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The Climate Opportunity

Reducing our buildings’ emissions will also make them more profitable

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Twenty twenty-one stands to be a significant year in addressing climate change. With the White House rejoining the Paris climate accord, and the administration’s concerted focus on climate policy, the opportunity to fight climate change has never been greater. As we better understand how industries can adapt in response to new policies, it’s essential to understand the impact of the building and construction sector on carbon emissions. 

Notably, as reported by Architecture 2030, our buildings are responsible for nearly 40 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The organization also estimates that global new construction accounts for more than 3.7 billion metric tons of embodied carbon emissions or the GHG emission associated with processing, manufacturing, transporting, and installing building materials. This emission level is equivalent to building more than 11,000 Empire State Buildings every year. 

These findings make it clear that the building industry needs to address its carbon footprint. In addition, it marks a significant opportunity for reducing our carbon emissions as we transition towards a net-zero future. With this comes another area of concern for the building and construction industry–productivity. A recent McKinsey study found that the construction sector’s annual productivity growth has only increased 1 percent in 20 years. In fact, in the U.S., while manufacturing, retail, and agriculture productivity grew by 1,500 percent since 1945, construction barely increased. But, if construction productivity caught up to the total economy, its value would rise by $1.6 trillion a year, a notable jump for an already large sector. 

But what this study also revealed, is that the push to make our buildings sustainable also has the potential to be a true disruptor for the industry, introducing a new era of productivity that will truly allow for real efforts to be made towards the decarbonization of buildings. One of the most notable process disruptions that we’re experiencing today is prefab, which eases and improves the construction process, improving cost, schedules, and predictability performance. In turn, as decisions and manufacturing occur in an offsite, factory-based environment, design changes occur less, meaning less waste.  

This introduces an exciting new idea for the industry: prioritizing sustainability in our construction can drastically improve productivity, making the industry more profitable long-term while also fighting climate change.

Thinking holistically 

To improve productivity and reduce the building and construction industry’s carbon emission impact, we need to look at our buildings holistically. Today, when someone has a heart attack, beyond just the operation, doctors also ask their patients to change their diet and exercise more to take control of their health. With this, they provide a broad scope of new processes and adaptations to effectively prevent a similar health scare from occurring again. 

We need to think about our buildings in the same way. For holistic design, like holistic medicine, we need to consider the whole building and its lifecycle to affect change. We can utilize the acronym FACES, or Function, Aesthetics, Cost, Environment, and Safety. For any new construction, retrofit, or renovation project, it’s critical we make decisions and evaluate the effectiveness of our construction and design with these five elements in mind. 

For example, ten percent of construction costs come from estimating alone, with only 8 percent attributed to the actual design. With new processes and tools, we can address this discrepancy to drastically reduce estimating costs, meaning timing and pricing are correct and accurate from the get-go. 

In terms of environment and safety, architects, engineers, and designers can implement manufacturing principles to reduce waste and improve safety by using offsite construction which can be easily assembled on site. Offsite manufacturing reduces waste because materials that may normally be discarded onsite can be reused for other projects, ensuring they do not become debris. Also, industry professionals can select building materials and products that lower the expected carbon emissions of the space during the design and specification stages of construction. 

This is true for each of the five elements of FACES, whenever beginning a new construction project, it’s important to think about each of these elements to holistically improve the built space, its future impact, and use as well as the industry at large. Beyond just improving the buildings, productivity sees growth as the whole building lifecycle is determined with the most critical elements in mind, meaning that the construction, design, and management of the space are optimized for long-term success.  

Measure twice 

As the industry begins to recognize the benefits of holistic design, it can take advantage of some of the tools already available for optimizing the FACES of its projects. 

For example, digital twin technology optimizes productivity for the whole building lifecycle by providing simple, real-time collaboration to take place virtually within the building model and capturing all aspects of the building’s construction. Also, design options can be explored prior to breaking ground, helping to lower the environmental impact and material waste. 

A digital twin is the duplication of anything in the real world into the digital realm of computers that captures the characteristics of the physical objects and environments it represents. Today, this technology provides BIM data, information, visuals, and intelligence in a useful and easily accessible tool that creates significant opportunities for efficiency in the management process. How does a digital twin do all this? By effectively storing files and information in a simulated environment for quick analyzing across all teams. With centralized informational access and real-time connectivity, Digital twin technology offer very real and attainable value. 

Simultaneously, manufacturing technology allows for building production times and resources to be optimized to ensure that projects are efficient, safe, and accurately estimated to reduce waste. All of this means that contractors can use offsite construction and manufacturing processes for more optimized construction efforts, bringing in resources to job sites as needed based on specific timing considerations. 

An example benefit of manufacturing technology: accurate quantities of building materials and products can be brought to the construction site exactly when needed based on real-time schedule and site changes. This reduces concerns surrounding materials being lost, stolen, or damaged while sitting idle or being moved around the site, which can occur when they arrive prior to being utilized in the space’s development. 

Know your impact

Understanding the impact of a decision isn’t always easy. One useful tool is the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator, or EC3, a free and easy-to-use tool that allows benchmarking, assessment, and reductions in embodied carbon, focused on the upfront supply chain emissions of construction materials. 

Powered by data, EC3 can be implemented in both the design and procurement phases of a construction project to look at overall embodied carbon emissions, enabling the specification and procurement of low-carbon material and product options. With this, the industry can lower the GHG emission of even its most significant projects by directly addressing embodied carbon emissions through the specification of products that help fight climate change.

A resource for establishing sustainable buildings is LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the most widely used green building rating system. It is available for nearly all building types and provides a framework for achieving sustainability leadership in building design, construction, operation, and maintenance. LEED notably helps to prioritize building efficiency, decrease operational costs, increase asset value and ensure productivity, comfort, health, and wellbeing for occupants–actual benefits in achieving holistic buildings. 

Data shows that LEED-certified buildings can see $1.2 billion in energy savings, $149.5 million in water savings, and $715.3 million in maintenance savings. In addition, when these buildings reduce their energy use and carbon emissions, they can avoid 78 million tons of carbon emissions, a significant reduction as we work towards net-zero.

Finally, a sister building rating system to LEED is WELL, the leading tool for advancing health and wellbeing in buildings globally to improve health and human experience. Focused on occupant wellbeing, WELL is performance-based, and projects are verified through on-site testing of building performance efforts to advance human health through design interventions and operational protocols and policies. 

As we understand the negative impacts of building and construction on climate change, the property industry at large must take steps in addressing carbon emissions through holistic building planning, design, construction, and management. It’s critical that we understand and address our carbon impact as we collectively aim to reduce GHG emissions and reverse global warming to limit its negative impacts. As the McKinsey study pointed out, the switch to a cleaner built world doesn’t mean a less profitable one. The same technologies that are helping us understand and reduce our consumption will also propel the industry forward into a new age of productivity. When we begin to adapt and think holistically, we create better things, and building better things will always be the best business strategy.

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