How to make construction more sustainable

The built environment accounts for around 40% of the U.K.’s carbon emissions. The need to address this is becoming more pressing, but there are steps the industry can take to do things differently, as Bluebeam and the B1M Network set out in a new video.

Why Is Sustainable Construction Important? 

U.K. construction, while hugely beneficial to society, is a big polluter. Estimates vary, but the U.K. Green Building Council takes the view that the built environment accounts for around 40% of the country’s carbon emissions. The situation can no longer be ignored. 

Pollution caused by construction is being addressed, not least by clients demanding greener buildings, both in terms of reducing their embodied carbon—that which sits within the materials that are used to deliver the project, along with emissions created by the construction activity itself—and by lowering a building’s operational carbon, the emissions that result from its day-to-day use once it has been occupied. 

Tackling climate change and shifting toward more sustainable construction can seem like overwhelming challenges. With this in mind, the B1M Network, in collaboration with Bluebeam, has produced a short video examining the five things the construction industry—from architects to developers and contractors—can do to be more sustainable. 

Repurpose Existing Buildings  

The construction of new buildings emits an estimated 48 mega-tonnes—one megaton being equal to a million tonnes—of carbon dioxide in the U.K. every year, more than the total emissions for all of Scotland. 

Delivering a single new build of the same size as a traditional Victorian terraced home would produce up to 13 times more carbon than simply refurbishing it. 

Reusing existing buildings and making them more energy efficient would dramatically reduce carbon emissions. 

Get Smarter About Sustainable Materials  

A recent report from Leeds University found that one of the most effective ways to reduce emissions was to think about—and decide upon—the materials stakeholders plan to use on a project more intelligently. Eliminating material waste at the design stage could lead to a more than 18% reduction in emissions, the report suggested. According to Vince Ugarow, a director at engineering consultancy Hilson Moran, there is a growing awareness around reusing and repurposing existing buildings. 

“One of the steps we will increasingly see is for construction teams to carry out a repurposing audit, where you really should be identifying materials that could be reused rather than recycled as a priority,” he said. 

In addition, using sustainable materials in construction—such as timber over concrete and steel—would lead to further decreases. 

Design Adaptable, Future-Proof Buildings  

Future-proof design is key to delivering buildings that will last, as is adaptability. Making changes to a building’s use, rather than simply demolishing it, ensures it remains a useful asset for longer. An estimated 60% of buildings in the U.K. change their original use over the course of their lifespan. 

Ugarow says designing more intelligently, with some thought about a building’s future use, means it can be delivered with adaptability in mind.  

Allowing for buildings to be easily repurposed can limit the need for the construction of new ones. 

Consolidate Jobsite Transportation  

Apart from construction activity itself, the other big culprit for carbon emissions is transport, which accounts for 30%.  

There’s a big issue around transportation to and from a construction site, delivering materials and sending away empty lorries.  

“Perhaps that could be consolidated in some way so that it reduces the number of journeys, both in terms of the amount of materials that are brought to a site and also labour,” Ugarow said.  

Create Paperless Worksites  

Making the transition to digital drawings and other documentation enables delivery teams a greater degree of accuracy and operational flexibility.  

Documents, stored centrally, can be accessed, viewed and—if necessary—amended via mobile devices on site. Errors can be swiftly spotted and corrected, making a building programme far more efficient than if constant search for physical paperwork was required. 

Said Ugarow: “I spoke recently with a post-structural engineer who spent literally days trying to dig out boxes of paper drawings to find things like the plans for basements and piling mats for an existing building which is just 30 years old. It’s an absolute waste of time and resources, and a potential threat to accuracy. Embedding all this into a digital format makes life so much easier.” 

Stuart Broome, chief customer officer at Bluebeam, said the environmental savings of paperless construction are worth noting. 

“In 2020 we helped the construction industry digitise 80 million documents online,” he said. “Creating this number of documents digitally instead of using paper saves roughly 4.5 million kilowatt-hours of energy, or 2.3 million pounds of greenhouse gases.” 

Broome suggests the cost savings in paper alone would amount to almost £600,000, “which could buy around 2,000 tablet computers for construction workers to use on jobsites, further enabling the digitalisation of our industry. At Bluebeam we refer to this as the ‘flywheel effect,’ meaning that success in one area leads to further success in other areas and generates momentum.” 

Further Benefits of Going Digital 

The benefits of using Bluebeam construction software extend beyond the environmental. Broome highlights the availability of data for everyone involved on a job. 

“Bluebeam Revu is built around the ability to work with PDF, which is much more than just digital paper; rather it allows 2D drawings to become data-rich and to effectively contain BIM data.  

“This makes building information available to everyone, thanks to smaller files and without the need for specialist training. This helps reduce mistakes and therefore rework, which in turn leads to reductions in material waste, as well as decreased costs and schedules,” he adds. 

The combined functionality of Bluebeam Revu and Bluebeam Studio means there is no longer any need to print and send multiple sets of drawings to multiple sets of stakeholders, nor the requirement to travel to the jobsite or to another stakeholder’s offices for design review meetings.

How can the construction industry be more sustainable?