Sustainable BuildingsConstructionThe Challenges of Sustainable Construction

The Challenges of Sustainable Construction

Abbie Harby
Abbie Harby
"If we were meant to stay in one place we'd have roots instead of feet" and so I move - in cities, between cities, up mountains (and back down again!). And all that using my feet as much as possible - the first mode of transport known to man and the cheapest! I love the outdoors and being in green space. I'm passionate about trying to protect and improve all that we've got and all that we could have to give every single part of nature the best life possible.

Encouraging people to change the way they’ve always done things is never going to be easy. While calls to construct buildings more sustainably may be met with scoffs and points to the price tag, there’s so much more to it than that. Challenges to sustainable construction are not few and far between, but with the right information, it is do-able.

It is an undeniable fact that humans are hard-wired to resist change. Though not impossible, there are always obstacles in the way and hurdles to hop over; attempting to do something different in the name of a more sustainable future is no exception.

It’s important to remember that sustainable construction begins way before the contractors arrive on site, and it doesn’t stop there either. It’s about making every decision, from beginning to end, a sustainable and ‘best practice’ decision. Sustainable construction accounts for every stage, from design to construction to the ongoing maintenance of the building.

The advantages of sustainable or green buildings can hardly be disputed, with benefits for us, our health, as well as for our purse strings. And, of course, sustainable construction mitigates climate change and protects the world around us. So why aren’t we exclusively building sustainably? To help you on your change-making journey, we’ve collated information on some of the potential challenges that might crop up, so that you’re kitted out with all of the tools, knowledge, and facts and figures you need. You can never be too prepared!

Rules, Rules, Rules

Policies, standards, and regulations are possibly not every architect’s, builder’s, or designer’s best friend but they are there for a reason. Unfortunately, when it comes to sustainable construction, “building regulations are nowhere near good enough”, Janna Laan Lomas, a natural materials expert, tells us. This lack of rules is slowing down our transition to natural materials and therefore presents challenges to sustainable construction.

Work is being done to incite a shift in the architecture industry, and there are certain productive regulations. Janna mentions those on energy conservation as an example, as well as adding, “RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) is setting standards for architects to bring more sustainable options to the table”. In the meantime, it is all about having the know-how and understanding to recognise where these regulations are inadequate and what you should be aiming for. Getting the country to ‘zero carbon’ by 2050 (or preferably earlier) demands us all to leap far beyond current standards.

Seemingly, it’s not just in more developed parts of the world that the rules and regulations are an issue. Developing parts of Asia, such as China and Vietnam – although increasingly less so India – are impeded by inadequate government policies, procedures, and rules that prevent green buildings from becoming more commonplace.

In addition to a shortage of regulations to encourage sustainable construction, builders and developers often have to put in extra time, money, and effort as there are even more approvals and clearances required for sustainable buildings.

Evidently, in order to improve the situation, governments, organisations, and governing bodies needing to take a firm stance on creating, enforcing, and then monitoring the requirements, laws and legislations around sustainable construction. Of course, in many cases, this first needs to begin with looking at existing rules, uncovering what works and what needs to be improved.

Investment or Economic Extravagance?

It’s no surprise that the large-scale industries of concrete, plastics, and fossil fuels have immense power over the construction industry which represents huge challenges to sustainable construction. According to Janna, this power and the “knowledge, ease, and convenience of what’s readily available” means people turn to these products automatically. And they’re cheaper. “We tend to go for the cheap option without really taking into account all the benefits that would come from a slightly higher quality option”, Janna states. The higher price of natural materials is partly down to supply and availability, and in part because “builders often get scared off by natural materials and they increase the price unnecessarily”.

In developing countries, natural materials that could be used to build are usually readily available and therefore relatively cheap. However, high costs can be incurred as equipment and certain products are less established and even more costly compared to conventional options.

Challenges of sustainable construction - financing.
Image credit: Unsplash / Micheile

But is it really more expensive to build sustainably? While Janna is right in saying that initial costs may be higher, she emphasises that these materials and the finished sustainable building are then less of a financial burden in the long run. One reason being that “breathable buildings can last an incredibly long time”, Janna explains.

