually aren’t even expensive alterations and considerations – industry just needs to be open to changing established design methods.

Environmentally friendly construction

The second consideration is in construction methods and materials.

Construction material waste is hard to estimate exactly, but buildings often generate between 20kg to 30kg of waste material for every square meter. And, currently, over 75% of construction and demolition waste in the EU is being sent straight to landfill.

This adds up to a staggering amount of waste being landfilled. Now, while things such as brick and masonry aren’t hazardous to put into landfill, it takes a significant amount of energy to produce them in the first place. After all, the clay needs to be sourced, the water needs to be desalinated, and the driers & kilns need huge amounts of energy in order to dry and bake the bricks. That’s just one example of a material that’s unnecessarily wasted in construction – it’s also, arguably, the most easily-reusable material.

So, better estimations of material needs must be devised when planning and ordering – and environmentally damaging materials need to be considered with great care.

That’s what we had in mind when we designed our Clayboard. We applied our unique honeycomb technology to a real problem in construction: that of floors and foundations needing to account for ground shift while remaining sturdy. So, we created an incredibly lightweight solution, with an incredibly high compression ratio. Crucially, the fact that our Clayboard is made out of recycled cardboard means that it doesn’t leave a lasting environmental footprint, while still being more effective than traditional methods.

It’s materials like this that need to be pushed to the forefront of all aspects of construction (and, yes, we’re biased in this case, but our Clayboard is also BBA accredited, so it’s not just us who believe in it).

Another key to more environmentally friendly construction is through switching to sustainably-sourced electricity sources for tools and machinery or, where all-electric is impossible, hybridising them.

The cost of solar panels has dropped dramatically in the last five years: a simple solar power setup on individual contractors’ vans enables renewable energy generation for battery-powered tools on an individual level – thus spreading the load between all tradespeople involved in a job.

What’s more is that a simple solar power setup can cost less than £600: that’s a solar panel (£130), a charge controller (£31), a small 12v battery (85Ah is around £160), and a small inverter (£160). This would be able to keep up to twenty 4Ah tool batteries fully charged even in overcast winter weather – and continue to do so for years. This is far in excess of what most tradespeople require for their tools. Yet, it’s still a rare sight to see tradespeople utilising solar power for construction.

Construction companies themselves can also kick-start uptake of sustainable tools through implementing hybrid machinery. That is, machinery that works from renewable electricity sources, and uses a clean fuel only when heavy work is required from it.

Environmentally friendly lifetime

This is the last consideration because it builds on the foundations of the previous two. A great, environmentally conscious building design will have already considered how its materials are going to last, has minimised wastage at the point of manufacture, and has minimised reliance on fossil fuel energy throughout. However, it’ll fall at the last hurdle if an awareness of how materials deteriorate – as well as what to do with them – isn’t carefully planned.

So to take the green belt as an example of lifetime planning, how will it actually make an impact? How will it grow, what habitats will it provide for which insects & animals, and how will this in turn benefit the local environment?

Ecosystems are tremendously complex, so this could clearly pan out in any number of ways, but as a rule of thumb, more space for living things is a good thing. More plants means more insects, which means more pollination as well as more bird life, which in turn increases seed distribution further while increasing soil fertility. The cycle continues.

That’s just a thumbnail view. The positive change that can be made through proactive industrial action has the opportunity to reverse the looming environmental catastrophe.

If we plan for tools, materials, and machinery to have as little negative environmental impact as possible throughout their lifetimes, then we’ll have made huge leaps towards a greener future. And it’s through working together, and making these tangible choices, that we’ll start to affect real, positive change.

If you’d like to talk about ways to make environmentally positive construction changes, let’s talk!

3 December 2020