Image: Sustainable Villa designed by Consistent Engineering.
Construction accounts for a total of 39 per cent of global carbon emissions. It’s clear that it must play just as substantial a part in managing climate change
It is said that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. During the pandemic, while business operations were affected by lockdown, Consistent Engineering Consultants organised a series of groundbreaking webinars outlining how the construction sector needs to heed the global demand for sustainability, and the many things construction firms can do to reduce the effects of the built environment on the health of our planet.
Consistent Engineering Consultants is one company leading the way towards sustainable construction. Consistent is focused on reducing the impact of the built environment, and establishing balance between the environmental, economic and social aspects. To that end, it organised and conducted a series of webinars between 31 August and 22 September 2020 which brought together global experts to discuss achieving sustainable development in construction.
The Securing Sustainable Futures webinar series was designed to discuss achieving the UN sustainable development goals in construction and engineering. It brought together experts from the construction, architecture, mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) and finance backgrounds to discuss the obstacles to these goals and identify solutions. The webinars were hosted by Sagar Kulkarni, MD of Consistent Engineering Consultants, and moderated by key team members Rahul Shetty and Prashant Jadhav.
Why is sustainability important?
Kulkarni is clear that sustainability isn’t just about preserving the environment. It’s also about doing so in a way that is economically viable: a “green” building design that is too expensive to build is pointless. However, understanding the operational benefits of green construction, as well as its effects on the overall built environment, is vital.
Sustainable construction also has to be socially acceptable. People need safety and security from their buildings. They also want comfort and convenience. However environmentally friendly they are, buildings need to address these fundamental needs.
But our environment needs us to moderate our use of energy and water, minimise pollution and waste, and address climate change. Sustainable construction is therefore at the intersection of the environment, society and economics.
Why is sustainability important?
The need for sustainable construction is urgent. Humanity’s difficulty in controlling carbon emissions is set to get worse. People around the world have increased purchasing power. But increasing wealth brings increasing consumption, energy use and waste. There is a need to act now.
Why should businesses care?
All businesses have an ethical responsibility to the environment and to the next generation, but there are also powerful commercial reasons to address sustainability.
The first is that consumers favour sustainable businesses. They avoid polluters and energy wasters. Governments are responding to these concerns by implementing regulations that require more sustainable practices.
The second reason is just as powerful. Increasingly, it makes economic sense to operate sustainably. Save energy during construction, for instance on logistics, and you save money. Buildings that are not energy-efficient to operate will be more expensive to run and harder to sell.
Governments can encourage sustainability in several ways. According to Henrique Pereira, Senior Manager: Energy Services, Energy Efficiency and Renewables Office of Ras Al Khaimah Municipality in the UAE, the main role of government is “to raise the bar, and this is achieved through education, awareness […] and leading by example”.
Governments can also impose regulation, such as mandating designs that include renewable energy. They can support the development of public services such as composting or recycling centres. And, of course, they have a major role in planning, obliging new developments to adhere to sustainability requirements.
For example, Dominic McPolin from Bahrain’s Ministry of Works, Municipalities Affairs and Urban Planning, pointed out that Bahrain’s government has published a National Energy Efficiency Plan. “Governments like to set targets that are achievable,” he pointed out. “But [the Ministry] are really looking beyond those targets.”
In addition, governments can offer positive incentives such as grants or tax breaks that can apply to businesses and individual consumers.
Industry standards provide a simple way of circulating best practice. One example is the LEED building rating from the US Green Building Council (USGBC). This internationally recognised certification is evolving into a performance-based certification where sustainability across the complete life of a building and the wider supply chain is assessed. Other certifications such as TRUE zero waste focus on the important issue of waste management.
In addition, the USGBC has a certification process for existing buildings that are working towards greater sustainability. On its ARC platform, building managers and operators can enter data on energy, water, waste, transport and the human experience, monitoring progress on one or more of these categories and benchmarking themselves against other buildings.
Communication and awareness
The third requirement is for awareness among construction firms and the wider populace. Awareness is, as Sagar Kulkarni says, “a bridge to conscious action,” and it enables progress towards a more sustainable future. There is a caveat though. For awareness to drive sustainability, solutions must be simple for people to use, beneficial for the user in some way, and visibly successful at achieving the end-goals of sustainability.
