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The construction industry needs a “Peak Embedded Carbon Day”

construction waste

The construction industry’s canary in the mineshaft is its most visible flaw – waste. It consumes about 50 per cent of global steel production and three billion tonnes of raw materials a year.  About 40 per cent of solid waste comes from construction and demolition. This industry needs a galvanising call to reduce embedded carbon to modernise and lift its game.

The construction industry needs no new information on its economic importance, nor on where future jobs are going, and the impact of winning or not winning the productivity game.

It is perhaps less well informed about the impact of sea containers and what is in them. The mostly invisible contents of these boxes slide quietly by, ignored, just like the jobs going in the opposite direction. 

The industry is awash with new construction tech like BIM, DfMA, AI, 3D Printing and processes like Lean; then there is the ongoing contest between the makers of steel, concrete and timber construction inputs.

All claim to make important positive impacts on time, cost and quality, but, alas, any inspection of a typical construction site displays the evidence of a dysfunctional, wasteful industry.

Politicians and policy makers are bombarded with the representations of special interest groups, all with a particular mission. 

The most visible of these are those who advocate for lower greenhouse gas emission ratings from the built world.

Substantially lowering construction’s embedded carbon would require reverse engineering the entire design, procurement, manufacture and assembly value chain

But few turn their focus to the impact of construction’s embedded carbon in making buildings.

Substantially lowering construction’s embedded carbon would require reverse engineering the entire design, procurement, manufacture and assembly value chain. 

Such an initiative could be as galvanising amongst the construction community as was Ian Kiernan’s Clean up Australia campaign 30 years ago. 

Clean Up Australia worked to foster relationships between the community, business and government to address the environmental issues of waste, water and climate change.

What if 1 July 2020 became “Peak Embedded Carbon Day”? 

The mission of Peak Embedded Carbon Day would be to lower the “Net embedded Carbon” (NeC) consumed by construction projects after the application of all permitted off-set programs, by 40 per cent by 2030.

This would require a trustworthy carbon calculator able to capture not only the carbon impact of installed construction, but other impacts like transport, over-design, over-ordering, rework and waste. 

What would a trustworthy carbon calculator be like?

Such a calculator would need to be agnostic to a particular construction material or method.

All materials and methods would share a common starting date and contribute independently certified progression towards the collective target of lower NeC.

No other single construction industry aspiration has been effective at achieving all of the advantages that would result:

  • lowering universal construction costs
  • lifting productivity
  • joining up construction tech
  • saving construction jobs and creating new ones
  • improving quality
  • reducing insolvencies
  • assuring supply chain payments
  • assuring construction compliance and the resilience of buildings
  • driving new competitive construction innovation
  • lowering construction litigation or driving systemic process improvement across all facets. 

No other initiative has been able to break through the professional silos of practice and teaching that embeds business as usual, to bring all of construction’s players onto the same page. 

A trustworthy construction NeC calculator would be able to track all players’ performances post- a Peak Embedded Carbon Day.

Making a positive impact on the environment is now the number one public interest issue across the developed and developing worlds.

This concern is transcending all public policy issues, despite the rhetoric of where one side or the other stands on the “good for one, good for all” spectrum. 

Construction is one of the first businesses that humankind developed, and it continues to shape our daily life in unique ways.

Time to modernise for good

Australians will confirm their priorities for the environment, new-collar jobs and modern education in the 2019 federal election. But not a single party has made construction carbon an issue.

Construction is one of the first businesses that humankind developed, and it continues to shape our daily life in unique ways. 

Virtually all other businesses rely on the construction industry to provide and maintain their accommodation, plants and infrastructure; construction is a determinant of where and how almost everyone lives, works and plays. 

The environmental relevance of construction to a better world is impossible to avoid.

Multiple global megatrends are shaping the future of construction, according to the World Economic Forum. 

Consider just two developments: 

  • First, 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to buildings. 
  • Second, the population of the world’s urban areas is increasing by 200,000 people per day, all of whom need affordable housing, as well as social, transportation and utility infrastructure. 

Such trends pose challenges, but also offer opportunities; they require an adequate response from the construction industry as a whole.

The construction industry is the single largest global consumer of resources and raw materials

It consumes about 50 per cent of global steel production and, each year, three billion tonnes of raw materials are used to manufacture building products worldwide. About 40 per cent of solid waste derives from construction and demolition. 

Throughout the world, such waste involves a significant loss of valuable minerals, metals and organic materials – so there is great opportunity to create closed material loops in a circular built-world economy. 

Few buildings have purposeful measurement targets to lower carbon impact, that are supported by trustworthy tracking methods. 

A universal trustworthy calculator and data platform is vital to support this.

CSIRO’s Data 61 is one leader in the deployment of digital technologies that could help here; such technologies hold great potential for new future-fit industry governance tools. 

The timber industry’s blind spot

The timber industry has led a low carbon construction charge for some years. 

This charge has run into headwinds by ignoring the need for more inclusive construction integration.

The timber building movement could become a fad within five years if it does not change its narrowly focused narrative; almost every industry conference is timber-centric.

