Globally, the sector contributes around 23% of air pollution, 40% of drinking water pollution, and 50% of all landfill wastes.
Meanwhile, the built environment as a whole is responsible for 30% of total global final energy consumption and 27% of total energy sector emissions, according to the IEA.
Populations around the world are already grappling with the impacts of climate crisis and environmental breakdown, from melting permafrosts and ice in the polar regions, to increases in extreme weather across the globe, creating greater risks of wildfires, floods and droughts while rising sea levels and worsening storms threaten coastal communities.
As public concerns are mounting, governments are taking action – bringing in environmental targets designed to thwart runaway global warming and help turn the tide on ecological destruction.
To stay ahead of the forces driving global business, construction firms must re-evaluate the pivotal role in how our species interacts with the planet.
Five key ways they can do this include:
1. Not building
Instead of resource-intensive new-builds, retrofitting existing building stock must play a much bigger role.
Last year the International Energy Agency called for 20 per cent of all existing building stock to be retrofitted by the year 2030 in order for the world to meet its climate targets, and said it should be a “key” focus of the construction industry’s decarbonisation efforts.
The organisation has called for an annual “deep renovation rate” of over 2% from now to 2030 and beyond.
2. Planning for long-term environmental gains
If new building works must go ahead they should start with a wholesale consideration of their form, function and impact on society, and how these impacts can be mitigated. This starts with planning.
Urban planners can make the built environment more environmentally friendly by adopting eco-friendly design approaches at an early stage.
This includes minimising land use, prioritising connections to public transport networks and walking and cycling routes to discourage private car use, and increasing access to green and blue spaces such as parks and bodies of water, which can enhance air quality, protect some natural resources and boost the health and well-being of the people in the environment.
Furthermore, the importance of implementing high Environmental Social Governance (ESG) standards within the industry is growing rapidly. As pressure for the construction industry to clean up its act grows, so too is the requirement for ESG standards, which should one day become a compulsory and universal system for evaluating the sustainability of both new developments and retrofitted buildings.
3. Incorporating passive design and renewable energy
Passive design features combined with renewable energy can dramatically lower the carbon footprint of a completed building when it is in use.
This starts with selecting suitable building locations and orientations to make the best possible use of the natural environmental conditions.
Then, layout of rooms, window design, insulation, thermal mass, rain collection, shade and ventilation, all play significant roles in making a building as efficient as possible.
Passive House–certified homes use an estimated 80% less energy for heating and cooling than conventional buildings.
With the addition of solar panels or wind turbines for power generation and water heating, energy demands – and therefore environmental impacts – can be even lower. A new generation of photovoltaic solar-tiles promise even greater levels of flexibility and enhanced returns on investment.
Meanwhile, geothermal heat pumps and air-source heat pumps have enormous levels of efficiency in comparison to traditional gas boilers.
4. Cementing a concrete lead
Concrete is the most widely used man-made material in existence and is second only to water as the most-consumed resource on the planet.
Described as “the most destructive material on earth”, the production of cement, which is used to make concrete, is responsible for up to 8% of global CO2 emissions and would be the third largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world if listed as a country in its own right, causing up to 2.8bn tonnes of CO2 a year, surpassed only by China and the US.
Reduction in cement use is vital. This can be done by using recycled materials in the mix, reducing the amount of cement used, and using alternative materials such as fly ash or slag.
5. Choosing sustainable building materials
As well as reducing usage of concrete or mixing less damaging kinds of concrete, there are also various alternatives to concrete which take a much lower environmental toll on the planet. These include hempcrete, which is made from hemp plants mixed with a lime-based binder. This forms a lightweight, breathable construction material with excellent insulation properties.
Another alternative is rammed earth, which is made by compressing soil into a formwork. It is durable, low-maintenance, and has excellent thermal mass properties.
Other exciting modern breakthroughs in construction materials include straw bale construction, cross-laminated timber (CLT), and bamboo, all of which can often be produced with low impacts to the environment, and match existing construction materials for strength and practicality.
For companies to thrive and survive, embracing the health of our planet is a must. With the Cop28 summit in Dubai on the horizon, and the hosts warning that the IPCC has already “made it crystal clear that we are way off track”, the importance of adopting ambitious targets to achieve sustainable building has never been greater.