Features - Energy

Construction can Pivot Towards Sustainability

Dan Smith, Head of Energy Services at Northern Gas and Power discusses the sustainable shifts in the construction industry, and how companies can make genuine commitments to decarbonisation.

Irish building company Kingspan, the 160 site-strong construction business, recently published its “Planet Passionate” annual report. In the report, Kingspan reviewed its progress towards the company’s ambitious target of reaching net-zero carbon manufacturing by 2030.

The company has a trusted track record with sustainability, having met their previous emission reduction targets for the 2011-2020 period. The company posits that its products and services are created to reduce operational energy use and carbon. They assess that sales in 2020 will save 164 million tonnes of CO2 emissions over their lifespan. To put that figure into perspective, it is estimated that the entire city of London produces around 81,394 tonnes of carbon emissions per day.

Kingspan is not the only company in the sector making significant strides with regards to decarbonisation. Sustainable construction company The Sheehan Group has been vocal in calling for greater use of recycled materials to reduce emissions as well as reliance on imported products.

A legacy of efficiency over environmentalism

However, for these increasingly ambitious goals to be met, firms across the sector will need to continue to step up their innovation throughout the supply chain. There is a genuine impetus towards sustainability in the construction industry, and this will only continue to grow as suppliers, shareholders and other stakeholders begin to demand visibility of the steps being taken towards net zero.

Cement for instance, a material almost synonymous with the construction industry, has a terrible carbon footprint. The most common cement is made of limestone and clay. The limestone is heated to break it down into lime (calcium oxide) and carbon dioxide. Then, the lime and clay are fused, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

While many companies have overlooked this for a long time (either through ignorance or a perception that other options are unavailable), it is welcome news to see the industry is waking up to its polluting tendencies, and is committed to genuine change.

I started my working life installing and commissioning Building Management Systems (BMS). These are the systems that control the functionality of the entire plant and equipment within buildings. As a young commissioning engineer, my priority was to ensure everything worked to the design specification – not necessarily that things worked in the most energy efficient and sustainable manner.

The decarbonisation toolkit

When I carry out energy audits, I spend a lot of time interrogating and checking BMSs to ensure energy efficient performance. This can be as simple as checking optimised start and stop are set up correctly. Manually, this requires time, effort, resource and specialist knowledge. A quicker and easier way to check energy performance of a building is with a tech-enabled energy management system. This can indicate at a very granular level how all the different parts of a plant are performing with respect to energy consumption. From this, it is possible to identify areas of excess energy consumption – and then remove it!

The days of choosing efficiency at the expense of environmentalism are over. Using green, well-managed energy, with the help of energy monitoring technology, enables construction plants to enjoy the best of both worlds.

Often, the best designed and constructed buildings are let down by neglecting to optimise the construction materials’ supply chain and equipment in terms of energy consumption. For that reason, the innovation roadmap for sustainable construction must lie in energy management technology.

Whilst I applaud Kingspan’s pledge and think their progress paves the way for others to follow suit, there is still a huge amount of work to be done. It is more pressing than ever for companies across the sector to undertake an audit of emissions. Only then will they be able to install the tangible systems and supply chain practices which will allow them to truly transform away from the industry’s legacy of efficiency at the expense of sustainability.

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