Sustainability in Construction, What is it?

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W. Ronald Woods
A computer-generated image of pairs of cupped hands holding a city and Earth.

Sustainability. Is it a common buzzword? Is it real? Is it achievable? Yes, to each of these. Unfortunately it is often a buzzword to gain favor in someone’s agenda. Instead of it being a buzzword, it should be acclimated into our entire construction process such that the word itself no longer exists. It is just done.

We achieve this through the application of sustainable processes to the myriad of construction functions, construction materials, design, site selection, facility use, maintenance, serviceability and longevity. We use a foundation for sustainability that includes considerations of economy, social interaction/responsibility and environmental cognizance. The selection of construction functions may include utilizing construction equipment with lower carbon emission or sequencing and managing construction such that the use of certain high emission equipment is minimized.

Much headway has been made in the manufacturing and use of construction materials that enhance or achieve sustainability. Concrete is the most commonly used material in construction. It is made from cement, aggregates and water in its simplest form. Portland cement, the binding agent for concrete, is produced in such a manner that it releases large amounts of carbon dioxide. Even though carbon dioxide is a necessary ingredient for plant life cycles, too much of it creates significant environmental issues and harms the atmosphere. For this reason, there have been significant strides in the development of “green” cements and, correspondingly, “green” concrete. In addition to the use of green cement, the use of recycled concrete as aggregate and the use of waste byproducts from other industries as aggregates helps even more to reduce carbon emissions. Couple that with the use of byproduct additives such as fly ash, which has some cementitious properties, to replace part of the portland cement in concrete creates a final product that significantly helps the environment as compared to not using such processes and materials. Other materials that enhance sustainability are wood products such as “engineered wood”, a term used to describe a wood-like material made of wood byproducts and resins, molded and pressed together to create a new product that has many of the same properties as natural wood and in some cases, even better properties.

Other considerations can include site selection and even the placement and orientation of a building on a site. For example, a building might have its orientation relative to the sun to take advantage of energy efficiency either in cooling, heating or both. The building design can also be used to increase its use and energy efficiency. Further, through better design, building practices and material selection we can make buildings last longer and thus, reduce the need to construct new buildings when the existing ones are functional, serviceable and energy efficient.

Sustainable practices are becoming more commonplace as we realize the implications of our prior lack of sustaining diligence. For the future of construction and quality of life, we must work toward sustainability as the norm, not the “add on”.