Words like “Green Construction” and “sustainability” are plastered across construction news highlights right next to terrifying accounts of wildfires, climate change, and flooding of cities. Buzzwords like “green” and “sustainable” make us feel good, but they are often not fully understood when spoken about in relation to construction.
Green isn’t just a growing trend in the industry but across the world as the movement to protect our planet grows into a desperate frenzy. In order to know how to work in an environmentally friendly way, it’s important first to understand what these mean in the grand scheme of construction practices.
“Green” and “sustainable” are often used interchangeably. However, they do not mean the same thing. There is another level to these terms that are much clearer in their explanation: Green buildings and sustainable/green construction. “Green Buildings” are also not quite the same as “Green and Sustainable Construction”. So what’s the difference? Let’s break this down.
Green is no longer the colour of a well-kept lawn. Green is now seen as a mindset. It describes a set of actions and choices which has a positive impact on the planet and the environment we live in. In a technical sense it is defined as something that is “less harmful or more sensitive to the environment.” Being green would then mean that you actively try to embody this movement and to be less harmful to the environment in your actions.
In relation to construction this “green” movement is done in two ways:
The U.S. Green Building Council defines green building as the “designing, constructing, and operating [of] buildings to maximize occupant health and productivity, use fewer resources, reduce waste and negative environmental impacts, and decrease life cycle costs.”
In fewer words, green building is the creation, building, and running of a building which keeps the people healthy and productive, uses less resources, has less impact on the environment, and costs less to maintain in the long run.
This is the key between Green Building and Green Construction; Green Building looks at the operations of the finished product as well as the design and construction while Green Construction is about the actual construction of the building itself in an environmentally friendly way.
There are a few different pieces that can go into green building. A few examples include:
What goes into making a building green can depending on what kind of building it is or where it’s built. In a factory with lots of lights, as an example, the use of solar or wind power could be a bigger factor than an air purification system for an apartment building.
When people think “Green Construction” images like this one often come to mind. In fact, buildings like this are better reflected with the term “Green Building” instead of “Green Construction”. Read on to learn the difference.
LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It is the most recognized green certificate used for green building classification around the world. This certificate can be applied to literally any kind of building that meets its qualification.
Click to learn everything you need to know about LEED Certification.
All of these factors can be put into play, but at the end of the day a building or area can become green certified even if the process of construction itself was not completed with the environment in mind. To get LEED Certified you need the applicable infrastructure, technologies, appliances, and design to make it green. Yet the process of building it isn’t even taken into consideration.
A green building is one thing, but green or sustainable construction is a whole game of its own. Since it is not required, very few contractors consider or think about it in their site building plan. That doesn’t mean that green construction doesn’t benefit contractors or that more contractors shouldn’t take it into consideration more often.
It makes sense that green construction would be about building with the environment in mind. Take the definition of “Green Building” and eliminate all the “extras” outside of the building process to get a definition of green construction:
The construction of buildings to maximize employee health and productivity, using fewer resources, reducing waste and negative environmental impacts.
Sustainable construction is defined as the “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.” It is less focused on the environmental impact of the building process like in green construction but instead the resources which are used, how we use them, and being smart about recycling and minimizing waste. In turn, this does mean being more sensitive to the environment, but it’s more focused on the resources themselves.
Sustainability as a concept is fairly new. According to Google Books word trends, the use of the term really began to rise in the 1980. Although it’s still quite new, the concept of longevity in our resources and environment plays an important part in changes to the industry.
It’s clear that green and sustainable construction are a part of each other unlike green building which is more about the management of the finished product.
Both reflect a choice to be friendly to the environment. Both include similar construction practises. They are definitely closer to each other than green construction and green buildings.
Practicing green construction includes many changes – big and small – to the construction process. These green construction methods can include:
Sustainable construction is directly related to these examples: a site with less waste produced, less fuel burned and more renewable and sustainable building materials sourced, the more sustainable the project will be.
You may be wondering at this point what the purpose is of going green if it doesn’t really matter to the certification of the building. What can a construction company do to really make a difference in the environment?
The answer is simple: what’s good for the environment is good for your budget. If the environmental concern isn’t enough to get decision-makers on board, then money talk could maybe do it.
Fuel burn and waste are two major concerns for the environment and they should be concerns for the industry.
Fuel accounts for around 30% of the cost of running and maintaining a machine. With fuel costs going up, being more fuel-efficient and burning less fuel is better for the pockets of contractors. During the construction stage of a large project, diesel-powered construction equipment is the main source of greenhouse gas and exhaust emissions.
By reducing the amount of fuel burned, you save yourself money and the environment some unneeded greenhouse gasses.
The average project of building demolition produces 155lbs of waste per square foot. So a 50,000 square foot building would create 3,875 tons of waste, or the same as 20 houses worth of debris. A new building, however, produces about 3.9 lbs of waste. This means that a 50,000 square foot building would create 97.5 tons of waste, or almost the weight of a single house.
