Since the beginning of civilization, buildings have served as humanity’s stamp on time. From Neanderthal caves and exquisite hammams, to the boundary-pushing buildings in the Middle East, architectural innovations capture the zeitgeist; embodying the hopes and ambitions of the moment as well as the underlying technological prowess that points to the future of our built environment.
Backed by a searing ambition to fashion a new image for the region (and in many cases, funded by the deep pockets of sovereign funds), buildings in the Middle East have, in the past 15 years, achieved the impossible: They have quite simply raised the bar for architectural and structural innovation around the world. The journey hasn’t been without criticism: design purists have nicknamed region an architect’s Disneyland and eyebrows have been raised about the Middle East ‘buying’ design cred. And whilst that is true to a certain extent, it is also offering designers from around the world the infrastructure – and the funding – to imagine future icons.
Processing of cement, the binding agent in concrete, contributes 7 per cent of global carbon emissions, according to a new UNEP report. Photo: iStock
Developing countries should switch from unsustainable building practices to using alternative low-carbon building materials to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a new UN report highlighted.
The world adds buildings equivalent to the size of Paris every five days, states the report — Building Materials and The Climate: Constructing A New Future — by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the Yale Center for Ecosystems and Architecture.
About 37 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to the built environment sector, which includes buildings, the distribution systems that supply water and electricity, and the roads, bridges, and transportation systems.
The UNEP report makes a case for “Avoid-Shift-Improve” strategies to reduce emissions. “Avoiding” emissions through circularity to ensure waste is eliminated while extending a building’s life, “Shifting” to sustainable materials, and “Improving” the production of conventional materials such as concrete, steel, aluminium, plastics, glass and bricks.
Greenhouse gas emissions from the built environment are categorised into two groups: embodied emissions and operational emissions.
Embodied emissions are all the emissions associated with the construction and demolishing of a building. They also include emissions from extraction, manufacturing, transport and on-site construction of building materials and “end-of-life” demolition or reuse.
Operational emissions are the emissions generated while maintaining the building’s indoor “comfort levels,” including by heating, cooling, lighting and electrical appliances.
Indirect operational emissions from residential buildings make up a majority of emissions (11 per cent), while embodied emissions from the use of concrete, steel and aluminium account for at least six per cent.
So far, the focus has been on operational emissions. The UNEP, however, warns that embodied carbon (the amount of carbon dioxide across the life cycle of the built environment process) is projected to surge from 25 per cent to nearly half (49 per cent) by 2050, whereas the share of operational carbon emissions will shrink due to increased adoption of renewable energy and improvement of energy-efficient buildings.
Developed countries, it adds, should focus on renovating existing and ageing building stock. Renovating a building generates 50-75 per cent fewer emissions than new construction, the report highlighted.
For new buildings, the experts call for incorporating circular design strategies such as the design for disassembly. It is a design process that enables the recovery of products, parts and materials when a building is disassembled or renovated. This can reduce greenhouse emissions by 10-50 per cent.
“Despite growing awareness, most contemporary material cycles continue to be more linear than circular. As a result, non-renewable, energy-intensive materials still supply the majority of demand,” the report reads.
The report added that a new supply-and-demand model should be developed. Tasks such as carefully dismantling buildings for storing, preparation and maintenance of second-cycle materials for resale will enable circular economies while providing job opportunities.
If G7 countries and China use recycled materials, they could reduce emissions in the material cycle of residential buildings by 80 to 100 per cent by 2050. In India, the reductions could reach 50-70 per cent, the report quotes the International Resource Panel (a scientific panel of experts that aims to help nations use natural resources sustainably).
They also state that increasing the lifetime of buildings creates significant opportunities to reduce aggregate embodied carbon.
The second principle is to switch towards properly managed bio-based materials. “To reach net zero emissions in the built environment sector, the building materials of the future will need to be procured from renewable or reusable sustainable sources wherever possible,” the report reads.
