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October 20, 2022

The many ways to make a new building green

In the highly traditional, slow-to-change construction industry, the drive toward a green future is taking shape.

In the news

In a 2021 report, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development found that fewer than 1% of building projects currently assess or measure their lifecycle carbon impacts. That’s a major sustainability roadblock, the report adds, as the “built environment … represents close to 40% of global energy-related carbon emissions.”

Until recently, the industry’s emissions efforts focused on reducing operational emissions, the energy used to heat, cool and light buildings. But this approach overlooks embodied carbon emissions found in the material and construction processes across a building’s lifecycle, which some reports say represents a quarter of the CO2 emitted during the life of a building and 11% of all global CO2 emissions.

Can a sector that has historically been slow to change its practices take more progressive steps toward a sustainable future? The Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction has published a roadmap aimed at doing just that.

The Cognizant take

Saket Setia, Industrial and Process Manufacturing Consulting Lead at Cognizant, notes that the industry has recently increased its focus on construction materials’ carbon footprint. Contractors and homeowners have become far more educated regarding insulation options—wood fiber and cellulose, for example, are far greener than closed-cell spray foams and other materials that must be blown in. And glass-based products tend to require more energy to produce due to the necessity of heating and cooling them during manufacturing.

Often, Setia says, “there’s no significant difference in performance” among these materials, “so cost is the big driver. The materials being used are those that are easily fabricated at the site, making life easy for contractors.”

Regulatory pressure and increased consumer awareness of sustainability issues are also drivers, says David Cox, Cognizant’s North American Energy and Utilities Consulting Lead. In addition to materials manufacturing, there are several opportunities for the construction industry to improve. “Start with transport,” he says. In commercial construction, many components are massive and must be brought to the site on specialized trains, trucks or helicopters. “There’s a real opportunity to reduce carbon footprint there,” Cox says. The same goes for the enormous cranes and other equipment needed in large-scale construction.

Additionally, there’s the number of people required onsite. “We all bring our carbon footprints with us,” Cox notes—another opportunity for improvement through automation and advanced construction techniques. In this area, he adds, the industry has already made significant progress. The same can be said about 3D printed homes. These are promising signs.

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