Sustainable Construction Methods

Implementing sustainable methods in the construction process is an effective solution to reduce the environmental impact produced by the different house-building practices. The construction industry is one of the sectors with higher environmental damage as a result of elevated greenhouse gas emissions and waste production. Therefore, choosing green building practices is the most responsible approach.

Main sustainable construction methods:

  1. Cut down on energy consumption
  2. Choose green materials
  3. Opt for recyclable building techniques
  4. Use recycled materials
  5. Reduce construction waste
  6. Lower maintenance needs

Most types of construction will benefit from consciously applying these sustainable methods. However, those types that utilise prefabrication practices often integrate them naturally without having to add any additional effort.

What is the purpose of sustainable construction?

The primary purpose of sustainable construction is to contribute to the protection of our natural environment. To address this issue, the construction industry works towards a more sustainable approach by combining different strategies [1].

  • Reduce construction waste: As much as 40% of the overall waste produced in each European country is caused by the construction industry [2]. Therefore, waste management is a key purpose of sustainable construction.
  • Reduce carbon emissions: Given that in Europe and the UK, the construction industry alone is responsible for 36% of greenhouse gas emissions [3], lowering the carbon footprint is a priority.
  • Create a healthy living environment: Beyond protecting the natural environment, sustainable construction aims to protect the indoor space as well. Respecting the health and well-being of those occupying a sustainable building is then a must.
  • Offer fair housing opportunities: While sustainability is usually associated with the protection of the environment, one of the principles of sustainability is to reach the most vulnerable communities. Sustainable construction approaches this principle by creating affordable housing opportunities.

What are the 7 sustainable construction methods?

In order to contribute to more sustainable construction, different methods should be integrated into the construction industry. Each of these methods can be applied to different extents, on its own or in combination with other methods.

1. Cut down on energy consumption

The most effective way to lower the carbon footprint of a house’s construction is by reducing the amount of energy required to build it and to do so, it is essential to reduce transportation needs. Transportation is lessened by delivering materials in bulk and cutting down the shipment of heavy machinery is key. Therefore, those types of construction that take place in a centralised location, such as prefabrication, will highly reduce energy consumption.

2. Choose green building materials

By selecting natural materials that have rapid self-regeneration, such as bamboo, cork or sheep’s wool, you can lower the environmental impact of construction. These types of materials grow quickly and naturally regenerate after harvesting them. Additionally, given that natural materials don’t contain toxic substances, they contribute to a healthier indoor environment.

3. Opt for recyclable building techniques

Recyclable building techniques offer the possibility of recycling the materials used to construct the house in the future once the building is ready to be demolished. Dry assembly is one of the most recyclable building techniques since it makes the separation of the different construction materials very easy. For example, poured concrete would have to be broken into pieces and will rarely be recycled. However, a prefabricated construction element made of precast concrete and assembled with a dry union can be easily disassembled and reused in the future.

4. Use Recycled materials

used recycled material prefab building
Image credit: Container homes use a recycled shipping container as the house’s structure

You don’t need to wait until the house life is completed to recycle materials, you can already incorporate the concept of recycling during its construction. By repurposing old materials and using them to build some parts of the house, you upcycle and offer extended life to a material that otherwise would have been discarded and added to the amount of waste.

5. Reduce on-site construction waste

While the good material selection is essential to reduce waste, sustainable waste management during construction goes beyond this first step. Generally, every builder’s project is treated independently: the materials purchased are specific for that project alone and leftovers are a common occurrence. In order to reduce on-site waste, material leftovers should ideally be reused in future projects. This type of repurposing is especially easy to accomplish with off-site construction since storage and construction are centralised in one single location.

6. Lower maintenance needs

By building high-quality houses, you reduce future maintenance and renovation needs. As a result, the need for additional construction work is decreased and with it the unavoidable waste production and energy consumption. A smart design, excellent workmanship and intense quality control are essential to reduce future negative environmental impacts.

