Sustainability in the Built Environment
World Sustainability Day is an opportunity to reflect on what sustainability in the Built Environment means. It is also a good time to be reminded of the impact of sustainable development in the Built Environment and the principles that drive it towards sustainability.
In 1987, the 29th Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland published the Brundtland report entitled Our Common Future and defined sustainable development as '‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’'.
‘Business as Usual’ is unsustainable
In the Built Environment, the global construction industry is expected to reach an estimated $12.9 trillion USD by 2028, and it is forecasted to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR)of 4.2% from 2023 until 2028 according to the Global Construction Industry Report Analysis 2023-2028. Matthew Black from World Green Building Council contributed to the VinZero Think.Future podcast and pointed out ‘’there are 255 billion square meters of buildings existing in the world and a city the size of Paris is constructed every week’’.
New construction is expected to add an estimated 180 billion square meters of building floor area worldwide by 2050, according to the Global buildings sector Net Zero Scenario.
With the global population expected to reach 9.5 billion by 2050, doing business as usual means that our natural resources cannot possibly keep up with our growing demand. It is clearly unsustainable to continue in the linear model of take, make and waste. The Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction run by UNEP estimates that in 2022, buildings accounted for 37% of our global greenhouse gas emissions from building materials such as concrete, steel, aluminum, glass and bricks. The Built Environment is responsible today for over 34% of our global energy demand which includes manufacturing of materials used to construct new buildings, and emissions released due to operating existing buildings.
According to the Global Footprint, we are close to the planetary tipping points. Professor Johan Rockström proposed that the planet has planetary boundaries that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth System. His research from the Institute for Climate Impact shows there are tipping points and if you push the system too far, you risk crossing the tipping points which lead to self-amplifying drift in the wrong direction. This means that if we push the earth past these tipping points, we will not experience earth's cycles and patterns as we did before. Scientists say that the planet will try to stay in equilibrium or balance resulting in the uncharacteristic swing in weather patterns we are witnessing on a regular basis.
Professor Rory Nathan explains the changing patterns in simple thermodynamic terms, ''the air gets warmer, and the atmosphere has the capacity to store more water’’. Essentially that means there is more rainfall and all the extra heat in the atmosphere is changing the weather patterns.
''In fact, storm rainfalls that pose a threat to life and property are expected to increase between 15% to 40% by the end of this century. Projected increases in rainfall are heavily dependent on the rate at which we can reduce our emissions in the near term.”
The Impact of the Built Environment
The Built Environment puts tremendous pressure on the natural system; building sustainable cities are our biggest challenge and therefore offer the greatest opportunities for innovation and creativity.
Anne Kovachevich, Sustainable buildings and precincts leader at Mott MacDonald says ‘’we need to stay within the 9 planetary boundaries in order to maintain life on earth. The planetary boundaries framework sets an upper limit that can’t be transgressed. If we transgress this boundary we will end up in a zone of uncertainty where we’re unclear about their effects on human life.’’
The definition of a sustainable society
A sustainable society is defined as one that lives in balance and harmony with nature, and the natural cycles of the Earth. In a sustainable society there are 4 planetary system conditions that must be met to ensure that the earth can sustain all of life perpetually. Essentially, in principle it means that society needs to eliminate our contributions to:
1. the systematic increase of substance extracted from the earth’s crust (for example, heavy metals and fossil fuels)
2. the systematic increase of concentrations of waste materials and substances produced by society (for example, concrete, plastics, VOCs, PVC and DDT, electronic waste, battery waste)
3. the systematic increase in physical degradation of nature and natural processes (for example, over harvesting of old growth forests, destroying natural habitat and overfishing); and
4. conditions that systematically undermine people’s capacity to meet their basic human needs (for example, erosion of human rights, unsafe working conditions and not enough pay to live on). Social sustainability has been further defined by Dr. Merlina Missimer as social principles where people are not subject to structural obstacles to health, influence, competence, impartiality and meaning-making.
The Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development
Rethinking and innovating the foundations of all materials used in the Built Environment and the resources required to produce them for our cities is a very complex challenge. The Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development (FSSD) is a powerful uniting framework that can be applied across all sectors in the Built Environment to guide a city towards sustainability.
