Sustainability in Construction: Top 10 Highlights

Marietta Chatzinota
With World Environment Day coming up next month, we have prepared the top 10 sustainability highlights to summarise a few of the current issues and up and coming events.

1. Earth Day 2016

46 years have passed since the first Earth day was celebrated on 22nd April 1970. The movement, coordinated by the Earth Day Network, urges people to take action in protecting the environment and "continues to lead with ground-breaking ideas and by the power of example".

On this year's Earth Day, leaders from 160 countries officially signed the Paris Climate Agreement, pledging to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees and committing to £70 billion financial support to developing countries by 2020 to tackle climate change.

For the 2016 celebration, Earth Day Network, are aiming to plant 7.8 billion trees. One billion people were estimated to have participated in events taking place around the globe and there are many ways in which you can have an impact by making small changes to your everyday lifestyle. 

2. Old Oak and Park Royal Development (OPDC)

OPDC, where HS2 will meet Crossrail, will form a new commute hub (102 trains passing through at peak), whilst providing new homes for 60,000 people. At a scale five times greater than the King’s Cross redevelopment, and with 40 miles of unlocked canals to be used for transport, surface water management and as a source for cooling, the site is being developed with a vision to being 'exemplar in environmental sustainability'.

A team comprising of sustainability professionals from Faithful+Gould and Atkins, leading experts from construction companies, including Balfour Beatty, Lendlease and British Land, as well as academic expertise from UCL, will be taking on the role of environmental advisors - creating best practice sustainability targets for the Masterplan.

3. 2015 Record Year for Temperature and CO2 Increase

The year 2015 was the warmest year ever recorded according to weather data from the MET Office and NASA! When compared to the long term average temperature, 2015 was approximately 0.75 degrees higher.

In addition, annual CO2 concentration in the atmosphere rose by 3.76 ppm (parts per million) between February 2015 and 2016, making this the highest ever annual increase based on research from the Earth Sciences Research Laboratory.

4. Climate Change Impact on Ocean Biodiversity

As climate change has warmed baseline ocean temperatures, the frequency and intensity of warming events (such as the El Niño) is causing coral reefs to 'bleach'. Michael Greshko, writer in National Geographic, explains: "The high temperatures cause corals' symbiotic algae - their crucial food source - to short-circuit and become toxic, forcing the corals to expel it. Kicking out the algae turns the coral bone white and potentially sets it on a path to starvation."

Corals have been bleaching continuously across the South Pacific Ocean since 2014, with Australia's National Coral Bleaching Taskforce confirming that at least 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef corals are suffering and raising concerns that it could take decades to restore the damage, which might even be permanent for some corals.

Mark Eakin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch program calls for an immediate and bold implementation of the UN's Paris Climate Agreement to safeguard ocean biodiversity which is looking grim based on the trajectory we are currently on.

5. Overestimating Future UK Energy Demand Over the Past 50 Years

In his latest monthly column in Energy in Buildings and Industry publication, Andrew Warren, Chairman of the British Energy Efficiency Generation, discusses the great discrepancies between predicted rise in energy demand by UK Government over the past 50 years and actual recorded energy consumption.

For example, whilst the Government's 'Energy Challenge' (PDF,2.2MB) White Paper in 2006 predicted an increase in electricity generation by 12 percent between 2005 and 2015, which was translated into policy promoting investment in nuclear power rather than energy efficiency, actual electricity consumed over that period was reduced by circa the same percentage (13 percent).

Andrew states that: "almost everybody in the supply industry reckons that demand for electricity will continue to decline overall, or at most remain constant," thus demonstrating that the energy efficiency improvements undertaken over the last 50 years have vastly improved security and resilience in the entire energy market. However, this is yet to be recognised by UK Energy Government.

6. How will the UK Deliver a Zero Carbon Built Environment?

As an EU member, and being "absolutely committed" to deliver on the Paris (COP21) global climate deal, the UK Government will have to align with the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive's (EPBD) legislation for 'nearly zero energy' new buildings by the 31st of December 2020.

Up until July 2015, the UK's strategy for the delivery of 'near zero energy' involved a Zero Carbon Target for all new homes by 2016 and all new non-domestic buildings by 2019. Recognising that offsetting the entirety of CO2 emissions onsite could often be challenging and not cost-effective, the UK government introduced the concept of 'Allowable Solutions' which enabled achieving zero carbon through offsite investments (e.g. wind farm in a rural location vs. domestic scale wind turbine onsite).