Of the available options, mass timber has emerged as an attractive alternative to carbon-intensive concrete and steel due to its potential for scalability, sustainability, strength and flexibility in mid-rise urban buildings.
Bamboo can be processed and manufactured into a variety of composite materials called engineered bamboo. This version has demonstrated structural performance similar to that of cross-laminated timber and steel.
As for the third principle “improve”, UNEP recommended electrifying and decarbonising the energy that is supplied to the production and maintenance of materials, buildings and urban infrastructure across their life cycle.
Processing of cement, the binding agent in concrete, contributes 7 per cent of global carbon emissions. Solutions such as reducing the clinker (produced from limestone and chalk)-to-cement ratio and increasing the share of cement alternatives, among others, could help in decarbonising the sector.
Another technology that could potentially be used is Carbon capture and utilisation for concrete production (CCU concrete). It is a process of removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it within the building material itself over time
It is estimated that CCU concrete can remove 0.1 to 1.4 gigatonnes of CO2 by 2050. “However, there are conflicting opinions as to whether the benefits of increased strength and optimisation of materials will outweigh the carbon costs of capturing, transporting and incorporating the captured CO2 into concrete products,” reads the report.
Avoiding raw material extraction by promoting steel reuse and producing steel from scrap (discarded steel or steel product) can save around 60-80 per cent of energy, the report noted.
It also helps to reduce steel demand by extending building lifetimes, and switching to circular bio-based materials such as engineered timber and bamboo, it added.
Using renewable energy for aluminium production is important and producing aluminium from scrap can reduce the energy demand by 70-90 per cent.
A circular economic model can help solve the environmental challenges created by our built environment – water, waste and power systems, transport infrastructure and the buildings we live and work in. A circular economy involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling materials and products for as long as possible.
Circular economy principles have gained recognition from all levels of government in Australia. But there’s a big gap between acknowledgement and action. Progress towards systemic change has been very limited.
A new report by university and industry experts lays out a roadmap to a circular economy. Those working in the sector reported the top three barriers as: a lack of incentives, a lack of specific regulations, and a lack of knowledge. The top three enablers were: research and development of enabling technologies, education of stakeholders, and evidence of the circular economy’s added value.
So what are the world leaders doing?
Extensive research for the report drew on real-world experiences, including a survey and interviews with stakeholders. The report offers practical recommendations to drive the transformation to a circular economy, with examples from global front-runners.
The first recommendation is to learn from these nations. Most are in Europe.
A leading example is the Netherlands’ “Cirkelstad”. This national platform connects key players in the transition to a circular economy in major cities. It provides a database of exemplary projects, research and policies, as well as training and advice.
Cirkelstad highlights the importance of broad collaboration, including research organisations. One outcome is the City Deal initiative. It has brought together more than 100 stakeholders with the shared goal of making circular construction the norm. They include government bodies, contractors, housing associations, clients, networks, interest groups and knowledge institutions.
We rarely see such collaboration in Australia. Connections between government, research and industry practices have been weak. Our universities compete fiercely.
In Denmark and Sweden, rigorous regulations have been effective in promoting circular practices. Denmark has incentives for the use of secondary materials such as recycled brick. It also promotes designs that make buildings easy to disassemble.
In Canada, Toronto is notable for its proactive approach. Measures include a cap on upfront carbon emissions for all new city-owned buildings.
Test beds and pilot projects have proven effective, too. A good example is the UK’s Waste House.
Waste House was built using more than 85% waste material from households and construction sites. Yet it’s a top-rated low-energy building. The project is an inspiration for architects and builders to challenge conventional construction methods and embrace circular practices.
Much of the focus of Finland’s circular economy initiatives is on construction and urban planning. Various policy tools and incentives encourage the use of recycled or renewable materials in construction. The renovation of Laakso hospital in Helsinki is a notable example.
Strategic zoning of public spaces can also be used to bolster circular economy activities. An example is the repurposing of urban land for activities such as waste sorting.
