Hub Industry insights How eco-conscious developers are supporting carbon-cutting initiatives

How eco-conscious developers are supporting carbon-cutting initiatives

Through sustainable practices and collaborative efforts, we can drive impactful initiatives to combat climate change head-on.

It’s no secret that there’s a growing focus on climate change and the role we all play in it. With record-high temperatures being recorded across land and sea, and carbon dioxide levels from human activities increasing exponentially, it’s never been more important to take action and search for eco-friendly solutions before it’s too late.  

With environmental experts looking at how we can reduce the impact we’re having on the planet, there’s been a heightened focus on the property industry and sustainability in the construction sector.

The property industry is currently responsible for around 11% of all global carbon emissions, prompting an analysis of embodied carbon and what can be done to mitigate the damage it’s causing. 

Embodied carbon refers specifically to the greenhouse gas emissions arising from the construction of new real estate; such as the manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance and disposal of building materials. 

Policymakers and leaders in the property industry are now urgently seeking new ways to reduce embodied carbon levels and work towards long-term environmental targets. 

The construction industry’s carbon problem has been clear for a long time, but no meaningful action has ever been – until now. 

Embodied carbon in numbers 

There’s a lot of jargon and technical terminology to keep up with when talking about the impact of climate change, but the numbers don’t lie. 

The property industry is making up an enormous proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions, with the current figures looking a little something like this:

  • Embodied carbon in materials like brick, glass and steel accounts for 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions
  • Operational carbon (the energy used to keep existing buildings warm, cool, lit or powered) makes up 28% of global greenhouse gas emissions
  • The building and construction sectors accounting for almost 40% of all global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions
  • Embodied carbon is predicted to account for almost 50% of total new construction emissions between now and 2050

Needless to say, the building and construction sector has a vital role to play in eliminating carbon and taking a more holistic approach to sustainable development to meet both short-term and long-term climate targets.

What sort of solutions are available? 

Progress could be faster when it comes to sustainability within the construction sector. Still, the business benefits of reducing embodied carbon are becoming clearer and are therefore motivating more forward-thinking developers to seek out alternatives.

These benefits include:

  • Evidence of reduced overall costs
  • Growth for the local community through local supply chains and employment opportunities 
  • Improved resilience against future resource shortages
  • An easier planning process 
  • Avoidance of penalties in future on high-carbon buildings 
  • An improved business reputation 

While the environmental impact of the construction industry is a very serious issue, the good news is that most projects can reduce their embodied carbon by 10-20% by making a few simple adjustments and selecting the right products. 

Reusing old buildings 

One of the simplest ways to avoid embodied carbon emissions from new construction is not to build anything. 

This doesn’t mean avoiding construction altogether, but rather, utilising buildings that already exist, instead of creating new ones. 

Large London-based developers are already bringing this idea to life and are making efforts to retain the frames of buildings which are in good condition and structurally sound, as the frame often accounts for 50% or more of the total embodied carbon of each project. 

Other elements should also be retained or refurbished wherever possible, for example, the facade of the building, and energy-efficient replacements should be made, such as double-glazed windows.
Making energy-efficient swaps with the mechanical elements of a building, such as the lighting and fans, will pay the upfront carbon back within a reasonable amount of time, so it’s often a far more sustainable solution than starting a new build from scratch.  

Using construction materials more efficiently

Since building materials come cheap and labour tends to be expensive, many structures use an extravagant amount of material to save time. 

For example, the flat slab is the default choice for concrete frames as they’re quick to construct and they simplify the service installation. Waffle and rib slabs were the popular choice in the past, and these used concrete more efficiently because they dispensed concrete on the underside of the slab and didn’t contribute to anything structurally. These can reduce embodied carbon by 20-30%, but they take longer to build, making them less favourable in today’s world. 

The same goes for steel frames. If each structural element of a building is designed for its individual load, the steel weight of the project can be reduced by up to 25%. Essentially, the careful design of a building can play a huge role in reducing the amount of embodied carbon it produces. The focus should always be on using materials in the most appropriate and least wasteful way. 

Reducing the embodied carbon of popular materials 

There’s currently a heavy focus on finding ways to reduce the carbon impact of concrete. Since cement production releases carbon dioxide regardless of how the kiln is heated, the cement industry is turning to carbon capture and storage (CCS) as an alternative. 

CCS refers to a process whereby carbon dioxide emissions from industrial processes, such as steel and cement production, are captured and transported to be stored deep underground in geological formations. As a result, this helps to prevent global warming as it means there’s less carbon in the atmosphere.

For many new developments, the substitution of cement with ground-granulated blast furnace slag (GGBS) and fly ash has become the default option; particularly for groundworks where the slower curing times are less of an issue. This can be used to substitute up to 50% of a cement mix in some cases; however, the downside of GGBS is that it’s a byproduct of carbon-intensive steel production and fly ash of coal-fired power stations, which have been phased out in Britain. If the steel industry can move away from blast furnace production, the supply of such materials will eventually dry up.

The National Graphene Centre at Manchester University looks at practical applications for graphene, and its sister organisation, the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre, commercialises these. It’s currently working on a graphene-enhanced cement (known as Concretene) which could potentially use 30% less material for the same performance. Not only would this product create less C02 emissions, but it could also work out cheaper for developers as less material is needed. 

While it will take a while for such materials to become certified and commercially available, the research so far is promising, with the products having successfully been used for several projects such as a layby, a gym, and a housing development.

What will help to accelerate change? 

There are some promising innovations when it comes to reducing the carbon impact of construction materials, and while the industry has made a good start, the progress has been slow, and the issue is becoming more and more urgent.

There isn’t one simple answer to solve it all, but the sharing and use of data will support the building sector in targeting best practices and highlighting what can be achieved. In addition to this, there needs to be upfront assessments from the outset of each project to allow for greater opportunities to include low-carbon design solutions. 

For there to be a wider uptake of low-carbon solutions, studies need to be carried out to verify the performance of materials and reliability of supply chains, as the current uncertainties can be off-putting to contractors, engineers and scientists who need a clear incentive to move to newer specifications. 

Most importantly, investors need to be motivated to apply high-performance standards on emissions for their developments, as this may help to encourage necessary action further down the supply chain. Ultimately, there needs to be momentum from the top down to implement meaningful improvements. 

How DPL can support

You can read all about our strategy on our Environmental Impact page. We aim to be carbon-neutral by 2050, and our Environmental Policy and Action Plan applies to all areas of our business, including Management, Office Services and Site Operations, with staff who are committed to ensuring we meet our targets.

To speak to one of our team regarding your next development, contact us either by phone, email, or by filling out some details on our website.

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