There seems to be a missing link in the construction industry’s (and their financial stakeholders’) thinking. The connection between the upfront construction costs and the operating costs of the final building is often overlooked; an error when you consider that these are high performance buildings.

While the higher initial costs can be off-putting, another barrier could be the lack of reliable cost models to help developers, financers, contractors, building owners, etc., understand the real cost and benefits of sustainable buildings. This lack of understanding should, theoretically, improve over time as more knowledge and research appear in the construction industry. To win over investors, fund your sustainable construction project, and ultimately see more future-proof buildings dotted across our city’s skylines, it is key that we focus on the long-term economic benefits.

Architects and designers often find it incredibly difficult to establish and then compare the embodied energy or lifecycle costs of materials, elements of a building, or of the building as a whole. For example, if they are attempting to find a balance between the gathering of the material, the manufacturing process, transportation, how this material affects the air quality and health of the occupants once it is installed, and, finally, whether the material can be reused at the end of the buildings’ life.

But there’s no need to panic as several options are already being increasingly implemented to assess these areas, as well as sustainable building efficiency and cost-effectiveness Life Cycle Costing (LCC) is ideal for evaluating the long-term benefits and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is another option. These can be employed to ensure a building can balance the seesaw between environmental and economic performance. There are currently a few limitations to using such tools, for instance:

  • lack of appropriate data input,
  • limited experience with the tools,
  • difficulty of using the tool, the calculations and integrating it into the design and construction processes,
  •  requiring details for various elements and from all of those suppliers to do this for a whole installation.

Nevertheless, thorough life cycle analysis or carbon footprint calculations in any shape or form are to be encouraged, according to Janna.

Information Insufficiency

As mentioned above, knowledge is evidently one of the challenges to sustainable construction. But there is also a shortfall in information in knowing how green buildings perform, how innovative technologies function and how reliable they are. Moreover, a lack of consensus on the following points leads to confusion, and people being deterred from building sustainably:

  • A single, uniform definition of sustainable construction.
  • What the minimum performance level of the building should be.
  • Which construction techniques, methods, and construction activities are the most environmentally damaging and which are more acceptable.
  • How to measure the sustainability of a building.

This is an issue which needs to be tackled to encourage sustainable construction both in the developed and in the developing world. Lack of information and awareness of green buildings then also leads to misconceptions and people being dissuaded.

Misinformation is another point to tackle. Janna cites the example of concrete companies and the fact that some claim to be ‘sustainable’, but she questions, “is concrete ever sustainable?”.

“We can certainly enable them to change by making sure they know how.”

Janna Laan Lomas

However, progress is consistently being made in this area with the collection of experts constantly expanding. Take ACAN, for example. Their focus is on knowledge-sharing and ensuring people have the skills and specific information they need to be able to join the sustainable construction movement, practice sustainable building, and spread the word. Having attended the introduction to their series on natural materials, we can confirm that there is a wealth of information out there. It’s about making sure people know where to find it.

Personnel and Know-How

If the knowledge isn’t widespread, then there are fewer people capable of working in the field. Not only does sustainable construction require skilled labourers who are familiar with the materials, processes, and methods but also subject matter experts. For instance, policymakers, architects, engineers, contractors and, right at the start of the process, designers:

“In order for sustainable building techniques to be adopted they must be specified by the designer.”

C.S Hayles & T Kooloos

As the designers are involved from the very beginning, it is crucial that they comprehend and are accomplished in sustainable construction ideas and techniques. Design professionals currently do not have sufficient expertise to be able to produce specifications. One issue that they face is the lack of coherent criteria to allow them to directly compare sustainable materials, technologies, and processes. Consequently, they spend a lot of time assessing these elements.

In later stages, there may be problems with the number of workers available as labour-saving measures are common. These are not necessarily compatible with sustainable construction. Not only is the relevant knowledge required in terms of installation, but also once the building is in operation to maintain it and its systems.

Until there is sufficient and widespread knowledge, this is a never-ending cycle: the fewer people with the expertise, the fewer people available to train those willing to learn. However, there is hope thanks to people like Janna and organisations and movements around the world.