However, the Government's latest actions, from ending Feed in Tariffs for renewable energy sources investments to scraping its 2016 target for Zero Carbon Homes and the closure of the Zero Carbon Hub, are rising concerns across the industry on the delivery of zero energy and carbon.

In a latest development, the House of Lords has proposed an amendment which which gave hope to the re-introduction of the on-site carbon compliance standard; however the UK government defeated the zero-carbon amendment by introducing a vague clause into the Bill, committing to a review of the energy efficiency standard for new homes in the Building Regulations. Julie Hirigoyen, CEO of the UK-GBC commented that: "Devoid of any such legislation, the government's legislative landscape is in danger of locking in carbon emissions for future generations. New homes will need expensive retrofit measures in future if we're to meet our ambitious reduction targets."

7. A New Era of Construction

The world's first 3D printed bridge is being constructed in Amsterdam by MX3D. Six-axis robotic arms, with Autodesk software able to weld metal or print resin, will 3D print a steel bridge across one of the city's canals. Due to pedestrian traffic onsite, the bridge will be 'printed' at an offsite location and will then be installed onsite.

Construction is anticipated to last only 3–4 months and contrary to traditional construction methods, no supporting structures will be required, as the robotic arms can 3D print mid-air. This new era of construction is gradually emerging with several 3D printed projects across the world, including a 3D printed canal house in the Netherlands and the VULCAN pavilion in China.

8. Measuring Online Carbon Footprint

A new Google Chrome plug-in provides real time information on the energy, and equivalent CO2 emissions, consumed whilst browsing the Internet. The application, sponsored by Johnnie Walker, monitors online activity over four weeks and estimates individual users' annual carbon footprint. Contributing to the Earth Day’s Network Canopy Project, Johnnie Walker will plant up to 75,000 trees in an effort to offset carbon emissions associated with internet usage.

As a benchmark, research carried out by Carbon analytics, suggests that four new trees need to be planted per year to offset CO2 emissions associated with an average user's online activity. "The more in contact with our carbon footprint information in real-time we are, the more of an impact it will have", commented Kathleen Rogers, President of Earth Day Network.

9. How Clean is the Air we are Breathing?

Air pollution is an issue we are all aware of, nonetheless we might often think of it in an abstract sense, not realising the very real threat of indoor and outdoor pollution to our everyday health and wellbeing.

According to a recent study from the Royal College of Physicians, 'Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution', exposure to outdoor air pollution is contributing to 40,000 early deaths a year with air pollution related health problems costing the UK over £20 billion/year.

Perfume chemicals used in scented products, such as air fresheners and cleaners, whilst not necessarily harmful themselves, can react with indoor air and create carcinogenic pollutants such as formaldehyde. Paints, varnishes and finishes can also emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).

Awareness is the first step in the equation. Sensors for real time information on indoor air quality are becoming cheaper (< £100), accessible to the wider public, and very simple to use via mobile applications. Either working in the office or visiting the latest Tate exhibition you are now empowered to monitor the impact of the indoor environment on your health.

The same can now be done for outdoor air pollution! Technology start-up Plume Labs, released a flock of 10 racing pigeons (Pigeon Air Patrol), equipped with tiny lightweight sensors monitoring ozone (O3), VOCs and Nitrogen Dioxide (N2) for three days in London during March 2016. Following the pigeons' flight paths on a map, users were able to obtain real time information on air pollution levels in their area.

The company has now joined forces with researchers from Imperial College (E-Plume) for their next ambitious initiative, which will equip 100 Londoners with wearable air pollution monitors to create the 'London Air Patrol'.

Dr. Audrey de Nazelle (Lead researcher at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial) comments: "Personal monitors have the potential to help us understand the city's air pollution in great detail, from where the pollution hotspots are to what urban designs reduce exposure."

10. Disposable Coffee Cups Contaminate Recycling Waste Streams

Approximately 2.5 billion takeaway coffee cups are thrown away every year, however only six million (less than one percent or one in every 400) are believed to be recycled and the rest are sent to landfill.

The issue lies in the polyethylene coating which is bonded onto the virgin paper cup to prevent leaks. Whilst the paper cup components are all recyclable, they need to first be separated into two waste streams and then sent for recycling, a process which is not always adopted by local councils.

Segregating coffee cups contained within bags with mixed recycled waste would prove to be very time consuming and these bags will often be regarded as 'contaminated' for recycling and will be sent for incineration instead.