There is perhaps no issue more pressing in construction engineering than sustainability. By reducing the resources required to build and maintain new structures, engineers are redefining the next generation of construction and paving the way for a safer and more sustainable future. This green future is made possible by the use of sustainable construction materials, solar power and building information modeling (BIM).
The rising importance of achieving net zero
Environmentally friendly materials designed to last longer are just one solution engineers are implementing into the building process. Building owners and investors report, on average, 10% lower operating costs in the first year and over 16% within five years when incorporating ethically sourced and environmentally sustainable solutions into their building’s design, according to DCN’s SmartMarket report, World Green Building and Construction Trends.
The use of heat pumps is also improving the carbon footprint of buildings. Although air-to-air heat pumps are the most widely installed, hydronic heat pumps for domestic water supply and in-floor heating are starting to replace gas-fired boilers and traditional hot water heaters. A study released in June 2022 by the California Public Utilities Commission found that 67 percent of the construction professionals interviewed for the report are expecting “a lot” of growth in the heat pump market in the next five years.
More efficient performance and inverter technologies are continuing to reduce the operating costs and environmental impact of heat pumps. When this is coupled with a cleaner energy supply (“greening of the grid”), heat pumps will be responsible for less emissions than even the very efficient natural gas condensing boiler technology. In fact, the International Energy Agency considers heat pumps to be an integral part of a roadmap for “Net Zero by 2050.” As a baseline, the Agency said heat pumps were used in about 7% of buildings for heating in 2020. To meet electrification and emission-reduction goals, the Agency said heat pump usage should increase to 20% in the year 2030 and 55% in 2050. That equates to about 1.8 billion heat pumps installed by 2050.
Trends in solar panel technology are paving the way for reduced energy bills, tax credits and positive impacts to the environment through reduced carbon emissions. Harnessing solar technology in new buildings is also proving to entice a new generation of customers focused on compliance with new building regulations.
The Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency provides a comprehensive list of incentives and policies that support renewable energy in the United States. Lists like this give visibility into how and where incentives for solar panels or heat pumps have driven demand in the last two decades. This market support has allowed engineers and manufacturers to scale up and invest in product development. The next phase will move construction from rebate checks that incentivize consumers to building codes that set requirements for engineers.
Starting in 2020, California’s Energy Code required a solar photovoltaic system for new residential construction projects. The state’s Energy Code scheduled to go into effect in 2023 will extend the solar requirement to other commercial and civic buildings and include new electric-ready requirements and battery storage standards.
By requiring new single-family homes to be ready to go all-electric, the state is positioning itself for connection to a clean electricity grid. Other states are considering whether to follow California’s lead, both for solar requirements and building electrification and decarbonization. This would eventually cause significant design changes for space heating, ovens, water heaters and other systems that use natural gas and oil.
This is all leading to “grid integrated buildings,” which encompass smart meters and sensing, power generation, storage for the grid, and access to energy markets. There are serious savings to be gained from this smart, connective and transactive future.
Designing the future with health in mind
Designing healthy buildings is no longer an option; it’s a demand. And a top health concern is indoor air quality to address fresh air and ventilation, moisture and mold, and triggers for asthma and allergies. This is especially true in the green building sector, where the goal to improve indoor air quality has increased over the last decade, according to the DCN World Green Building Trends report. In 2012, 42% of respondents rated this as a very important reason for building green, increasing to 51% in 2018, and 57% in 2021.
There has also been an increase in indoor air quality projects, with 2021 seeing the largest number of these projects (89) in the last decade. In 2012 and 2013, IMS tracked approximately 30 of these projects per year; in 2016, that number increased to71 projects and then 80 projects in 2018. This year could set a new record, as IMS has already tracked 34 indoor air quality projects in the first three months of 2022. Many of the recent projects in school buildings received funding from the American Rescue Plan.
There is a new category of projects related to the COVID-19 pandemic in which owners and public agencies redesign spaces for safety purposes. These projects repurpose city halls, shelters and clinics for new protective barriers, quarantine areas and other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Within the correctional sector, IMS is tracking COVID-19 and health-related renovations for courthouses and jails in Washington State, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Idaho and Virginia.
Going green with BIM
Centralizing all of the historically disparate information regarding a building’s design is a key benefit to BIM implementation and adoption, and this is paving the way for a more connected and intentional approach to the way we build and manage. BIM is poised for considerable growth with 78% of building information modeling users who do not currently use it for green projects expecting to do so within the next three years.
BIM is utilizing new research and databases on embodied carbon emissions. More data on the amount of embodied carbon in manufacturing processes and products (such as concrete, aluminum and steel) will help teams analyze the impacts of material choices and demolition/reuse options. As a focus on emissions broadens to include embodied carbon, designers will use BIM to take a closer look at specifications for cement and low-carbon concrete, recycled versus new aluminum and steel versus wood construction.
BIM brings out the best in offsite manufacturing and fabrication. Separately, BIM and offsite manufacturing can both help reduce construction waste. Taken together, they represent a major driver of sustainable outcomes in the construction industry. Designers and contractors are citing the reduction of waste and greener job sites as a significant benefit to offsite construction, according to DCN’s Prefabrication and Modular Construction 2020 report. For architects and engineers, reduced waste from construction was the second-highest rated benefit of prefabrication. This benefit also earned the most votes for “very high” importance among all factors (20%) for prefabrication, and 23% of architects and engineers said reduced waste was a “very high” benefit of modular construction.
Paving a sustainable path with technology
Leveraging innovation and new technologies to redefine the way we design, build and power new structures is a major driving force impacting the future of construction. Connecting the environmental and human health benefits with opportunities to reduce costs will remain a key component necessary to expand adoption across the construction industry, and it is clear that these shifts are already taking place — informing a more conscious and sustainable approach across the construction ecosystem.
– Dodge Construction Network is a CFE Media and Technology content partner.
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