New Opportunities for More Sustainable Construction

May 20, 2020

Alternative building materials and new technologies can help the construction industry become more sustainable and reduce labor costs, project timelines, and waste, experts said Friday during the Urban Land Institute’s webinar, “Better Building: New Opportunities in Sustainable Construction.” They discussed innovations that hold the potential to positively affect a building’s environmental footprint, making a business case for reducing carbon in development.

Technology such as RealityCapture—software used to create 3D models—and drones can be used to make virtual mockups of buildings and speed up the design process, said Ted Jennings, senior virtual design and construction manager at Baltimore-based construction company Barton Malow. Virtual mockups, he said, can facilitate earlier design decisions and enable planners to modify lighting, electrical fixtures, specialty equipment, plumbing fixtures, and mechanical equipment without incurring extra costs. “Virtual reality makes it easy to go in and swap out materials, as well as flooring, wall fixtures, and coloring,” Jennings said. “You can also go outside [the building] and change the exterior skin and fenestration.”

Modular design concepts can also make construction faster and easier, said Menno Hilberts, U.S. project director for the Netherlands-based citizenM hotel chain. He said the company’s innovative modular construction model is a cost-effective and sustainable alternative to the traditional model. The modular model consists of one type of hotel room with one set of drawings, specifications, budgets, and contracts that can be built on an assembly line and then replicated and stacked into an entire hotel. The company’s modular production facility is cleaner and safer than a traditional construction site, Hilberts said, and the modules can be shipped to a project site and crane-lifted into place. This results in speedier construction times of up to one floor per week.

A benefit of this method of construction is a reduction in material waste: 2% versus an average of 10% to 20% with traditional construction, Menno said. He also noted that citizenM’s modular construction model greatly reduced embodied carbon, which is the carbon emissions associated with the manufacturing, maintenance, and demolition of a building. “Our methods outperformed traditional hotel construction by 68%, and office construction by 49%, on embodied carbon over a 60-year lifecycle,” he said. “So modular construction can have side benefits in sustainability.”

Sarah King, sustainability director for Skanska USA Commercial Development, introduced her company’s Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator tool, an open-source software that allows builders to access and view material carbon emissions data for a project. This gives builders the information they need to make carbon-smart choices during material specifications and procurement.

The EC3 tool is available free of charge, and it can be applied to both residential and commercial development. King stressed the importance of measuring embodied carbon throughout the value chain, through manufacturing, transport, installation, and construction, and said she hoped it would inspire industrywide collaboration. “EC3 will help us all make better decisions when we’re considering materials,” she said. “We can use it across all real estate to reduce emissions and drive the market to share more data.”

Alternative construction methods and materials also can reduce waste. Eleni Reed, head of sustainability at infrastructure firm Lendlease USA, said her company collects excess gypsum wallboard from its projects and recycles it to be processed into new wallboard and used in future construction. Reed also extolled the virtues of cross-laminated timber in construction over the more commonly used cold-formed steel. According to Reed, a CLT structure can be built faster and safer, and it leaves a 16% lower embodied carbon footprint. In addition, CLT is cheaper. “CLT is absolutely driving value,” she stated. “There is no incremental cost in using it. The whole process is more efficient.”