The FSSD is a 5-level framework, a model for planning and organizing information in complex systems such as a city, developed by Blekinge Institute of Technology in Sweden in collaboration with The Natural Step in Canada. Level one defines the scope of system being developed, for example a retrofitting a precinct in New Delhi, New York or Sydney or designing a new city in China. The second level or Success level describes what sustainability of the system looks like when looked through the lens of the sustainability principles both ecological and social. Changes in governmental or organizational policy to facilitate medium-term aspirations and long-term vision of cities are paramount to success and guide strategic thinking. The third level is the strategic level which contains strategic guidelines for architects, contractors and engineers to follow in taking innovative actions towards sustainability. The fourth level describes the concrete actions and procurement decisions taken on the path to achieve sustainability. The fifth level describe the tools necessary to implement decisions and measure performance success along the journey and includes technology such as Environmental Monitoring Systems, Ecological Footprinting, Zero Emission, 3D Modelling, Digital Twins, AI and Life Cycle Assessment tools.
Levers for Sustainability
The Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development includes levers for sustainability such as urban design principles to ensure the regeneration and integration of nature (bio urbanism and permaculture), circular economy approaches as well as regulation, policy and procurement strategies towards a vision of success. It can be applied on any scale, from a house to precinct to city and guides sustainability thinking and decision making during the development process. Success is measured and reported via an ESG reporting framework.
Dr. Matthias Irger, National Head of Sustainability, COX Architects talks about finding the missing middle when applying urban design principles.
‘’One of the most interesting areas we have to think about in urban design is density. If urban density is too low and increases heat during the day, we can increase density. If urban density is too high on the other hand it will trap too much heat. Finding the 'missing middle' as we talk in architecture often about is one of the key ingredients.’’
Circularity is not a new concept; however, it is rebounding in modern times as a powerful strategic lever towards sustainability. It is accelerating the Built Environment towards a more sustainable future whereby consumption and waste is reduced allowing the earth a chance to renew its natural resources.
The World Green Building Council released the Circular Built Environment Playbook, a useful resource to accelerate progress towards sustainability in the construction and engineering of buildings. Catriona Brady, Director of Strategy and Development at World GBC shared her vision for circularity and says
‘’There is a huge need for policy to be able to overcome some of the challenges with circular economy that we've talked about before we do need regulation to be able to mobilize things like the market for secondary materials.’’
World GBC are in the process of creating a publication on the role of water at different scales in the Built Environment. The publication is intended to promote opportunities to be more efficient with water used in supply chains; construction processes; buildings; and cities.
The Power of Procurement
A powerful lever that has been mostly overlooked is sustainable procurement. It is an opportunity that when fully embraced, can drive sustainable development even further and faster. To date most of the attention has been given to the supply of renewable energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and very little attention has been on reducing the demand for fossil fuels. Sustainable procurement does that by favoring suppliers who commit to reducing their greenhouse gases (GHGs) to net zero by 2050.
Bob Willard of Sustainability Advantage discusses the market forces around procurement in his white paper 21st Century Sustainable Enterprise Force Field. He emphasizes the impacts of Government/public sector procurement when they stipulate sustainable criteria in their tenders for construction or big infrastructure projects. When big buyers give significant weight to sustainability-related attributes of both suppliers and contractors, and their goods and services, businesses pay attention.
‘’The buying power of sustainable procurement is an untapped market force that can engage companies in the race to net-zero GHGs. When incentivized to improve their own environmental and social impacts, businesses will meet the growing demand for ethically sourced, climate-beneficial, sustainable products. They innovate more sustainable products and adopt more sustainable business models because their big customers use sustainable procurement which make those attributes matter. Follow the money.’’
Ryan Roberts, Head of Sustainable Construction at Holcim is a systems thinker and strongly supports the circularity of buildings and reuse of construction materials such as asphalt and concrete. Ryan talked about a rating tool that adds value to waste. In 2022, Holcim released the Circular Cities Barometer in collaboration with Bloomberg, that looks at different criteria of cities. Ryan says ‘’ cities are the engines of the built environment and learnings can be shared where other cities might be excelling and scaled across the global network and so it’s really a systems level rating tool we are looking at. A change in policy all the way through to actions (such as updating retrofit regulations and recycling of construction and demolition waste materials) is really key to tracking how a city is tackling issues for both people and the planet.’’
The demand to procure greener materials drives innovation. Ryan proudly shared the recent news about Holcim’s innovation in green cement, ECOPlanet that uses more than 20% recycled construction waste directly into the manufacture. Ryan says ‘’it is a world first and it really is a game changer because the CDW replaces the clinker which is the carbon intensive part of cement. It’s building new buildings from old buildings with less Carbon dioxide’’.
Designing for Sustainability and Resilience
One of the biggest challenges is shifting the mindset towards designing for sustainability and resilience. Jason Howden, former Principal and Digital Innovation Leader at Warren and Mahoney says
‘’The steel and concrete buildings that we've created are wonderful structures. We don't need to tear them down and put them in landfill. Instead, we should peel them back and refresh them for a new life, a new purpose for the next fifty years’’.
