Features - Business

Previews of 2019 for the construction industry

The construction industry is still far from being considered a standard-bearer of sustainability. The built environment is estimated to account for 45% of global carbon emissions, and is rising. Aidan Bell, co- founder of EnviroBuild, takes a look into what 2019 holds for the industry with respect to the sustainable agenda.

In an ideal world, sustainable construction meets society’s need for domestic housing and commercial properties, while also protecting the planet for future generations – something which is becoming more pressing by the day. However, we are nowhere near this and have not been so for millenia. October’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warned that we have just 12 years to reduce the rate of global warming before widespread flooding and droughts become unavoidable.

Economics is still very much the primary driver of change in the construction industry and promoting sustainable alternatives from a moral standpoint will do little to transform the way site managers and building owners operate. Construction activities are based upon financial returns rather than what is morally right; this doesn’t look like changing in the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, technological innovation and government support have resulted in green construction becoming increasingly viable and significant steps have been taken in recent years to promote sustainable construction. The UK government, for example, recently launched a £320M government fund in low-carbon heating for cities as part of a larger £2.5Bn investment in low carbon innovation, one of several investments that represent the largest increase in public spending on UK science, research and innovation since 1979.

The UK construction industry is set to see several large-scale changes in the upcoming year. Many of the predictions I made in an article earlier in the year will still be relevant in 2019, yet here are my other major predictions:

Embedded carbon

The building industry has made great strides in recent years towards lowering the carbon output of buildings. This has typically involved better insulation to reduce heat loss, installing equipment that uses energy more efficiently and making HVAC systems use passive measures instead of mechanical systems. Renewable energy is also becoming an increasingly popular option for powering residential homes (with over 800,000 residential solar PV systems so far having been deployed), and examples such as Project SCENe Trent Basin, which houses Europe’s largest community battery, showing community schemes can be viable in the very near future.

However, one area that still needs to be comprehensively addressed is the embedded carbon within building materials. Certain building materials naturally contain higher levels of CO2. Steel, for example, has an ECO2 intensity score of 30%, while concrete follows close behind with a score of 25%. The carbon emissions inherent in the production of these materials can be extremely high, and as such the construction industry is likely to see a greater emphasis on reducing embedded carbon levels in 2019.

For instance, low carbon concrete mixes can be produced using fly ash, slag and calcined clays. One study even found that 36%–38% of embodied energy consumption can be avoided for different concrete covers if 40% of the cement was replaced with fly ash.

The construction industry is also likely to see a greater use of salvaged materials. Reused materials such as brick, metals and wood have lower embodied carbon levels as there is little to no added consumption of carbon from manufacturing. Recycled plastic lumber is already beginning to capture a larger market share due to its durability, affordability and sustainability.

There are also situations where there is a direct trade off.  Triple glazing is only marginally better than double glazing once embedded carbon is taken into account for well constructed new build projects, and probably worse for renovation projects. The type of frame is actually more relevant to the lifecycle energy costs than the number of panes in the window.

Greater Automation

We are living in uncertain times, and 2019 will likely be a year defined by unpredictability. Analysts predict that the UK economy will grow by only 1.5% in 2019 (a slowdown from the 1.7% estimated in 2017) amid the fallout from Brexit. The building industry is likely to be one of the most affected given its reliance an international workforce. A shrinking workforce could force greater automation as a way of reducing costs while maintaining production levels.

Prefabricated homes are one area where automation is increasingly being incorporated into construction. One study has found that around 84% of housing in Sweden have elements of prefabricated timber, while 15% of new homes in Japan are prefabricated. In contrast, only 2% of the value of the UK construction sector can currently be attributed to off-site, prefabricated work. There are signs that this is changing, however. A report published this year by Lloyds Bank found that 68% of UK house-builders it interviewed had already invested in modular housing techniques, indicating that greater automation is on the horizon.

Lower Productivity

Brexit is also likely to reduce inward investment, exacerbating the chronic low productivity issues of the construction industry. The sector’s productivity was only 8.9% higher in Q1 of this year compared to the same period in 1997, over two decades ago. In comparison, output per hour worked has risen by 27.6% in the economy as a whole. Uncertainty is likely to affect investment in 2019, potentially resulting in productivity dropping even further behind the average.

Construction firms operating in the UK will need to be prioritise ways to increase their productivity levels in 2019 . Investment will be needed more than ever, and only the deepest pockets will be willing to take the risk in such uncertainty.

Moving forward

The construction sector has a challenging road ahead. Uncertainty will reduce investment and productivity levels, potentially risking jobs and projects. The collapse of Carillion in 2018 should warn others about the importance of managing finances appropriately in difficult times. Nevertheless, there are signs that the sector will improve its green credentials by targeting embedded carbon and by those with the deepest pockets finding the capital to introduce greater automation. The changing landscape of construction is fascinating, and one that will hopefully embrace sustainability more fully in the years to come.

If you would like to read more articles like this then please click here.