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Taking Steps Toward a Sustainable Future for Construction

by Eliot Jones   |   July 19, 2021

Every industry faces challenges as a result of climate change. Because construction is responsible for almost 40% of total carbon emissions, the industry is up against a particularly tall challenge — but it’s also a golden opportunity.

According to the UN’s 2019 report on climate change, in order to limit climate change to an increase of less than 1.5°C, we need to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.

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If global temperatures rise more than 1.5°C, a domino effect would result, making it harder to manage additional changes. It’s estimated that the world has already hit approximately 1°C above pre-industrial averages, so the need to develop sustainable solutions is urgent — particularly in the construction industry, which as mentioned, accounts for 40 percent of total carbon emissions around the world.



But there’s good news: embracing sustainability yields financial benefits. The global economic benefit of a low-carbon future is estimated at $26 trillion by 2030. The rise of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) investing is also contributing to the value of sustainable decision-making. Today, ESG investing is estimated at $20 trillion or ¼ of all professionally managed assets, and some studies estimate that stocks in sustainable companies significantly outperform their non-sustainable peers.

Sustainability in Construction

Steps Toward a Sustainable Future

Because we’re responsible for more than a third of total carbon emissions, the construction industry and the wider built environment can play a leading role in how the world transitions to a sustainable future. The environment accounts for 30-40 percent of primary energy usage worldwide, and half of all raw materials are used in the construction sector. Globally, 7-11 percent of total construction costs are wasted in rework. To reduce emissions and energy consumption, construction professionals must:

  • Build More Strategically
    Reduce the number of building projects while working to build spaces that can be repurposed at different times of the day. (A coffee shop by day, for example, could become a bar at night.)
  • Prioritize Retrofitting
    Look at the assets we have and retrofit them rather than knocking down and starting over. New projects should be designed in a way that incorporates retrofitting, considering ways to extend the life cycle of each asset, which could advance the property’s resale potential.
  • Embrace Technology
    Construction planners must also embrace low energy use appliances, low carbon heating and cooling solutions, and electric vehicles on job sites. They should also look for ways to reduce toxic waste and emissions throughout the construction process.
  • Reduce Rework
    One of the best ways to reduce costly rework is by adopting a digital construction project management software solution such as Trimble e-Builder. Having a single source of truth for documents, drawings, models, and other essential components of the process helps to improve communication between teams and stakeholders and reduce the errors that lead to rework.

Achieving this transformation starts with strong policies requiring sustainability in projects and RFPs, and working with vendors who are making that a priority. “Ultimately, you have to embrace sustainability in a way that leads to financial benefit for your organization,” says Eliot Jones, product manager for e-Builder. In other words, the changes need to be financially sustainable as well as environmentally sustainable.

Jones sees a shift happening in the construction sector that will make these changes easier to tackle. As the entire sector shifts to prioritize sustainability, pursuing these goals will become more mainstream and expected.

Sustainability in Practice: Milwaukee Municipal Sewerage District (MMSD)

A regional government agency and long time e-Builder customer, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) provides water reclamation and flood management services to 1.1 million residents across 28 communities in and around the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. MMSD is a national leader in green infrastructure (GI), flood management, and wastewater treatment.

Since 2010, MMSD has been pursuing a set of ambitious sustainability goals. “By 2035, we want to see zero sewer overflows in our service area, zero structures in the FEMA 100-year floodplain, and manage the first half inch of rainfall (740 million gallons) where it falls,” says Rick Niederstadt, capital program support manager at MMSD. “We also want to meet 100 percent of our energy needs with renewable sources, with 80 percent of those being internal sources.”

 

“Consider sustainability an opportunity to ensure your organization’s continuity and positioning, improving both efficiency and profitability as you go."

- Rick Niederstadt, capital program support manager at MMSD

Many of MMSD’s projects relate to sustainability, and they’re seeing good progress with concentrated effort and a change in culture. “You have to figure out how to build sustainability into your organization’s culture, recognize limitations in time and funding, and be willing to accept new initiatives and approaches,” he says. “We set big goals, but tackle small projects.”

Sustainable Construction

All of those small projects add up to successful movement toward the larger goals and help to illustrate the benefits of sustainability. “We take an asset management-based approach to prioritizing projects — not just for assets that presently exist, but also those we don’t yet have,” Niederstadt says. “We look at factors like permit compliance, how the project will help us meet those requirements and how our initiative will impact the environment and amount of energy we use. We also want to make sure all the projects and initiatives we put forth convey great value to our customers.”

Niederstadt says organizations wanting to prioritize sustainability must start by defining it internally. “It doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, so drill down on what it means to your organization. Then, establish a vision and clear goals with incremental milestones, and ways to measure performance and progress.” Decision-making processes should consider the vision and goals, and always pursue financial stability along with environmental concern. “Consider sustainability an opportunity to ensure your organization’s continuity and positioning, improving both efficiency and profitability as you go.”

Key Topics Covered: Sustainable Construction

About the Author

Eliot Jones
Product Manager

Eliot Jones is a Product Manager with the Trimble PPM division responsible for the mobile solutions and strategy across both our Owner and General Contractor solutions. He has a 6+ year career with Trimble prior to the PPM division working for the Geospatial, Civil Engineering and Construction, and Utilities divisions. Before joining Trimble he has experience in the construction, land, and hydrographic surveying industries. Eliot has a bachelor’s in science degree from the Dublin Institute of Technology in Ireland.