Deron Brown is president and chief operating officer of U.S. Operations for PCL Construction.
Earlier this year, California announced new water restrictions to ensure it had enough supply to make it through the year. Wildfires are burning through forests so fast they reach suburban homes. Numerous reports warn of the impact of a warming climate on our food chain—grains, produce and even coffee production are expected to be hard hit.
As the impact of global warming becomes more visible in our daily lives, many are driven to do their part to create lasting change. No one is more motivated to combat global warming than the next generation of workers. In a Pew Research Study, 71% of millennial survey respondents said climate change should be a top priority to ensure a sustainable planet, followed closely by 67% of Generation Z respondents. As members of this group enter the workforce or prepare for their next career move, they’re increasingly seeking careers that empower them to protect the planet.
Low carbon, resource-efficient communities of the future are within reach, but we will have to build them first.
Therefore, I would argue the construction industry—through the resources they use, the infrastructure they build and the careers they offer—is a major player in sustainability.
Reduce Carbon Through Construction
Many may not realize the role the construction industry plays in shifting buildings to use renewable materials. For example, it is possible to construct beautiful, high-performing buildings with lower carbon emissions than their predecessors by replacing steel—which emits 1.85 tons of carbon dioxide for every ton of steel created—with renewable mass timber.
In addition to shifting to more sustainable construction materials, the construction industry is also modernizing existing structures through retrofitting. Retrofits make buildings more efficient, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase the structure’s life span and make spaces healthier and more desirable for occupants. A deep retrofit, including upgrades to electrical, HVAC and mechanical systems, can improve the building’s operating efficiency. Retrofits also incorporate new building technologies that allow for more efficient energy consumption, a healthier indoor environment and greater occupant comfort.
And while retrofitting can be an important part of reducing carbon emissions, the construction industry is also increasing efforts to ensure we’re building greener buildings from the start.
Build Greener Buildings
If you are looking to build a new office space, first determine if you want to go the route of retrofitting or a new build. Retrofitting, which replaces what is in an existing building with higher-efficiency equipment and products, can be a more sustainable route compared to garnering all new resources to build something brand-new. If your company is considering retrofitting, the first step to take is to obtain a baseline of all the existing equipment and the building’s conditions—everything from lighting and HVAC, to insulation and the building envelope. Once you have this, analyze and make decisions for the most impactful and economical improvements/upgrades. Most companies start with smaller, low-cost measures such as lighting upgrades that will yield immediate savings. Then, you can consider larger projects such as facility improvements, i.e., HVAC equipment replacement.
If retrofitting is not an option and your company must build new, here are a few factors to consider when building sustainably:
• Consider the location and the impact of clearing land and disrupting natural habitats. It’s always better to build in an urban location so it is easily connected to the grid (electricity, sewer, transportation, etc.).
• Select sustainable building materials such as mass timber—things that don’t have a high environmental impact and are beneficial to human health.
• Design the building with natural light, an open floor plan, acoustic performance and thermal comfort in mind.
In my opinion, there are two parts to sustainable construction. We must build facilities that leverage innovative technology to reduce their footprint, and we must also be good stewards of the Earth during construction by transforming our equipment and methods.
To achieve this, evaluate every step of a construction project to find opportunities to minimize the environmental impact. For example, my company converted to LED lighting on jobsites to replace less efficient metal halide technology powered by diesel. Not only did this provide higher quality lighting for night workers, but it also used significantly less energy.
Become More Sustainable
While the construction industry may not be for everyone, there are many ways businesses can change their day-to-day operations to be good stewards of our planet. Some of these practices may seem small, but cumulatively, they can make a lasting impact. A few examples include:
• Purchasing green cleaning supplies.
• Turning off lights when you vacate a room or install motion-sensor lighting.
• Making sure non-automated faucets are not running.
• Using energy-efficient light bulbs such as LED.
• Incentivizing employees to walk, ride their bike or take public transportation to work.
Once you have identified sustainable practices to start implementing at your company, consider educating your staff on the basics of recycling and composting. If your employees don’t know the importance of sustainable practices and how to implement these into their everyday work life, change won’t happen.
As communities invest in renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydroelectric and geothermal energies, construction teams are at the forefront of installing the solar panels, turbines and other infrastructure that will make a transition from our current energy system possible.
For innovative thinkers and passionate thought leaders, the construction industry offers endless opportunities to transform communities through cutting edge engineering and leading sustainability projects. We’re building a sustainable world from the ground up.