With sustainability in mind, materials like concrete could be recycled and used in the new building. Choosing sustainable materials from the beginning could reduce these numbers. Building certain parts of the project off sight can also help to reduce waste. If you can’t practice modular construction, something as simple as only ordering materials for when they’re needed instead of ordering in bulk can reduce the amount of waste. Materials that are sitting around site for longer than necessary are more likely to be lost or damaged and needing to be replaced.
As mentioned above the LEED Certification of a building has very little to do with the actual construction process. Contractors aren’t being told to go green for projects so few contractors take it upon themselves to go the extra mile. The process of going green is seen as an extra step with extra costs.
Without the practice of sustainability during actual construction, then the green certification of a building shouldn’t mean much. Some companies are doing really well with going green and practicing sustainability while others are not. There are a few key things that make going green in construction harder than other businesses.
Reducing plastic in packaging, switching to solar lights, and swapping to low-flush toilets aren’t exactly changes that can be made on a construction site. There are a few other aspects to construction that make going green more difficult.
Sustainable and green construction involves everything from design to construction to facilities to finishing touches. Of course, the equipment you choose to operate while completing construction is a big part of this.
Diesel emissions impact the environment not only for the pollution it causes to the environment but also because of the air quality around a construction site for both workers and community citizens. There are regulations in place for the level of emissions and new technology helps to create greener equipment.
But it takes a long time for equipment to catch up with new technology. A new excavator can cost anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 dollars. Buying used heavy equipment is a good way to mitigate costs but the 25% average savings from buying used doesn’t reduce the cost to “affordable”.
As is with most things, time will ease the ability for smaller businesses and companies to access new equipment with more eco-friendly features. Economy modes, electric drive technology, and better fuel economy will help to bring overall costs down and ease the impact that the industry has on the environment.
A short term option is to use equipment rental houses to access equipment you otherwise would never be able to.
This 2006 JCB JS260 can be bought used for around $42,500 USD. A new JCB excavator like the 2019 JCB 220X sells for about $131,300 USD.
As a small construction company, it’s almost impossible to purchase the newest equipment with the latest technology.
Recycling concrete and building materials, using modular construction to reduce waste, ensure proper disposal of materials, and using efficient equipment are great steps to making a construction site and project more green. But these all require access to the proper tools and facilities, as well as access to the manpower and equipment to ship and haul material to transfer it to the appropriate facility.
Small towns and cities, or those going through new development may not even have these facilities near them, making it even less likely that they would transport materials for proper disposal.
These additional considerations and costs may be ones that the building or project owner may not want to pay for. This brings us to our last major roadblock to green construction practices.
Sustainable and green construction practices are seen as costly additions that aren’t needed to complete a project. Even programs like LEED Certification cost money. Then there is the added cost of purchasing and installing green technology like solar panels and sourcing someone who can design and lead the project to be green.
It’s true that green costs money. It’s getting cheaper than it has been in the past – yes – but it is not yet cheap. That being said, more people are willing to pay extra for environmentally friendly products and materials. With the trend of green construction growing as it has been, it’s clear that that is the same is true for construction.
Green buildings themselves cost 14% less to operate compared to conventional buildings which is a great reason for the building or project owner to splurge for the upgraded green amenities and building materials. It must fall to construction companies, however, to push the importance of incorporating green building on the ground to be able to make environmental choices at all stages of construction.
It can be intimidating for small companies to embrace the green wave. There are a few ways that any and all construction companies can work to make construction sites a little more environmentally friendly and to embrace green construction.
From paper in the office to leftover wood and demolished concrete, reduce, reuse and recycle as much as possible on site. There are many ways to reuse these materials which can even save you money. Concrete, for example, can be ground up and used for walkways, driveways, as an aggregate for new concrete, to create a foundation, and much more.
If projects vary in location and shipping equipment is a concern, renting equipment locally can do a lot to reduce transportation costs and fuel burn. This is better for the environment and a budget. Shipping a large piece of equipment long ways isn’t necessary if you can rent equipment for the site for the days when you need it.
The other side to renting is that you can try out newer pieces of equipment which are better on fuel and for the environment. This allows you to both test new technology and work more efficiently with the best equipment for the job.
Provide access to water to reduce the need for plastic water bottles on site. Consider investing in a coffee maker for the site office and encourage employees to bring a reusable cup to fill up instead of stopping for coffee every morning. Set a site-wide rule to turn off equipment when it’s not in use, and make proper disposal of materials a standard.
Although they are small, these changes can come together to make a big difference over time. That is what sustainability is all about, after all.
While green building and green construction practices are different, they work together towards a common goal: to make our buildings more friendly to the environment. Although the construction process itself will not receive a special certificate or award, the decisions of contractors to go green will be noticed in the green forests, clean air and happy people. The entire world will be greener if the foundations which our world is built are done so in an environmentally friendly way.