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Construction Industry: Innovating to Ensure Sustainability

Construction companies face rapidly evolving challenges; innovation will be key to ensuring the industry’s sustainability.

As is the case across many industries, the COVID-19 pandemic increased the focus on climate related issues, including the need to build a cleaner and greener construction industry. Global construction companies face rapidly evolving challenges, including increased scrutiny regarding their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) stance.

Various strategic changes are being made to business models as companies look for product and process innovation to create a more sustainable industry and “build better.”

Construction’s carbon footprint

The construction industry is a primary user of raw materials. Globally, the built environment generates 30% of total greenhouse gas emissions, and construction uses approximately 32% of the world’s natural resources. While the industry is one of the larger contributors to climate change, it also has an opportunity to effect positive change.

Public interest in sustainability investment has grown significantly over the last 12 months. Globally, there is increased activity to promote greener construction. For example, reinforced by commitments to the Paris Agreement, a growing number of government bodies are encouraging net-zero carbon buildings. In an interim report released in November 2020, the UK Government became one of the first to provide a roadmap to all private and listed companies in the lead up to the 2025 proposed mandatory climate related disclosures; 50% of large private construction companies in the UK must report by 2022. At the same time, consumers increasingly demand ecologically responsible business practices and projects.

Innovation in Action

Innovation can play a key role in sustainability as the construction industry actively seeks ways to enhance processes, products, and established working models.

Process innovation

A key to reducing the industry’s carbon footprint is to develop and implement processes that improve the use of sustainable materials.

With the growing green movement, many construction companies have set higher standards and requirements. “Better use of natural resources is important to promote better energy efficiencies, process innovation will be key to drive growth within the industry after the pandemic”, says Borja Agullo, corporate risk manager at OHL.

With an increasing focus on sustainability, many construction companies must comply with higher internal standards. Corporate social responsibility departments work across project areas, to embed new processes and strategies into the business. At OHL in 2019, 45% of all raw materials were re-used materials, Borja says. “It is all about making more efficient use of natural resources and finding ways to construct with sustainable materials,” he says. “We try to implement innovation into the design process. This results in a positive and direct effect on the environment.”

Building design

In many regions, the construction industry has a carbon neutral target for 2050, with ambitious companies looking to achieve this milestone sooner. Organisations that fail to source sustainable materials or to comply with environmental legislation may suffer reputational damage and revenue impacts. The Paris Agreement says that, by 2050, carbon emissions from buildings worldwide should be 80% to 90% lower than today. The construction industry is embracing the challenge.

Matt Gough, director of innovation and winning work at Mace, says, “When you tally up the carbon used in the construction and operation of buildings and infrastructure, construction accounts for close to 40% of global carbon emissions.” He adds, “What we are now witnessing, as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic, is a massive rush towards green investment globally.” This includes investment in green projects – including renewable energy, retro-fit programs, and research and development plans – all focused on improving the sustainability of the built environment in response to the climate emergency.

Numerous solutions, from incremental innovation of traditional methods to radically innovative materials with entirely new new functionalities, are  emerging from the building material industry, and are expected to reduce the carbon footprint of the industry. Modularisation, 3D printing, robotics, drones, and artificial intelligence (AI) are all helping to reduce project duration and encourage efficiencies, including testing ideas and design concepts before building starts. Harnessing the use of AI and machine learning algorithms to generate a variety of product or building designs within minutes allows architects and designers to optimize their ideas and create structures once thought impossible.

Innovation in the built environment has a key focus on sustainability. This includes new forms of construction that are cleaner, greener, and help to reduce waste. The construction industry is looking to use new materials, find better ways of storing renewable energy, increasing the use of electric plant, and bio-diversity in project design. The opportunities to make a positive impact are many. Much of the technology required to reduce construction’s carbon footprint exists – the industry just needs to scale it, quickly.

Working Together to Improve Sustainability

All institutions – public, private, and cities themselves ­– have important roles to play in providing the best solutions and in managing risks such as climate change.  

Oliver Wild, chief risk and insurance officer at Veolia, agrees that “eco design” is critical, and that reducing the carbon footprint at the start of a project is a key area that is often overlooked. “The industry has a key role to play in ensuring that we have resilient cities, smart cities, and livable cities,” he says. Like many leading construction companies, Veolia actively seeks innovation during the design stage to improve the sustainability of projects and reduce the need for rework and retrofits.

Questions about sourcing of materials and reducing carbon emissions in the manufacturing stage also need to be addressed. Increasingly, companies are looking at key partners in their supply chain to ensure an alignment of corporate values, including in relation to ESG metrics. Many take this further by considering where goods are sourced from, the environmental impact of transporting them to site, and the ecological impact of the packaging, which traditionally has relied heavily on single-use plastic.

As companies seek ways to include process or product innovation in projects, creating contract frameworks that allow for greater risk sharing between the parties should be encouraged. Construction project risk, including the procurement of insurance, is often the responsibility of contractors, and at times  passed further down to subcontractors. As the industry strives to deliver improved value through innovation, traditional contract models are evolving. Closer working relationships between all parties to understand project risk and collaboratively allocate it appropriately will support the development and implementation of products, systems, and processes that transform the industry and ensure its sustainability.

Promoting sustainability and reducing emissions is front of mind for everyone involved in the construction industry. Stephan Lämmle at Munich Re says, “Innovation will be a major pillar not only for saving costs, but for increasing sustainability."