This requires effective communication. Professionals may already understand sustainability, but many consumers are less aware. Running workshops on, for example, how to separate waste or build an odour-free home composting unit will help. And it’s never too early to start: schoolchildren told about sustainability will grow up accepting it as part of their value set. Sweden, for instance, has made it a practice to educate children on managing waste right from school level. It has also developed a waste-to-energy infrastructure and reduced dependence on fossil fuels.
The final requirement is for finance. Without finance sympathetic to the goals of sustainability, issues such as carbon reduction become an obstacle or a distraction. According to Alejandro Vera Casso, Senior Advisor at UNIDO and Founding Partner at ICD Impact, Vienna, “The banking industry is also heavily reliant on big data […] various finance models are getting evaluated to cater the need of an hour.”
But how can you make the right financing decision? Cities are well aware of the UN’s SDGs, and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) investment is also well established. The IRIS model of measuring social, environmental and financial performance of an investment is becoming a third set of indicators for finance to understand where to put their money.
Vera Casso stresses that this is an area of substantial innovation and that concepts such as impact finance are driving a new and positive mindset around development finance.
Achieving sustainable construction
Be holistic: to be sustainable, construction firms need a holistic, whole-of-life approach. You cannot evaluate reduced energy use, for instance, without also measuring the effect that energy saving will have on water supplies or pollution. The key is to look at all the options available. Using renewable energy is part of the solution, but so is using non-renewable energy efficiently.
Measure: data is at the core of sustainable construction, because unless you measure you cannot manage. Construction firms need to benchmark themselves against both competitors and different buildings and designs. The results are often surprising: long-term benefits from sustainable operations can be substantial, with payback generally within five years and sometimes in less than two.
Collaborate: to succeed, the whole construction ecosystem must work together – government, industry and people. Everyone has a part to play and small wins are just as important as major programmes. For instance, a company that instructs the security team patrolling at night to switch off any lights that have been left on will be making a difference, as will the homeowner who installs a water-flow reduction system in their bathroom. Likewise, building owners can work with tenants to enable lower rents by encouraging actions that reduce the cost of running the common parts. For example, ENOC has a five-star rating system it applies to its tenants as a way of measuring how sustainable they are and as a result whether they merit a reduction in how much they pay for the common areas.
With larger schemes, collaboration between industrial stakeholders and the municipality is essential. If the strategy is to burn waste for power, the municipality may need to facilitate the delivery of waste to the power plant.
Think simple: construction companies don’t always have to look for expensive technology. Uncomplicated options such as louvres for shade or automatic door closers are useful. A simple visual inspection of structures such as windows and doors can go a long way towards providing improvements: you don’t always need expensive pressure tests to find the problems.
Think local: vernacular architecture is often very sustainable. Techniques that have grown up over centuries will have adapted to local conditions. In hot areas such as the Persian Gulf, buildings that look inwards to shady courtyards and that encourage cooling breezes are comfortable to work and live in and inexpensive to run. Large areas of glass may look fashionable but are not in line with traditional architectural styles and – unsurprisingly – are environmentally problematic.
Retrofit: it is often far more sustainable to retrofit old buildings than to rebuild them completely. One excellent example is Bombay House, the headquarters of Tata Group in Mumbai, a beautiful building that was redeveloped sustainably and retains its historic grandeur alongside state-of-the-art electronics and a repurposed layout suitable for a 21st century workforce.
But if buildings must be rebuilt, then reusing and recycling as much of them as possible is important. Perhaps doors and windows can be reused elsewhere. And metal fitments can be profitably recycled.
As consumers we are all responsible. We can make a difference by practising sustainability and by explaining its importance to the people around us. Most significantly, we can demand sustainable practices from the businesses we buy from.
Stakeholders in the construction industry have a different role. As well as adopting sustainable practices, they can share data and best practice, develop a knowledge base, and seek out like-minded partners to collaborate with. Sustainability must be the default approach of the industry.
A pragmatic approach combined with an achievable vision are needed. But this shouldn’t be beyond our reach. We know how important it is that we protect our planet. The technology is there to enable the construction industry to play its part. And it is generally technology that will deliver better outcomes, both in terms of the quality of build and the cost of the development.
Consistent Engineering Consultants is convinced that, with the right vision and sufficient determination, the construction industry will play a leading part in promoting a more sustainable future for all of humanity.
Webinar 1, the Gulf Cooperation Council region edition, took place on 31 August 2020.
Webinar 2, the India edition, took place on 8 September 2020.
Webinar 3: the Synergy edition, took place on 22 September 2020.
Images provided by Consistent Engineering Consultants