How can Australia create a circular economy?
Australia has been slow to adopt such measures. There are voluntary schemes, such as Green Star, that include emission caps for buildings. However, Australia lacks specific, well-defined requirements to adopt circular economy practices across the built environment sector.
Our report’s recommendations include:
develop metrics and targets to promote resource efficiency
adopt measurable circular procurement practices for public projects
provide incentives for circular practices
establish technical codes and standards that foster the use of secondary products.
The report finds funding for collaborative projects is badly needed too. Regrettably, the Australian built environment is not seen as a research funding priority. But more funding is essential to foster the innovation needed to make the transition to a circular economy.
Innovation can help us reconcile the public demand for spacious homes with sustainable construction practices. We can achieve this through a mix of strategies:
moving towards modular construction techniques
creating incentives to adopt circular design principles
making adaptive reuse of existing structures a priority
designing multi-functional spaces that makes the most of resources.
Integrating circular economy principles into education and training at universities and schools can embed a culture of innovation. Equipping students with this knowledge and skills will enable the next generation to drive change in our built environment.
Currently, there are few Australian-based training programs that focus on the circular economy. And available courses and programs overseas are costly.
There is also a need to promote inclusivity in the built environment sector. Circular solutions must incorporate cultural considerations.
By embracing the above strategies, Australia can foster a harmonious balance between cultural values, environmental sustainability and efficient resource use.
Collectively, these initiatives will lay the foundation for a circular economy in the built environment sector. The growing need for housing and infrastructure underscores the urgency of achieving this goal in Australia. Ultimately, consumers, industry and the environment will all benefit.
The building sector can address pressing environmental problems by leveraging two major trends: circular economy and digital technologies. Circular building practices emphasize restorative design principles, which can significantly reduce the amount of virgin material used and the environmental footprint of buildings. When combined with digital technologies, circular practices can achieve even higher environmental benefits. Such technologies enable visualization of the environmental impact along the entire value chain, facilitating smart design, production, and use to increase material- and eco-efficiency. However, realizing the full potential of these trends requires more than just technological advancements. Institutional, behavioral, and socio-economic system changes are essential to effect a transition towards a circular and digital economy. To facilitate such a transition, a new form of governance is needed, in which network governance complements conventional public governance. Network governance fosters the formation of coalitions of willing partners that jointly strive towards the goal of system change, creating a fertile ground for a new economic paradigm, behavioral change, government regulation and innovation. The effectiveness of network governance in supporting public governance depends on the specific socio-cultural and political context of a country. However, a thoughtful application of this governance model can facilitate the building sector’s journey towards greater material- and environmental efficiency.
The building sector is confronted with the imperative of accelerating its environmental performance. Currently, building and construction generate 36 percent of global energy consumption, produce 40 percent of waste and account for roughly 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide1. To tackle these environmental challenges, the building sector must capture the opportunity that two major trends provide: digital technologies and the circular economy. This article explains why these trends can be critical for mitigating the environmental impact of the building sector and outlines strategies for how their implementation can be achieved and accelerated.
The application of digital technologies can benefit the building sector by making the building process more material- and eco-efficient2. A broad field of digital technologies are available and continuously scaling, including artificial intelligence, big data, cloud computing, cyber physical systems, blockchain and virtual and augmented reality3. However, the building sector has just begun to adopt these emerging technologies. Integrating these technologies into daily work processes would significantly add value to the sector4. For instance, data management tools—such as Building Information Modeling (BIM), material passports, lifecycle analysis and material flow analysis—can enhance transparency about the environmental performance of the entire building chain and provide insight into how the chain can become more eco-efficient5.
