The term “embodied carbon” came onto the news scene as a hot topic a few years ago. A calculation of the carbon dioxide emissions associated with extracting, transporting, manufacturing, and placing a material, it was, and continues to be, part of the discussion around sustainability.

Sustainable construction involves reducing the use of carbon-intensive materials, as well as building with renewable and recyclable resources and materials. During construction projects that are focused on sustainability, efforts are made to reduce energy consumption and waste where possible.

Larger companies have been setting and achieving goals for sustainability for decades. But if you’re not running a large company, you may wonder how you can participate in sustainability efforts on a smaller scale.

One of the first steps to take is to set achievable goals for sustainable operations – realistic things that your entire company can buy into and participate in. Then you can divide those larger goals into smaller pieces, starting with the things that are important to your company.

Architects and engineers can design with the goal of reducing the amount of material you are using on a given project. This is an intuitive step your company can take. Not only does this reduce the cost of materials, but it also saves on transportation. Following are other sustainable practices that can be put into place:

  • On the jobsite, you could make it easier for workers to recycle. There is a lot of waste involved in daily lunches alone (i.e. disposable bags, water bottles, food wrappers).
  • You could use solar-powered charging station for tools. There are models that range in price from a couple hundred to $1,000.
  • You can establish a policy of conserving water and energy.
  • In addition to biodiesel fuel, there is now renewable diesel (also called green diesel). Available mostly in California for now, it reduces emissions by 90% over standard diesel and requires no engine modifications.
  • There are companies researching the reduction of cement content in concrete mixes.

In addition to these ideas, you can take advantage of technology innovations. Manipulating materials presents an opportunity for using computational design, which can quickly and efficiently compute and guide your use of materials to avoid waste. In the case of additive or subtractive manufacturing, with computational design you could calculate how much material can be taken away before a product’s strength or suitability is compromised.

While esthetics and costs are traditionally important considerations in construction, the implications of carbon may not be so automatic. Studies have been conducted which tout the carbon-benefits of using wood instead of steel and concrete on jobs where it’s feasible and/or practical. Timber sequesters carbon, so using mass timber on a job reduces the carbon emissions associated with modern construction. Another benefit is that using timber tends to reduce the finishes used on the job. There is less drywall and ceiling treatments because the natural finish of wood is esthetically pleasing when left uncovered.

To hear more about sustainable construction practices from guest Mark Chen, with Skanska, tune in to episode 2 of AEC Disruptors podcast season 4.

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