It’s no wonder that the construction industry has failed to define and foster a viable modern construction future. 

Steel and concrete advocates hang on every failure of timber-aligned businesses who attempt to lead in reshaping the off-site vs. on-site production argument. 

While the timber industry slugs back that they are greener and more sustainable, they are not being honest with the public that without concrete and steel they simply would not exist. 

Despite a massive push for the adoption of mass timber construction, there is only one Australian manufacturer and installer of domestic grown and/or fabricated projects. 

Most of the mass timber used today is grown and pre-fabricated in the northern hemisphere. In this context the Australian domestic construction market is leaking jobs and opportunity.

“As Donald Trump might declare, any immediate prospect of a sector wide modernisation of the Australian construction industry is “fake news”.”

The residential construction market is out of date

No more is this so than for the residential construction market. 

Australia’s residential construction industry delivers year-on-year about 200,000 dwellings. Some 120,000 of these are detached and semi-attached dwellings.

The industry anticipates that the number of detached and attached dwelling commencements could fall to circa 80,000 by 2030 as the supply of new infrastructure and serviced greenfield land becomes more restricted or less viable. 

The 40,000 dwellings that could be affected by such a swing will likely turn up as medium density three to five storey multi-unit dwellings, mostly on brownfield sites or in the core of new greenfield residential communities. 

The housing industry is unprepared and lacks the capabilities needed.

An inspection of Australia’s current crop of detached, attached and medium density residential projects provides a salutatory observation of construction’s canary. 

Even the more sophisticated and scaled residential developers and builders exhibit construction methods that reflect a second and third industrial revolution DNA. 

Of the top residential builders, few have housing designs in their portfolio that could be substantially manufactured elsewhere. 

Few have a strategy that could lower on-site construction durations by 60 per cent and waste by 80 per cent. 

Few understand the impact their current housing designs have on perpetuating a fragmented construction eco-system, on waste, on quality, on speed, on cost and importantly embedded carbon. Sekisui’s Shawood business is possibly the exception.

Most construction careers start in the residential sector. The best of these constructors and designers go on to become practitioners elsewhere. Residential seems a good starting place.

Design professionals also need to wake up to the new normal

Design professionals may be feeling unscathed at this point. They are the “first-specifiers” whom the vendors of modern construction tech and materials latch onto with the promise “you can make any design”, and throw away any idea of efficient systems or constraints.

 They live in a world where the possible prevails, absent the fundamental capabilities of how to get the best out of materials by putting them together more effectively and durably. 

Best to let Architect Christine Murray-Dezeen share her observations of modern architecture. 

More concerning are the voices of schools of architecture, happy with churning out more architects without any forward understanding of what new skills and functions are required.

These observations are just the tip of the iceberg that define the challenges of modernising Australia’s construction industry. 

On a positive note, momentum is building to resuscitate the vocational education sector. 

There appears to be a concerted interest in what a modern construction industry may look like and the skills that will be needed. 

One commentator has made the point that in a modern industry it will be easier to train up a future construction professional (including designers) from a manufacturing background than a traditional construction one. 

This commentator has been attempting to create a manufacturing-led solution that might have a positive impact on his company’s future. We will see, as there is no galvanising strategy of what that future will be and how to get there in that company.

How to galvanise the construction community

So, we return to the questions around how to galvanise the construction community to buy into is own “Clean Up Construction” campaign. 

  1. How can purposeful measures be established that would track a lowering NeC impact in construction post a Peak Embedded Construction Carbon day? 
  2. How can we use a trustworthy NeC calculator to recognise those making change and spot the laggards? 
  3. How can we establish an NeC calculator as a pre-competitive facilitator for changing all construction formation processes? 
  4. How could an NeC campaign be set in train before the battle lines between steel, concrete and timber are drawn, to ensure that the most efficient, least wasteful, most resilient and compliant buildings become the main game? 
  5. How can we retool construction’s practices and culture?

The purpose of this discussion paper is to identify a single galvanising issue that might have the best prospect of helping to modernise a struggling construction industry.

Its timing coincides with a national election to highlight a seriously overlooked section of public policy and leadership. 

It attempts to address the bigger issues than those focused around regulatory non-compliance and Building Confidence. 

And its intent is to draw public policy towards a bigger picture than some of the responses by Building Ministers.

Most importantly, this conversation seeks to join the dots between modernising the construction industry, the potential of a lower carbon and less wasteful future, and how politicians can act to create new-collar jobs and more sustainable construction enterprises.

David Chandler OAM is a construction industry practitioner and adjunct professor at the School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics, and co-founder of the Centre for Smart Modern Construction – c4SMC, Western Sydney University.

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Comments

One Response to “The construction industry needs a “Peak Embedded Carbon Day””

  • Rick Walters says:

    In the infrastructure sector, ISCA (www.isca.org.au) is the leader in tools for LCA for infrastructure construction with its Materials Calculator. There are also good tools like eTool available. Please don’t reinvent any wheels but seek to build upon the good work of others.

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