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    The role of the construction industry in building a sustainable future

    Deron Brown is president and chief operating officer of US Operations for: PCL construction.

    Earlier this year, California announced: new water restrictions to make sure it had enough supply to get through the year. Wildfires burn through forests so quickly that they reach suburban homes. Numerous reports warn of the impact of a warming climate on our food chain—grains, produce and even coffee production are expected to be severely affected.

    As the impact of global warming becomes more visible in our daily lives, many are driven to do their part to create lasting change. No one is more motivated to fight global warming than the next generation of workers. In a Pew Research Study, 71% of millennial surveys said climate change should be a top priority to ensure a sustainable planet, closely followed by 67% of Generation Z respondents. As members of this group enter the workforce or prepare for their next career move, they increasingly look for careers that allow them to protect the planet.

    Low-carbon, resource-efficient communities of the future are within reach, but we’ll have to build them first.

    Therefore, I would say that the construction industry – through the resources they use, the infrastructure they build and the careers they offer – is a major player in sustainability.

    Reduce carbon through construction

    Many may not realize the role the construction industry plays in shifting buildings to use renewable materials. For example, it is possible to build beautiful, high-performing buildings with lower CO2 emissions than their predecessors by replacing steel, which emits 1.85 tons of carbon dioxide for every ton of steel made – with renewable mass timber.

    In addition to the shift to more sustainable building materials, the construction sector is also modernizing existing structures through adaptations. Retrofits make buildings more efficient, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, extend the life of the structure and make spaces healthier and more attractive for the users. A thorough renovation, including upgrades to electrical, HVAC and mechanical systems, can improve the operating efficiency of the building. Retrofits also include new building technologies that provide more efficient energy consumption, a healthier indoor environment and greater comfort for residents.

    And while retrofitting can be an important part of reducing CO2 emissions, the construction industry is also doing its best to ensure that we build greener buildings from scratch.

    Building greener buildings

    If you are looking for a new office space, first determine whether you want to go the route of renovation or new construction. Retrofitting, where what is in an existing building is replaced with more efficient equipment and products, can be a more sustainable route compared to collecting all new resources to build something brand new. If your business is considering renovation, the first step to take is to get a baseline of all existing equipment and building conditions — everything from lighting and HVAC to insulation and the building envelope. Once you have this, analyze and make decisions for the most impactful and economical improvements/upgrades. Most companies start with smaller, low-cost measures such as lighting upgrades that yield immediate savings. Then you can consider larger projects such as facility improvements i.e. replacement of HVAC equipment.

    If retrofitting isn’t an option and your business needs to build from scratch, here are a few factors to consider when building sustainably:

    • Consider the location and impact of clearing land and disturbing natural habitats. It is always better to build in an urban location so that it can be easily connected to the grid (electricity, sewage, transport, etc.).

    • Choose sustainable building materials such as solid wood – things that do not have a major impact on the environment and are beneficial to human health.

    • Design the building with natural light, an open floor plan, acoustic performance and thermal comfort in mind.

    In my opinion, there are two parts to sustainable building. We must build facilities that use innovative technology to reduce their footprint, and we must also be good stewards of the earth during construction by transforming our equipment and methods.

    To achieve this, you must evaluate each step of a construction project to identify opportunities to minimize environmental impact. For example, my company switched to LED lighting on construction sites to replace less efficient metal halide technology on diesel. Not only did this provide higher quality lighting for night workers, but it also used significantly less energy.

    Become more sustainable

    While the construction industry may not be for everyone, there are many ways companies can change their day-to-day operations to be good stewards of our planet. Some of these practices may seem small, but cumulatively, they can have a lasting impact. A few examples are:

    • Purchase of green cleaning products.

    • Turn off lights when you leave a room or install motion sensor lights.

    • Ensure that non-automatic taps are not running.

    • Use of energy-efficient lamps such as LED.

    • Stimulate employees to walk, cycle or use public transport to get to work.

    Once you’ve identified sustainable practices that you can adopt in your business, consider educating your workforce on the basics of recycling and composting. If your employees don’t know the importance of sustainable practices and don’t know how to implement them in their day-to-day work, there will be no change.

    As communities invest in renewable energies such as solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal, construction teams are leading the way in installing the solar panels, turbines and other infrastructure that will enable a transition from our current energy system.

    For innovative thinkers and passionate thought leaders, the construction industry offers endless opportunities to transform communities through cutting-edge engineering and leading sustainability projects. We are building a sustainable world from scratch.


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