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Internet of Materials

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How the internet of materials 4.0 will be transformational in driving a new deconstruction industry

The IoM — Internet of Materials — is set to become the new gold rush and the construction industry is well positioned to take advantage. To achieve premiership status companies across the sector must act fast to secure access to reuse existing construction materials — the reason is that to achieve carbon neutrality the industry must rapidly develop a circular construction economy. The industry and construction companies must invest in digitalization and design for deconstruction of buildings and infrastructure and use big data to identify where valuable materials can be recovered from existing highly distributed urban stockpiles. Urban Mining is set to become the new normal.


Future of Construction

For a complete analysis of  the global forecast for construction to 2030

The European Commission has set out a commitment in the European Green Deal for Europe to become a carbon neutral continent by 2050. The European Commission also announced in July 2021 that it will commit to a 55% reduction in green house gas emissions (GHGE) from 1990 levels by 2030. The European Green Deal also spells out the need for resource efficiency and for economic growth to become decoupled from resource use.

The European Commission has singled out construction as one of the most wasteful and polluting industries. Construction and the wider built environment accounts for around 40% of global GHGE and is a sector where much improvement can be made — construction and demolition waste (CDW) produced in Europe accounts for 850 million tonnes — equivalent to approximately 60% of the total waste produced by Europe.

Construction is a large and complex industry, and it does not generally adopt a whole of asset life cycle approach to the buildings and infrastructure it produces. There are complex and hierarchical supply-chains within the sector that include a huge construction materials and heavy manufacturing sector. It can also be highly fragmented with waste endemic in the fragmentation. As a result, it is expected that the GHGE impact caused by construction and the built environment has been underestimated.

It is estimated that total GHGE for the 10 commonly used construction materials consumed across EU28 counties will create an annual 518 million tonnes of GHGE by 2030 if no action to reduce the carbon embedded in these materials is taken. The GHGE for cement consumed in EU28 will rise to over 140 million tonnes if no carbon reduction measures are taken. This will be equivalent to over 3.75% of total economy wide GHGE across all EU28 countries in 2030. Levels of GHGE could be significantly reduced with measures to decarbonise cement production taken by the European cement industry. But the measures implemented may not meet the European Commission’s target of a 55% reduction in GHGE by 2030. A gap may still exist in 2030.

EU28 construction materials GHG emissions 2020 and 2030
Source : Pinsent Masons, Strabag, European International Contractors and Oxford Economics 
Construction materials proportion of total EU28 GHG emissions 2020 and 2030
Source : Pinsent Masons, Strabag, European International Contractors and Oxford Economics 

The construction sector consumes vast quantities of natural resources and materials. Across EU28 countries alone the construction industry consumed 2.8 billion tonnes across 10 commonly used materials. Unchecked this is estimated to rise to 3.7 billion tonnes by 2030 and 4.6 billion tonnes by 2050. This consumption if it is not replaced with the use of existing materials will not only cause greater levels of GHGE but is also expected to cause greater loss of biodiversity.

EU28 construction materials volumes 2020 and 2030

With global populations set to rise to 8.5 billion people by 2030 and with an expected 2.5 billion additional urban population by 2050 the need for infrastructure and construction is set to rise.

Developed countries consume approximately 330 tonnes of construction materials per capita. In developing countries consumption is around 60 tonnes per capita.

Taking account of rising populations and if living standards across developing countries were to increase to a similar standard to industrialised economies then construction of existing building stock would need to be rebuilt twice over by 2050.

The Federal Ministry of Environment has estimated that 27.7 billion tonnes of built assets already exist in Germany alone and is increasing by 10 tonnes per capita annually.

Traditional mining activity is generally concentrated in specific locations where there are deposits of natural resources.

Urban mining is very different — sources of materials that can be reused or reprocessed are highly distributed across built environments. An urban environment is the stockpile with myriads of materials as well as material compositions. The retrieval of materials and components from an extremely distributed stockpile requires life cycle-based data and information inventory using public domain databases. It could be possible for Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms to maintain the stockpile inventory.

To achieve carbon and resource neutrality, construction must undergo a major transformation, where deconstruction will play a pivotal role.

The current situation is that large quantities of CDW are being produced — circa 2.6 tonnes per capita per year in EU. Only an estimated 50% is reused — mostly as sub-grade for road construction or for other fill purposes which is downcycling.

The mapping of urban stockpiles of existing materials will need to be undertaken together with data on expiry date for useful end of life within existing built assets. Each new building or infrastructure asset will need a coordinated and intelligent digital twin built to disclose the carbon content and designed for deconstruction and disassembly in the same way as other industries have become used to disassembling products to re-use and upcycle existing materials. Rolls Royce now re-use and remanufacture 95% of existing aircraft engine parts.

In the same way that nations are investing in building national digital twins at the city level a database of construction materials should sit securely within the public domain.

Construction can then begin to re-use a much higher percentage of truly recycled materials. Building codes and regulation will need to be adjusted to enable the implementation of secondary materials.

Developers and construction companies employing deconstruction and salvaged construction materials should also be able to gain credits and points in the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system.

Newly built structures will also need to be built with less material using light-weight structural parts following the principles of biomimicry to consume less material and at the same time achieve structural strength.

Buildings and infrastructure will need to be fully designed for ease of deconstruction and reuse. Higher precision during fabrication and less use of chemicals such as glue and coatings and other treatments to materials will allow re-use. Simple construction approaches will help with deconstruction. The use of robotics will also allow for easier and safe deconstruction and at the same time improve productivity. Using explosives to demolish structures will become a thing of the past.

A deconstruction sector — essentially the development of a brand-new industry — will be highly data driven and it will become a valuable and modern industrial sector utilising advanced technologies such as robotics and AI. Since the material stockpiles are literally highly distributed, a vast data network will need to be operated for gold prospecting in the era of IoM — Internet of Materials.

Meet the author

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Norbert Pralle

Head of Innovation Management, Ed. Zublin AG – part of the STRABAG SE Group and Chairman, ENCORD

  • Germany

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Graham Robinson

Global Infrastructure and Construction Lead, Oxford Economics and Global Business Consultant, Pinsent Masons LLP

  • United Kingdom