Environmental innovation in the construction sector

Environmental innovation, construction sector,
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Aidan Bell, co-founder of ‘sustainable construction material company Envirobuild, provides an in-depth guide to environmental innovation in the construction sector

According to WRAP, sustainable resource advocates, the UK construction industry is responsible for 45% of our carbon emissions as well as 33% of all waste produced.

This sector also continues to be the least productive in the UK economy, as well as having one of the lowest levels of digitalisation in the world. This is partly due to a lack of investment, as well as a fear of risks.

However, this could be due to change, partly thanks to the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.  This will develop digital, manufacturing and renewable energy technologies for the construction sector which, combined with improved business models, McKinsey believe could increase productivity by between 50 and 60%, as well as reducing waste.

World Green Building Trends surveyed over 2,000 industry participants including architects, engineers and contractors, and found nearly half intend to make their projects greener over the next 3 years.

Whatever your view of the rise of sustainability, it will continue to change the entire industry. We look at the biggest environmental innovation trends for 2020.

Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC)

Around half of a building’s total energy demands come from heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) – in the UK mainly heat.

With the heat network metering and billing guidance being updated, this is a big area of change for landlords, but with it comes opportunity.

Guru Systems, for example, combine data analytics and smart technology to grant detailed visibility of heat network performance, making it easy to counteract costly inefficiencies and reduce carbon.

Intelligent design, superinsulation and passive temperature control would decrease the need for mechanical HVAC entirely.

Waste and recycling

Under the EU’s Waste Framework Directive, 70% of non-hazardous construction waste must be reused or recycled by 2020, although industry leaders are pushing beyond this.

Primarily using reinforcement steel and plasterboard with high recycled content, Multiplex has reduced plastic waste by 34%, as well as diverting 99% of construction phase waste from landfill.

Taylor Wimpey recycled 95% of construction waste in 2017, however, their overall waste output actually increased. They believe this is due to the skills shortage, suggesting there is further innovation needed to prevent raw material wastage.

Both these firms emphasise on-site training combined with clear labelling and importantly, measuring key statistics. Through spearheading these strategies they can lead the way for environmental innovation.


A prefabricated building is one whose components are manufactured offsite and simply requires on-site assembly.

Berkeley Homes has committed to producing 30% of construction value through offsite assembly by 2020. They believe this reduces inefficiencies which, combined with increased automation, allows greater resource-, energy- and cost-efficiency than a traditional build.

Reduction of on-site waste decreases vehicle use, further lowering the carbon footprint of the project. Likewise, potentially toxic substances from production are controlled to prevent contamination.


The highest-ranked response in the Green Building Trends Report was the adoption of early-analysis tools with building information models to analyse potential performance.

Building Information Modelling, compulsory since April 2016 in all public sector construction projects, promotes a collaborative way of working. The early introduction of design into all aspects of construction helps prevent later misunderstanding and costly remedial work as well as material wastage. It is one of a range of tools that will help to digitise the built environment industry.

BAMB – Buildings as Materials Banks

BAMB is similarly integrated early in the project. By repositioning buildings within a cycle of value, it aims to reduce waste and virgin materials. Using high quality, reusable materials with easy-to-disassemble components suitable for reuse means they can be dismantled and returned to manufacturers at the end of the building’s life.

“Leasing” these materials may become the future of sustainable construction. Not only does it encourage greater responsibility towards the building, but it also preserves the value of the material, unlike recycling.

Although initially more expensive, it is claimed that in the long-term widespread adoption of BAMB could “prevent up to 75% of all waste generated and raw materials used over several building transformations.”

Generative design

Generative design maximises sustainability in construction through technology. Combining algorithms with AI technology, designers can input their goals into the software along with parameters such as materials, manufacturing methods and cost constraints, to be presented with potentially thousands of solutions they wouldn’t have otherwise thought of.

It also allows for thorough testing before construction, reducing material wastage. Appearing commercially in April 2018, Autodesk Generative Design platform have demonstrated in their Toronto offices that it can be used to maximise natural daylight and minimise the number of artificial lights.

A builder can also use it in the post-design stage, to choose the best-modelled strategy for assembling a building from precast panels. By sharing the information with the entire construction team, this would minimise inefficiencies on-site.

Performance gap

The actual energy requirements of a building can be more than two times greater than anticipated, known as the ‘Performance Gap’.

Better co-operation, training and measurement of existing environmental innovation technologies, implemented early and across the supply chain, will help to achieve optimal building performance – so the industry doesn’t need to wait for science for new materials.

Looking forward

Many of the changes incorporate earlier technical design allowing more holistic thinking, whether through BIM, prefabrication or focusing on the future use of the materials. Anything that can stop the arguments over CapEx vs OpEx that develop when contractors have to value engineer to hit targets that eventually cost the customer more is long overdue in the UK construction sector.


Aidan Bell




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