Sustainability and Construction

Author: Katie Persons, EIT

The construction industry is often hailed as being in the forefront of growth and development throughout the U.S. The creation of residential structures, roadways, airports, schools, parks and commercial centers facilitates the opportunity for increased travel, consumerism and an overall enhanced way of life.  Often overlooked, however, is the impact of the construction industry on previously existing environmental conditions. The construction industry plays a significant role in the destruction of natural habitats, accumulation of noise, air and water pollution, increase of energy usage, and growth of landfill waste. The

following statistics provide a small glimpse of the prolonged environmental effects of construction.

  • The construction industry accounts for 40% of worldwide energy usage. (U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), 2017).
  • Building materials such as concrete, aluminum and steel are directly responsible for large quantities of CO₂ emissions. The production of 76 million tons of finished concrete in the United States generated 9.8 million tons of CO₂ in 2016. (Kleiwerks International, 2017).
  • The United States construction industry accounts for 160 million tons, or 25%, of all non-industrial waste generation each year. (Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2017).
  • Construction activities are responsible for 17% of global freshwater consumption, 25% of wood consumption and 25% of global waste annually. (Kleiwerks International, 2017).

As an associate of the construction industry, it is important to recognize how our day-to-day decisions affect the environment in both a short and long-term setting.

Design Phase

The wastes and emissions accumulated throughout the duration of a project can be partially attributed to the engineers and designers. It is the responsibility of a designer to define the material requirements anticipated for a project. The following guidelines may be implemented in the design phase in order to prevent the

harmful side-effects of construction prior to breaking ground.

  • Collect as much information as possible in the investigation phase in order to fully optimize the design. Material requirements are inevitably over-designed when engineers make assumptions pertaining to existing site conditions and anticipated structural loads. Becoming fully knowledgeable of the project site and proposed development is essential in producing an efficient and sustainable design.
  • Consider eco-friendly repair options and alternative building materials. Micropiles, reinforced slopes and earthwork repairs require less concrete and steel than conventional drilled shafts. Account for natural or recycled building materials when possible to decrease CO₂ emissions.

Construction Phase

Once a design has been finalized, the environmental responsibilities are transferred to the construction managers, contractors and laborers.

  • Recycle excess construction material and demolition debris to limit the construction sector’s environmental impact on landfill waste.
  • Implement and maintain erosion and sediment control methods to minimize the discharge of pollutants into the subsurface soil and groundwater. This can be accomplished through the installation of silt fencing, geotextiles, turf blankets or mats.
  • Limit noise pollution by properly maintaining heavy construction equipment or upgrading to more fuel-economic models. Monitor the amount of time machines spend in idle rather than in use.

General Management

The completion of a construction project requires coordination, communication and understanding by all parties involved. The following steps may be incorporated in an office environment to reduce the environmental impact of our industry.

  • Print fewer documents—utilize electronic drawings, contracts and reports when possible.
  • Recycle office wastes including paper, cardboard and plastics.
  • Provide reusable water bottles for office employees.
  • Install motion-sensor lights in office spaces and bathrooms.
  • Carpool with coworkers to site visits, meetings and lunches.
  • Turn off power strips at the end of the day.

Growth and development could not occur without the hard work of the construction industry. As the prolonged environmental impacts of construction become increasingly recognized and pronounced, it is essential that eco-friendly practices be implemented into a project on all levels.  Doing so will assist in reversing the environmental trends that have been identified by the construction industry up to this point.

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