The most sustainable type of construction

By integrating these sustainable methods you can definitely achieve greener construction. However, every type of construction will benefit from this application differently. By comparing on-site and off-site construction types, you can get a general idea about what can be provided in each case.

On-site construction

This is the most traditional way to build a house: most of the construction labour takes place on the property where the house will be permanently based. Therefore, the most noticeable limitation to achieving sustainable construction is due to the complexity and extension of the transportation requirements. The carbon emissions caused by transportation during on-site construction can represent as much as 83% of the total amount [4].

The reason behind this massive percentage is the location of the building site. Since most of the labour takes place on-site, transportation logistics are adjusted to each project individually. Since each one of their projects handled by the construction company is placed in a different location, all the necessary workers, materials and machinery required to build the house have to be transported to the property and back, regardless of the distance.

On-site construction (Prefabrication)

A modern approach to house building that centralises most of the construction process in one single location. The building company develops each one of their projects in a factory-like environment that is fully supplied with the necessary equipment. Additionally, construction material is no longer spread through different locations. Instead, it is stored and used in one only place which eases bulk delivery.

Prefabrication simplifies transportation logistics enormously since shipments are reduced to the arrival of construction materials and the delivery of the already-built house. As a result, the carbon emissions caused by transportation are cut down to just 13% of the total carbon footprint [4].

How can you improve sustainability in construction?

The most efficient way to improve sustainability in construction is choosing a prefabricated type of construction. Regardless of the type of prefab chosen, off-site building processes naturally integrate most of the sustainable construction methods:

      • Materials are delivered in bulk: Since prefab construction takes place in a centralised location, materials are often delivered in bulk and stored on the premises to be used in different projects.
      • No machine transportation: Being built in a factory-like setting means that all the necessary equipment is permanently installed on the building site. The high carbon emissions resulting from heavy machine transportation are then eliminated.
      • Most prefab materials are recyclable: In order to ease the transportation from the factory to the property, prefab homes are built with light or premanufactured materials. Contrary to concrete or brick, light materials are often joined with dry unions that are easy to separate and recycle.
      • Materials are recycled from one project to another: Building every project in the same location eases the re-utilisation of the material leftovers resulting from one project into another instead of accumulating as waste.
      • High-quality construction: Prefab homes are built in a mechanised environment that is protected from the elements and offers quality controls throughout the whole building process. As a result, these houses are generally of higher quality and their maintenance needs are lower.
      • Affordable construction: On top of all the previously mentioned benefits, prefab houses are cheaper to build and therefore cheaper to buy. As a result, this type of construction contributes to a more sustainable economy, offering fair housing opportunities.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is it important to reduce waste in construction?

By reducing construction waste, you contribute to protecting the environment. Recycling and properly managing unavoidable material waste allow us to lower the negative impact on the construction industry.

What is the most energy-efficient construction method

Prefabrication methods highly reduce energy requirements during construction and are, therefore, one of the most energy-efficient construction methods.

What is the most sustainable material for construction

Some of the most sustainable construction materials are bamboo, cork or sheep’s wool since they are naturally sourced and have a fast self-regeneration.

References:
[1](2022) COP27 Presidency Sustainable Urban Resilience for the next Generation (SURGe) UN Human Settlements Programme https://unhabitat.org/sites/default/files/2022/09/cop27_sustainable_cities_initiative.pdf
[2]Silva Urbano, D. S., (2015) Environmental footprint of modular building solution using LCA approach Instituto Superior Técnico, Universidade de Lisboa, Lisboa (Portugal).
[3]Dräger, P., and Letmathe, P. (2022) Value losses and environmental impacts in the construction industry – Tradeoffs or correlates? Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 336, ISSN 0959-6526, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2022.130435
[4]Sizirici B, Fseha Y, Cho CS, Yildiz I, and Byon YJ. (2021 Oct 15) A Review of Carbon Footprint Reduction in Construction Industry, from Design to Operation Materials (Basel) 14(20):6094. doi: 10.3390/ma14206094. PMID: 34683687; PMCID: PMC8540435 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8540435/

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