Infrastructure: Fill in the Gap

challenges of sustainable construction - the lack of infrastructure
Image credit: Unsplash / Brett Jordan

It goes without saying that it will take time for the infrastructure for sustainable construction to be 100% reliably in place and accessible to everyone. But, even in the most developed nations, you still won’t find all the fundamental structures to allow sustainable buildings to be constructed easily. It currently requires more effort, work, time, and money to choose the sustainable option: a clear winner or the list of challenges to sustainable construction. If we want it to become the norm, then this infrastructure needs to appear, and fast!

For example, the infrastructure for handling, recycling, and reusing materials from deconstruction is not yet widely established. This makes the process more expensive. People are even put off deconstruction as the operation itself requires more time and workers than demolition.

So, here’s the warning: when you begin a sustainable construction project, it could be that you have to struggle and really exert yourself in order to get the job done. But CityChangers, do not be disheartened, because it will be worth it. Give it your best shot, be persistent, and remain faithful to your commitment to building a sustainable future. You know your stuff, you’ve done your research, and you’re certain that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, so stick to it.

Turning Heads

The assumption that sustainable construction is a hippy, new age, and totally different way of building may well creep in from clients, policymakers, and fellow practitioners, but you can still talk them around.

Janna is convinced that if people understand how all the systems work together – how talking about building means talking about land, food, and nature, and considering both rural and urban settings together – rather than just seeing the material alone, then it would resonate with them more. “It’s all part of one really complex ecosystem”, she says, and by raising awareness of this, we may be able to change a few minds.

Another element is marketing the idea, design, and benefits in a way that will be most attractive to people. This will, of course, vary depending on the audience, but by appealing to the right senses, you could be on to a winner. For instance, the health benefits are likely to captivate the average person as it has a direct impact on them.

One of the challenges to sustainable construction and standing in the way of making it more common and more successful is the general public’s notion of what ‘sustainability’ actually means.

“Investors and developers hold the misconception that capital costs will raise when they apply the sustainable construction methods”.

D. Lowe & L Zhou

The construction industry and everybody involved have conventionally had the aim of finishing a project to an acceptable (hopefully the best) standard, with the lowest expenditure and within the smallest time frame. The environmental burden of constructing the building and the effect it has on the climate, people, and ecology once it is complete, was/is often still overlooked and seen as irrelevant in comparison to the economics.

Changing minds inevitably links to the amount of knowledge people possess and the information that has been disseminated. One way of combatting this is by educating the professionals and those working in the relevant fields first. Making them aware of the potential of sustainable construction and encouraging them to change or adapt their practices, will have a wider impact on the industry as a whole. In turn, their attitudes will raise clients’ awareness and should increase the demand for sustainable projects and solutions.

Main Take-Aways

We’re really not trying to scare you off – quite the opposite really! By opening your eyes to some of the challenges to sustainable construction and the hurdles that you might have to jump over on your journey, we hope you’ll feel more prepared when you kickstart your sustainable construction project. Here are the main take-aways of the challenges associated with sustainable construction and what to bear in mind:

  1. Most of the challenges standing in the way of realising sustainable construction stem from attempting to balance the scales of the economic, social, and environmental issues of the sustainability triangle. Ensure you’ve covered all bases in the planning stages.
  2. The potential difficulties you might face can also be categorised by those responsible and therefore fall into four groups. You will need to reckon with hurdles from:
    – professionals,
    – clients,
    – the construction industry,
    – the government.
  3. All of the challenges mentioned are interconnected, meaning the only way to overcome them is to take a holistic approach. Consider all obstacles individually and as a whole, join the dots, and see if your solutions are suitable to cover every aspect.
  4. Decision making around a project should also be done holistically and cohesively. That means drawing knowledge from all areas at every stage to ensure the most appropriate strategies are in place.
  5. The principal attitude change that needs to occur across the construction industry is that of switching from linear to cyclical processes in construction. One way of doing this is urban mining.

So, are you ready to enter the world of sustainable construction? Have no fear, find out how to get started and make your dreams of sustainable buildings come true!

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