The broad field of virtual and augmented reality can provide a 3D understanding of how a building is constructed, with what materials, and how this can be attuned to the needs of the customer. In addition, it can optimize resource use during the construction, maintenance, and end-of-life phases. An example is the use of digital twins6. This is a virtual representation of an object or system that spans its lifecycle, is updated from real-time data, and uses simulation, machine learning and attendant reasoning to help decision-making, also about material-efficiency7. In addition, 3D printing offers a greener building technique that eliminates a great amount of CO2 emitting and energy-consuming processes compared to conventional building techniques8. Thus, digital technologies can help improve the environmental performance of buildings, particularly when combined with the circular economy.
The concept of the circular economy is simple yet urgent. It highlights the fact that we are overconsuming natural resources, some of which are scarce, on a global scale. In 1970, we only needed one earth to provide mankind with the necessary resources; nowadays we need 1.75 earths. If we continue on our current path, we will require 3 earths by 20509. The Circular Gap Report has revealed that our world is still largely linear10, as we only bring 8.6% of what we use back into the cycle, resulting in a Circularity Gap of over 90%. To address this issue and become more prudent with raw materials, energy, and water, pleas are made to move to a circular economy11. There have been various definitions for the term ‘circular economy’12. However, the common denominator is that it is restorative by design and aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles13. This notion is particularly significant important for the building sector because of the high percentage of waste produced. However, this sector is characterized by strong project-based institutionalized practices and market mechanisms, which in many aspects do not facilitate the inclusion of circular economy principles14.
Technically, it is possible to consume far fewer raw materials in the building sector and drastically reduce CO2 emissions. We can extend the lifespan of buildings, redesign them with circularity in mind, reuse parts of them and recycle their materials15. Three Dutch examples serve to illustrate the benefits of building with circular economy principles. For instance, the distribution system operator Alliander—an entity responsible for distributing and managing energy to final consumers—opened its new office in 2015 in Duiven. Although everything about the building exudes style and newness, almost nothing in it is actually new. In fact, 83% of the materials used in the building are recycled. Similarly, in the new Venlo town hall (established in 2016 in the Netherlands) all the raw materials used in the construction can be fully reused with no loss of value. Moreover, the town hall building is entirely energy neutral, thanks to features such as solar panels, thermal energy storage, and solar boilers. The Green House pavilion is the final example, designed to be temporary, as the municipality of Utrecht has plans to redevelop the area in 15 years. The construction used as many recycled materials as possible, which will also be reused when the building is removed. And ultimately, when that happens, there will be no trace left of The Green House in or on the land. The building’s construction is designed to ensure that no pipes, cables, or sewage will remain in the soil under the pavilion, thus minimizing its impact. However, scaling up such iconic projects and making circular building mainstream remains a significant challenge. It requires system innovation, in which technological change goes hand in hand with a socio-economic and behavioral change. The main obstacles to realizing this system change include a focus on short-term goals, complex supply chains, a lack of collaboration between stakeholders, and the absence of a commonly agreed definition of the circular economy within the industry16.
Experiences in circular economy have demonstrated that the aforementioned obstacles can be overcome with effective governance during the transition to a circular system17. This shift requires a fundamental departure from the current linear system in which products are carelessly discarded after use. No single entity, whether it be a company, local government, or NGO, can undertake such a comprehensive system change on their own. Collaboration among partners who are committed to contributing to the change is necessary to establish a robust network. To ensure its efficacy, this network should be orchestrated through a concept known as ‘network governance’. Network governance is not meant to replace conventional public governance, but rather to complement it. It facilitates the attainment of circular objectives and strengthens societal support for more stringent government measures.
A comparative study encompassing 16 countries has illustrated that network governance can offer substantial added value18. However, the extent to which network governance can support public governance is contingent upon specific socio-cultural and political contexts19. For instance, in countries where the government takes a strong leadership role in circular economy and receptivity towards network governance is high, the conditions for initiating and accelerating circular economy are propitious. The Dutch circular building examples mentioned above serve as a case in point. In contrast, where both forms of governance are weak, it is more arduous to launch circular initiatives. Nevertheless, opportunities for developing circular economy can be identified in all 16 countries studied. In Australia, for instance, industry, government, and NGOs exhibit a rather antagonistic attitude towards one another. However, this does not preclude cooperation among these actors in sectors such as building; it simply necessitates additional incentives. For example, when commissioning parties cooperate in restructuring an urban area and implementing circular strategies, they can urge the network of contractors to exchange data and adopt an integrated circular approach. Digital technologies can reinforce such cooperation.