He added ‘’when we're creating our designs using the BIM processes from the get-go and start to include metadata inside the digital objects that, essentially becomes the prototype of the built thing that will come later. And some of that metadata might be information on how to deconstruct a building or the order that you might deconstruct a building’’.
Innovations and actions for change
Cement, concrete, steel, wood and glass are used to build our cities. Manufacturing processes for these materials are hard to abate, meaning hard to capture or reduce carbon emissions to zero simply because innovation of these materials has not been challenged until now. Market forces are putting the lens on supply chains and procurement which is driving research and innovation of these materials. The message is simple, if organizations do not listen to the markets demand for low carbon, low energy, sustainable building materials and products, they will soon cease to exist.
Clare Tubolets, CEO of Smart Crete CRC challenged the construction sector to rethink the foundations of the Built Environment and offered insights into innovations that reshape our approach to concrete making for some 8% of global emissions.
‘’We at Smart Crete CRC are creating new innovative concrete mixes with innovative new materials and additives as well as new ways to use our concrete in building’’. Clare explains about how they make sustainable concrete mixes during her conversation Rethinking the foundations of our Built Environment with VinZero.
There is new technology for Carbon Capture applied directly at the reaction site for cement available now. Daniel Rennie, CEO of Leilac, says ‘’a large cement plant emits at least one million tons of CO₂ per year. Between now and 2050, modelling suggests that about 1.400 Gtons per year will need to be captured at cement plants globally.’’
Leilac is fulfilling that demand and is poised to deliver a step change in the cost, and efficiency of capturing CO₂ emissions, for the cement and lime industries. Using Calix’s novel process enhancement technology, Leilac is doing it in a way that is affordable. The success of the projects and potential of this technology led to the creation of Leilac as a standalone company from Calix offering a promising solution to combat this hard to abate sector. To learn more, listen to Danniel explain how the technology works in this podcast The Foundation for Society (vinzero.com).
According to Professor Charles J. Kibert, sustainable construction focuses on six principles: ‘’conserve, reuse, recycle/renew, protect nature, create nontoxic and high quality’’. One of the best ways to practice sustainability in construction is to use materials that protect the environment and reduce the carbon footprint of the buildings that use them. Bamboo, recycled materials, laminate timber, precast concrete, and stone are the top five sustainable building materials according to the article on sustainable construction. An Autodesk construction blog reports that 40-50% of total flow of raw materials in the global economy is used in the manufacturing of building products and components, adding significant amounts and energy and greenhouse emissions to the life cycle impact of buildings. Digital Builder offers 10 sustainable construction materials to build a better future including bendable concrete, bamboo and mycelium. Sustainable materials are often renewable, derived from nature and are harmless to the environment.
Markus Roselieb is an Architect and Principal at ChiangMai Life Architects and ChiangMai Life Construction and wins awards around the world for the use of bamboo or ‘natures hidden steel’ as a sustainable building material. When asked what excites him when he thinks future about sustainability using bamboo, he said he is always looking for opportunities to expand the application of bamboo and natural materials.
‘’We need to do things that enhance the change in thinking. We do not need to ravage the earth for more steel, and for more concrete all the time because materials like bamboo are already there and can do most of the job. We are the ones that have to prove that. We have the responsibility, we have the opportunity, and we have to be as creative as possible.’’
The future is in our hearts, minds and hands
Sustainability is now embedded in the collective vision and is the result of all these inspiring strategies, levers and innovations but most importantly, it is the ability to think and design creatively with love in our hearts, while respecting the boundaries of the natural system. Sustainable development is about creating a beautiful place to live, one that is healthy for all life, and offers a thriving future for us and our children we can be proud of for generations to come. Day by day, as we think future, we are inspired to create solutions that take us closer to the vision. There is a lot to do yet but on World Sustainability Day, let’s celebrate just how far we have come.
Authored by Johanne Gallagher, VinZero Sustainability Development Advisor, ANZ
About VinZero (an ARKANCE company)
For over 20 years the brands under VinZero, an ARKANCE company, have been providing software solutions and professional services to Architectural, Engineering, Construction and Manufacturing industries helping them to understand the role of digitalization for the built environment. Businesses both large and small utilize VinZero’s dedicated industry experts to help navigate technologies as they emerge, driving efficiency and improving workflows. With a global focus on reducing emissions and increased focus directed towards industry, VinZero are now turning their attention to providing the linkages between using technology to digitize, and at the same time leveraging the valuable data insights it brings to build more sustainably. VinZero are passionate about helping their customers understand how the technologies they use today can help them to step towards net zero in the future, to build a better world.