Overcoming Sustainability Roadblocks

Why many contractors can’t make the switch to green construction despite concerns about global warming.

Sustainable architecture challenges architects to produce structures and designs that reduce the negative impact on ecosystems and the community at large. Why this poses a challenge is the crux of this article. Although architects and designers have made great strides in the past years in many areas of environmental design–such as LEED and WELL certifications–there is a greater need to form a coalition amongst developers, architects, and end-users to build sustainable futures.

LEED Rating and Why it is Desirable

The U.S Green Building Council (USGBC) advocates for sustainable, prosperous building culture and has developed a framework for energy and a cost-efficient building known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Energy-efficient buildings are one of the main ways we can counteract and, at times, reverse the devastating effects of global warming and the overuse of fossil fuels, but a LEED-certified building offers many more advantages for the business owner:

  1. Competitive Edge: Sustainability is the buzzword of this era, and companies that accelerate the sustainability movement are more likely to gain support from clients.
  2. More tenants - and happier ones: The demand for green buildings is higher every day; research shows that green buildings enjoy a 20% more occupation rate, Health: LEED-certified buildings contribute not only to a healthier planet but also to healthier people.

Adobe Systems is the first major corporation in the US to obtain a platinum-status LEED rating. The technology giant has reduced their water use by 22%, landscape water use by 76%, electricity by 35%, and natural gas by 41% since they began making gradual changes, back in 2001. A laudable advance for the sustainability movement.

Other large companies, such as Microsoft, have pledged to become carbon negative by 2030 and to eliminate their historical carbon footprint by 2050. The bar has been set high and many other companies are following suit. LinkedIn, for example, has accepted the challenge. You can see the proposal for their next construction project, a carbon-negative office space, here. How are they going to do it? The first step is focused on construction materials. 

As a high-profile company, LinkedIn has been able to procure sustainable materials but that is not the reality for many other companies due to the low availability of these materials; this, teamed with issues of supply and demand, costs, and the lack of education, means that architects have a long way to go before sustainable construction becomes the norm.

That said, Laura Soma, a sustainability expert at GLY Construction, affirms that: “[she is] seeing an increase in the number of companies who have their sustainability practices, guidelines, and by-laws. It is becoming a common culture. Today, sustainability is more about what the building occupants want and what companies need to provide to their workers to be premier employers. It is part of the next generation of business owners and developers.”

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Availability of Low-Carbon Materials

From 1995 to 2015, greenhouse gas emissions from just material production increased by 120%. In 2018, the construction industry accounted for 39% of energy and process-related CO2 emissions of which 11% was for the production of materials such as steel, cement, and glass. However, green alternatives are not as readily available and affordable as we had expected.

Construction materials use energy, translated as carbon emissions, from the point of extraction of the raw materials to the transport of the final products to the building site where they will be installed. The accumulation of these carbon emissions during these phases is known as ‘embodied carbon.’ The focus of the shift is on using carbon-sequestering materials as opposed to carbon-expensive materials, but carbon sink and low-carbon materials are still not as readily available as their traditional counterparts.

The distribution of sustainable concrete, glass, and steel is almost always via small, independent wholesalers with a sustainability agenda, rather than mainstream suppliers. So, while we can argue that sustainable materials are indeed available, at the moment, they remain in the hands of small project developers and homeowners who often inadvertently counteract their good intentions as the materials need to be sourced from small-scale suppliers which are not currently ubiquitous.

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Components of our Cempa line meet BIFMA level standards and Clean Air Gold certification. The components can be mixed and matched, providing the ability to maintain a cohesive aesthetic while serving multiple functions.

The Supply and Demand Paradox

Inadvertently,  ‘green’ projects can contribute to a higher carbon footprint. The materials must be procured, produced, and transported on-demand, tailored to project-specific criteria. So while the materials themselves for the construction project can be considered ‘green,’ their embodied carbon is oftentimes higher than that of mainstream options.

As the demand for sustainable materials increases, the embodied carbon they carry will go down, and we will be able to consider them truly green. We can look to solar energy for an idea of how long this may take. The photovoltaic panel was first used commercially with the launch of the US Vanguard 1 satellite in 1958. More than 60 years have passed and while it is true that prices are decreasing, only projects with substantially high budgets are currently able to incorporate them, so it is unlikely that the procurement, production, and deployment of carbon-neutral construction materials will overtake traditional ones in the race to sustainability in the near future.

The Economic Barrier to Sustainability

Arguably, the financial barrier is the greatest hurdle to 100% sustainable construction. As with solar panels, whose price has dropped from $4.9 per watt in 1995 to just $0.2 in 2020, the price of ecological construction materials becomes more and more attainable to the masses with time. However, it is not a question of prices dropping overnight, but a gradual process.

While it is no mystery that in the long-term, sustainable features reduce overall costs, the initial investment is what makes the construction industry reluctant to make the change on a large scale. Adobe and Microsoft have led the way with regards to energy-efficient construction, but there is significant doubt as to whether sustainable construction yields a positive return on investment, as discovered in this article.

According to the USGBC, the initial investment in building sustainably is between 2-3% more costly than traditional construction. The fact that many large-scale development projects move millions of dollars is of significance even when talking about two or three percent. Google how to save costs in construction and there are 385 million results compared with 84 million for eco-friendly construction.

On the flip-side, Mary Tappouni, a consultant in green construction, argues that cost is not a barrier to sustainability. “[The biggest myth about green construction is] that it costs more, which it doesn’t have to, and that it’s all about the environment, which it isn’t. We preach the three “P’s” of people, planet, and profit. I firmly believe that you can’t sacrifice any of those and be successful.

The Role of Education and Training

UNESCO has implemented a proposal, Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), and offers innovative approaches for educational development within the realm of construction and is incorporated across many education systems, including the University of Michigan which is well-known for its considerations towards a more sustainable future in construction. It aims to provide the construction industry with leaders that are equipped to tackle the problems that the depletion of fossil fuels poses.

One thing is education amongst the new generations of construction industry professionals - a relatively painless task given that it is the younger generations that are the driving force behind sustainable development. Young people are more connected than ever and sensitive to popularized issues, and people under 30 years of age constitute an impressive 50.5% of the global population according to UNESCO, so it’s easy to comprehend their influence.

What is the Outlook for Sustainability in the Near Future? There is hope…

Currently, it may be fair to say that architects are facing a small amount of friction due to financial constraints and a lack of complete and thorough training. But as sustainability becomes the core of future development, training will increase, and the low-carbon alternatives to steel, glass, and concrete will abound in the marketplace - at a fraction of the current cost.

We have seen how new technology and practices always face teething problems in the earlier stages, but those creases are generally ironed out as they gain traction - in this instance, sustainability is a cause that features highly on big developers’ agendas, such as those of Adobe and LinkedIn. And when giants pave the way for success, everybody else follows. Prepare to see sustainability enter our field of vision on a large scale.


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