Hence, the building sector worldwide can make substantial strides on the path to circular economy when new forms of network cooperation among pertinent actors are implemented in conjunction with government leadership. Individual actors frequently hesitate to assume leadership roles in system change, as they do not perceive it to be their core business and await others to step forward. To resolve this predicament, independent intermediaries, known as transition brokers, can play a pivotal role in orchestrating the change process. They can align actors with divergent interests around a shared vision and resolve impasses. To be effective, transition brokers must possess a specific set of competencies and acquire the mandate to function as intermediaries. Once accepted, transition brokers can accelerate the process significantly.
Researchers can also contribute to the transition towards a circular building sector. However, to render their research socially relevant, individual projects should be clustered around themes that collectively portray the broader picture of transitioning to a circular economy. In this way, research can be mobilized that centers on fundamental solutions confronting society today. Generalists with sufficient knowledge about the variety of innovations and the specifics of the building sector are certainly equipped to bundle research and highlight the most promising innovations. These knowledge brokers can facilitate the utilization of research in practical applications in the building sector, in the short or long term20. This would enhance the value of the arduous work undertaken by numerous researchers in the field of the built environment.
Contractors must keep up with technological advances to drive the industry forward, says Autodesk senior vice chairman Jim Lynch.
Globally, the built environment footprint is expected to double in size by 2060. For that to happen in line with net zero targets, technology is going to be critical to improving the way construction is carried out.
Jim Lynch, Vice President & General Manager, Autodesk Construction Solutions.
Autodesk senior vice chairman Jim Lynch puts it simply: “The industry has to find a better way to build and digital is going to play – and is already playing – a huge role in that.”
For technology to advance our construction techniques, digital literacy is going to be required in all practices and, ideally, through all phases of construction.
“The bare minimum is that contractors use digital technology on the job site for collaboration,” says Lynch.
“Ideally, they should use digital technology during the pre-construction process. Moving on from there they should use it to drive operations and maintenance, then take that project information from design out to a digital twin, where they can use that technology to provide management capabilities for the owner.”
To make this a reality, technology must be easy to deploy and adopt, according to Lynch. “If using and deploying technology is going to need weeks of training where you’re taking workers off the job, that’s not going to work,” he explains.
However, Lynch believes the onus is on contractors to invest more in improving their digital literacy if they are falling behind.
“You have to build up that digital muscle,” he says. “And I think, by and large, contractors really do understand that they have to take those first steps around collaboration, then extend those steps into using more digital during the planning process and then continue on from there.”
He believes that today’s contractors are embracing technology faster than ever, not only because of the competition, but also because of the expectations of clients and the government. He points to the UK’s Building Safety Act, which became law in April 2022, as a driver.
“That is really all about data; it is ensuring that owners, contractors and designers all play a role in making sure that digital information is created, captured and stored throughout the entire process.”
Lynch believes a big challenge is going to be attracting the workforce to build all the future projects – but that digital could play a part in drawing people in. “I think the use of digital technologies to drive better outcomes in construction will be intriguing to the younger generation,” he says.
“How to apply technology to the construction process, especially when you think about augmented reality and virtual reality applications, will drive a greater interest in the workforce.”
He adds that the industry has made great progress in its use of technology in recent decades. “But I think we’ve only scratched the surface,” he says. “I think the best is really yet to come.”
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Earth has been used as a building material for at least the last 12,000 years. Ethnographic research into earth being used as an element of Aboriginal architecture in Australia suggests its use probably goes back much further.
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